The Captain Lands in Paradise
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
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 differentlyat
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
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
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.
meaning moves from the specific to the general / but writing even
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,
another fine poem, "Truth," Manguso spins us into the endlessly
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 wayagain 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
their sharp little wings watch us with murderous disinterest. They
us for the one crime we all commit." The crime is not specifiedany
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
uniformshow 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 clearerclearer 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
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."