Sarah Manguso, Siste Viator (Four Way Books, 2006)
Reviewed by Paul Guest
in Sarah Manguso's second collection, Siste Viator, crackle with
wicked fire. The title is Latin for "Stop, traveler," a traditional
inscription on gravestones; as such, it frames the book in at least two
ways: there is mortal gravity here but also a kind of cheeky weirdness.
That these tides do not pull the book apart, leaving the flotsam of poems
without cohesion, is this book's considerable success. Another word for
this effect might simply be grace.
The invocation here is plainly to suffering, to the
manifold miseries of life. Such directness is bracing, engaging for all
its baldness. But that "nearly" in the second line complicates
matters: the speaker does not quite wish to wallow. That mediation creates
a kind of air in the poem, a space for hope, and in fact, the very next
line calls hope "that sweet agent." The light that enters is
dim, only enough to enable the speaker to see Hell. The gratitude of a
line like, "Thank you for leaving me this whole world to go mad in"
can hardly be said to be gratitude at all, and yet, it isn't mercy the
speaker wants. It's "more." More of what? This world like a
hell. Even madness. The poem is like a prayer: "I don't mind when
no mercy comes" is how it begins to close itself, like a wound.
It's cold, yes, but also undeniably cool, brassy and provocative. A party is sized up—sliced up, even—and when the "shitfaced" speaker goes home, she "gets it on" with herself. And who could blame her? Not even the poet, who writes:
It's the sort of poem that is no doubt a grand slam at readings. A lesser poet might be pleased with the blatant cheek of using her own name. Yet the last line is about isolation, and the poem itself is about erosion, with no warmth anywhere to be shared. Manguso's best poems see with a kind of double vision, of which seemingly effortless poetry can be made. Siste Viator knows a dead language has no authority to compel our attention. Only the living language of poetry may do that.