The main appeal of religion, philosophy and self-help is that, as disciplines, they promise to lay out a framework for how to live a good and meaningful life. The fact that there’s no consensus between–or even within–fields as to what “good” and “meaningful” actually are is mostly delightful, and occasionally frustrating. As you pursue each path, though, a funny thing happens: searching for the answer becomes more important than finding the answer, and before you know it, boom! A life well-lived.
Sharon Dolin’s Manual for Living holds a triple boom between its covers, three sets of poems inspired by philosophy, art and religion. Each set imposes meaning on life using a different set of standards and poetic techniques, offering the reader a choose-your-own-adventure series of poems to compare, contrast, mull over and memorize.
The first section, “Manual for Living,” especially lends itself to memorization and reading aloud; it’s musically clever, with consonance and assonance for days, as in “Desire Demands its Own Attachment”:
Daunted by disastrous consequences?
Don’t be. Everyone–even you–
delights in devil-scape. Do you
rue more than revel? (11).
The poems’ titles are direct quotes from the stoic philosopher Epictetus, one of the original “suck it up and deal” guys, whose main piece of advice, in contemporary terms, best translates to “Dude, chill.” Dolin has a lot of fun restating the original epigrams in clever, musical phrases designed to stick in your memory:
Great that he gamed you. Grand
she’s gone gloomy, gorged on hemlock.
Colossal you’ve got no guy, no gig, no granita.
Greet each gravity with gratitude like a cavity
(“Everything Happens for a Good Reason”, 11).
Dolin’s framework for section two, “Black Paintings,” is a series of artworks created by Francisco Goya near the end of his life. If you’re not familiar with the works, it can be useful to click back and forth between the poems and the paintings as you read, to get the full effect. Even if you are familiar with the paintings, though, you’ll benefit from consulting them together, as the somber, introspective tone Dolin uses in this set of works mirrors the darker colors and themes Goya explores.
Calling them meditations on death is, and is not, an oversimplification. Consider “Atropos, or The Three Fates”:
O you in the back with your mantic
mirror, how do you know
how long to spill my skein–
black blood of me when I shall
no longer be? (48).
There’s a big difference between accepting fate and questioning it; the chirpy stoicism of section one has been replaced by a moody, almost resentful, challenge to the powers that be.
This challenge is resolved in section three, “Of Hours,” which is modeled after a popular form of medieval prayer book. As the name suggests, there’s a prayer-poem for each hour of the day, and each poem addresses a specific spiritual concern expressed through the beauty of the natural world observed at the given time. The speaker’s day begins at dark-thirty with a request for guidance:
…I am thrumming
your praises as the only way to hear
with the soul’s inner ear.
Tell me what you desire of me
(“Psalm of the Flying Shell (4:30 a.m.)”, 53).
As the day progresses, the style becomes more and more experimental, mirroring how a day can begin in order and gradually succumb to chaos. The prayers are what keep the speaker–and the reader–anchored to the world. Consider the dreamy images and style of “Moon Lilies (5:30 p.m.)”:
In the suffering hour >> sky oozing blood orange pages gone dark Sabbath will be starlit (Help me find you in time) (83).
Just as there is no one answer in life, there’s no one “right” way to craft poems in Dolin’s work. It’s obvious she takes great pleasure in playing with sounds and forms, not so much concerned with truth as with the search for it, and the many ways one can search. If you consider yourself a spirited or philosophical person, or if you like playful explorations of thought and language, you really should read the Manual.
You can do that quite easily by clicking here to make a reservation in the catalog, and having these poetic devotions sent to the library location of your choice. How do you make sense of everyday living? What forms of consolation, poetic or otherwise, have helped you grapple with the many challenges of adulting? Leave us a comment and share your wisdom.