The Captain Lands in Paradise
Alice James Books ($12.95)
by Susie Meserve
In Sarah Manguso's debut collection of poems, The Captain Lands in Paradise, the captain never lands anywhere for long. Sometimes the book plods, often it soars, but there is a constant rhythm of touching down and lifting off again. If this is Paradise, I might just take it: on Neptune it rains diamonds, deer are everywhere, and while there are occasional (and welcome) moments of grief, mostly the book is a quiet, whimsical, ride.
This is not to suggest that there is anything ditzy or shallow about Manguso's work; on the contrary, she balances intellect and emotion in a way many poets strive for and few achieve. Childhood is at once colorful and dark, and God is both a philosophical concept and a feeling. Take, for example, "It's a Fine Thing To Walk Through the Allegory":
the real meaning moves from the specific
to the general, as in the famous essay
about symbols and allegories where, in the end,
everything's about God-earth, air, water,
fire, dancing on the upper deck in a green dress.
Manguso makes these leaps (from the general to the specific, from God to the green dress) seem so deft that we come to believe that anything, really, is possible, perhaps even likely, and when she goes on in the poem to wonder whether a deer would "eat an orange if it were properly salted" we find ourselves mentally salting the orange and feeding it to the deer, fully ready to find out.
The true joy is in the way she takes us there. Manguso's poetry is so easy as to seem almost effortless, but when we stop to take stock, we realize we're in a world we can't quite identify. There are unmistakable, thinly veiled references to a certain kind of childhood-summer camp, books, family dinners-but Manguso's world is anything but small.
In "Love Is A Narrative Impulse," perhaps the most explicitly autobiographical poem in The Captain Lands in Paradise, she tell us:
In the beginning I am tottering around Boston
in the mid '70s, pasting things together.
In the beginning self-knowledge is not crucial.
E. steals my heartmobile,
M. cries when someone takes away his pretty leaf.
Construction paper is everywhere
and when it is replaced by panic I do not notice.
The subtle darkness of this, the replacement of paper with panic, makes possible the line that brings us up short mid-poem: "Jean Cocteau, asked what he would save / if his house were on fire, replied the fire."
Manguso is full of moments like these, where what is being constructed is simultaneously being broken down. She razes her creations with levity and humor, suggesting a voice that's both unselfconscious and extremely brave.