Sarah Manguso, Siste Viator (Four Way Books, 2006)

Reviewed by Paul Guest

[Review Guidelines]

The poems 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 book's second poem, "Asking for More," seems to serve as a kind of mission statement. Quoting Berryman from a 1972 interview, Manguso writes:

I am not asking to suffer less.
I hope to be nearly crucified.
To live because I don't want to.

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.
      Siste Viator oscillates neatly between registers with audacious charm. In "Kitty in the Snow," no time is wasted:

Meanwhile I fuck this sculpture
In my mind until it melts, then I stop.
Mmm, cold.

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:

I whisper in my ear as I come.
Sarah Manguso, you're a damn fine lover.
Maybe someday we can be together, too.

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.