The Captain Lands In Paradise

Will Grofic

The Captain Lands In Paradise
by Sarah Manguso
Alice James Books
2002
$14.95

Sarah Manguso’s book The Captain Lands in Paradise starts with an epigraph of the log of Christopher Columbus where upon Columbus sees a great harbor which could shelter “all the ships of the world.” Starting her small and well-written poetry book with a log from Columbus is asking to be called an explorer of a different kind, and indeed Ms. Manguso delves into the stars, into her childhood, into relationships in general. Some of the writing is beautiful, all is well done, but what I love about poetry is the emotional intensity and the leaping images and the outlandish imagination. There is no urgency or sense of emotion. It very much felt like a ship in harbor, being slowly rocked but not moved by the waves and standing its ground.

First the good. Everything is perfect in wording and structure. Manguso utilizes the prose poem well and offers a few choice nuggets. From “What We Miss” Manguso writes: “Failure is more like this than like duels and marathons. Everything can be saved, and bad timing prevents it.” The simplicity in tone and perfect sentence structure highlights the effectiveness of Manguso’s prose poems. She is deliberate and forthright, which in this excerpt turns into an alarming adage. If Manguso is a captain, she has found the perfect harbor with the perfect stores to her liking. She understands the economy of language, and it all boils down to rudderless effectiveness.

If this book is a ship, or the harbor that inhabits these poems-ships, then Manguso can’t seem to get any of them out of the harbor. She is content to stay within the confines of herself, with little to no surprises for the reader or, as I see it, for herself.

I would not say Manguso is repressed, but that she is so effective that she needs to create the challenges for herself instead of retelling childhood memories or envisioning new ones. Too much of Manguso’s writing gets stuck in a perfect harbor, never venturing out into the unknown. From “The First Time” she writes: “There are many ways or knowing, as anyone who has studied epistemology can tell you. Watching a beautiful back is enough to do it. M. says he’ll call at ten and calls five minutes before. Love? All that remains is to write the beautiful fiction.” It is precise but dull. The words are perfect but don’t explore anything more than a half-hearted erudite claim of epistemology without offering any innovative philosophy or images to further the remark. In “Putting the Cat Together” she ties a bow around the naivety of childhood and dealing with a pet death: “And it would be a long time yet/ before we knew the way that, grieving for/ us, the mystery would announce itself.” The mystery of death isn’t quite uncharted territory nor would I ever point someone to this poem to help find out what their kids are thinking about a pet’s death. It has little to do with a child’s wonder, and more to do with a detailed retelling without the fantastic marvel of children.

I see the skill and craft of Manguso’s work, and I guess that’s what makes me so furious at what I see as complacency. From “Telling Lies” she writes, “They won’t believe a word of it.” While I believe every word of this book, I just don’t like the complacency of the harbor. I’d enjoy more tension or a voyage out into the unknown.

Will Grofic is a recent graduate from Bennington Writing Seminars where he received an MFA in Writing, concentration in Poetry. He is the Managing Editor at Potomac Review and writes pseudo-journalism at his blog DC Books Examiner. His poetry is forthcoming from Gargoyle magazine. [2009]

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