Charlotte Mandel

The Captain Lands in Paradise

Sarah Manguso
Farmington: Alice James Books, 2002
$12.95 (paper), ISBN 1-882295-33-1

Sarah Manguso opens her first collection of poems with an excerpt from the log of Christopher Columbus. This epigraph, together with her title, The Captain Lands in Paradise, presage thematics of exploration, motion and discovery. The reader will discover a poet still in her twenties well-equipped to embark on a voyage where a rationalist pilot-consciousness takes direction from a willingly surreal imagination. At work is a compelling dynamic, best exemplified in the first section's arresting visions.

Manguso deliberately undercuts her visionary motifs by use of unadorned,
conversational, matter-of-fact syntax, without any obvious reach for
lushness. The effect can take the reader by surprise. One hardly expects an opening poem to calculate the end of the world, as does "The Rider"—given here in full in order to demonstrate Manguso's unexpected jarrings of image:

Some believe the end will come
in the form of a mathematical equation.
Others believe it will descend as a shining horse.
I calculate the probabilities to be even at fifty percent.
Either a thing will happen or it won't.
I open a window,
I unmake the bed.
Somehow, I am moving closer to the equation
or to the horse with everything I do.
Death comes in the form of a horse
covered in shining equations.
There will be no further clues, I see.
I begin to read my horse.
The equations are drawn in the shapes of horses:
horses covered in equations.
I am tempted to hook an ankle
around the world as I ride away.
For I am about to ride far beyond
the low prairie of beginnings and endings.

Manguso recognizes the impossibilities of clear definition:

The image of a deer enters several poems, each time differently—at first as
a kind of deus ex machina descending towards a crowd of childlike
worshippers. With a "wind-up key" in his side, " he comes, crawling. . .the
electric, the burning mystery." We witness the coming of a magical beast-god
which manifests as a mechanical falsehood.

Along with artificial flowers, dancers on a cruise ship and an orange
that may be a fruit or a cancer, Manguso employs a deer as a puzzling symbol
in "It's a Fine Thing To Walk Through the Allegory." I see this poem as
significant to her search for poetic, possibly religious, meaning. "The real
meaning moves from the specific to the general / but writing even a hundred
poems about the same deer / is not necessarily about God." What is true, she
seems to say, is what can be held on to, what the object is. And yet, in
another fine poem, "Truth," Manguso spins us into the endlessly insistent
relativity of truth—"an infinite list" placed within the sphere of her
"dreaming of myself dreaming of myself."

Each poem is galvanized by a powerful image. It will be hard for me to simply look at a piano as a manufactured object without thinking of it as alive, walking behind me like a pet on a leash, playing music that "begins / with the sound of light moving / and ends with the sound of a sun going out." Note that Manguso's sun does not "go down" in the conventional way—again we have the hint of apocalypse: despite the gentle sweetness of the situation, "concupiscence. . .is a sin."

Manguso labels many of the poems as "essays" or "narratives" as though intended for direct address. "Address to Winnie in Paris," a letter to a friend ostensibly to encourage her towards a love affair, reads instead like a treatise on love and betrayal. Startling images remind us of our inadequacies, and the trope of angelic purity is nullified by the comment: "angels with their teeth and
their sharp little wings watch us with murderous disinterest. They sentence
us for the one crime we all commit." The crime is not specified—any reader
may fill in the blank with his/her own anxieties.

Manguso's "narratives" indicate there is no standard narrative of history to help us. Socially conscious anger shows subtly in "American Reverie" where seagulls "circle in a swarm / and refuse to pick up the garbage". On her beach, the lifeguards wear "blue uniforms—how can they know / what it is to save me, drowning in a lake / boiling like moving soup." The boiling soup suggests the glut of overconsumption. In a series of "poems of comfort" the poet's ironic stance takes on the poignancy of emotional need. At times, a statement is made, then negated: "As I age, things become clearer—clearer and clearer. Saying that is a joke." This is clearly a book by a young, explorative writer not sure she lives in a world she'd have chosen. Nevertheless, despite the aimed-for coolness of tone, she clings to a firm moral, humane center: "If I could read only one sentence for the rest of my life, it would be the one where the jailer says to Socrates I can see that you are a good man."

Some of the poems, particularly in the concluding section, are weakened
by the sense that they are exercises in post-postmodern detached narrative.
Nonetheless, Sarah Manguso is a poet worthy of our attention, capable of the language of motion which stirs thought and feeling together, as in the title poem: "Moving through things that move lies your end, and the wind stirs them further, and the moving takes you there."


© 2002 Electronic Poetry Review