Friday, October 03, 2008

The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso

I seem to be on a run lately of reading lyric, precise memoirs of illness, and this one is my favorite so far. Manguso's renders her illness--a rare blood disorder which at its worst leaves her so weak that she is unable to walk--in chapters that are more like individual prose poems and in paragraphs that are more like individual lines. One of my favorite lines comes on the last two pages: "But to pay attention is to love everything." The "but" follows two paragraphs about how suffering teaches you to pay attention because you might not know what's the important part (the lesson-giving part) of your suffering. But the way Manguso sets her paragraphs apart--with an extra space break between every single one--lets the line float on its own, both the completion of her idea and an idea of its own. To pay attention is to love everything. I'm not sure if the line/idea would have hit me so hard without the context of the whole book coming before it, but all the same: it's a mantra that works for me.

But back to Manguso's paragraph breaks. Any of you who teach at FAU have probably experienced the current bane of my existence--when students come to school to print, their documents are converted to the new Word 2008 on the university computers and suddenly there is an extra space break between every paragraph. It drives me nuts. And few students seem to have learned how to fix it. But here, Manguso shows how such a thing--used deliberately, that is--can be very powerful. It's not just that the white space between every paragraph, many of which are only one or two sentences long, creates a meditative pause for the reader (which it does), or that it emphasizes the line that came before the space break (which it does), but it forces you to emphasize the first sound of each paragraph in a way that you wouldn't otherwise. In other words, she's not using paragraph breaks so much as line breaks. And like a good poet she knows to sometimes use the sounds at the start of each line in combination. For example in one section (most of which are only two or three pages long) nearly every paragraph starts with "my" or "I." While in the abstract that may sound annoying, it actually creates a nice rhyme and rhythm (especially because she knows to interrupt it periodically) that lulls you as you read her sentences, which are mostly very clinical, fairly horrifying descriptions of what is happening to her body. It brings the poetry to the science.

Highly recommended.


Anonymous said...

A writer with Turkish roots. How refreshing. I'm an MFA student at the University of Minnesota. I'm half-Turkish. I don't think I've found any one with those roots who trys to write about the place. I don't know a good way of contacting you. I thought I'd say hi.

Benjamin Arda Doty

Ayse Papatya Bucak said...

As someone with an American mother and Turkish father, who was born in Turkey but raised in the US, and who doesn't speak Turkish and who never grew up with a Turkish community--I've always felt somewhat more than American, but less than Turkish. So if I write about Turkey it isn't really with much perspective beyond the average visitor to the place. I suspect though that having a bi-cultural family has skewed (perhaps opened?) my worldview, just not in an overtly ethnically identifiable way. But it's always nice to meet a fellow Half-Turk.