Manual For Living by Sharon Dolin

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If you are a fan of Sharon Dolin’s poetry you know some of the hallmarks of her work: an engagement with the visual arts through ekphrasis; a vast grasp and versatility of forms; a sharp wit displayed through fresh and playful language where her word-music strikes the ear in new ways, not afraid to rhyme or chime or even sing-song along as the wordplay calls attention to the thingness of words, reinforcing the images present. In her collection Burn and Dodge this brought us a masterful homophonic sonnet sequence (“Clare-Hewn”), sonnet-ghazals (“Ghazal Without the Man” is one of the best), and syllabics “The Truth of Poetry,” “At the Reception, 1963” with their nods to Marianne Moore, whose influence is strong on Dolin—she appears again in “The Necklace” in Whirlwind which brought us elegies and odes and even a concrete poem “I Dreamed We Were” in the shape of the Taj Mahal’s spire.

In her latest collection, Manual for Living, Dolin delves deeper into her aesthetic concerns for wordplay and heightened music, moving away from the narrative impulse behind many of the poems in Whirlwind to shorter meditations that work as words of advice, fortunes, spells and prayers. If the poems in Whirlwind brought us the fury of the scorned woman as she recounts the dissolution of her marriage, the poems in Manual for Living take that suffering and build a guidebook for transcending it. That path is not an easy one: the poems argue and vent and point out the little and big ironies of life as they gesture toward some sort of scavenged hope. The collection takes you on this journey in three sections: “Manual for Living,” “Black Paintings,” and “Of Hours.”

Modeled after Epictetus’s own manual of Stoic ethical advice, the poems in the first section offer not the comfort of platitudes, but reminders of what is beyond our control and what is within it. Riffing off and mocking Epictetus’s self-help titles, titles like “Everything Happens For a Good Reason” and “Happiness Can Only Be Found Within” and “Refrain From Defending Your Own Reputation,” the poems take a sarcastic stance. In response to “Everything Happens For a Good Reason” the poem begins “Good. Comedy may equal tragedy / plus time—as good reasons may / be gall gilded over trust.” And in response to “Happiness Can Only Be Found Within”:

Which is why you musn’t bore more nor
adore easily. Contract
within. Denser

means more than hard to get.

And later in the poem, lines that I and probably most poets should have metaphorically tacked up in the brain:

…Forget about
_____recognition by your fickle peers.
_____All honor, steady bliss

comes from the peerless pear you raise
_____to your own lips.

The poems in this first section converse first and foremost with the poet writing them as she gives advice to herself, but who among us hasn’t been spurned by a lover or dissed by a professional colleague? In “Refrain From Defending Your Own Reputation” she writes

Defend yourself?
________________Diss back?
______Fend off
________________the cape-swirl of
this bull’s
________approaching horns

The spacing and line breaks recreate the metaphoric matador’s bullfight of the mind-in-motion as it weighs whether to defend or counterattack, the poet deciding on the best shade of all, the wit deflect:

…let him glance you with his
____charge. As you, scarcely scratched,
behind your
fan gasp:
______Oh, I guess he hasn’t heard
the worst about me yet.

One can almost hear the fan snap and drag queen delivering this line.

The shadow of an abecedarian floats through this first section, the first letters of the titles arranged roughly in an alphabetical progression, the dominant alliterative letter in a poem also following a similar progression. In “Everything Happens for a Good Reason” it’s the letter G. In “Desire Demands Its Own Attachment” it’s the letter D:

Daunted by disastrous consequences?
Don’t be. Everyone—even you—
delights in devil-scape. Do you
rue more than revel?

And in its final tercet, “…if all they fling is damage, / depart, deafened to desire— / that demon, dire.” This is not the banal prose of self-help books, but the poem-sense logic of imagery and music and turning the dial up on a sound until the repetition of its cadence beats its meaning into your blood.

The second section, “Black Paintings,” has Dolin at her ekphrastic best, the title of which echoes the “My Black Paintings” sequence from her collection Serious Pink. The inspirations are different—the Serious Pink sequence was in conversation with Joan Mitchell’s work, the new sequence here is inspired by Goya’s series of the same name. But while Dolin eschewed using the word “black” in the Mitchell-inspired sequence, it appears frequently here: “crow-black night” and “mantillas of black lace,” “Black ball of Time” and “black blood of me” along with mentions of the dark and darkness, covens and ravens and other shades in what become the darkest poems of the book. The closing moment of the sequence, “The Dog” is a stand-out with its “dark fumbling bumble / bee light”:

Dark death of the sun. Black dog.
Yellow black dog. Golden-eared

shadowplay: the color of

the shape of
_________late hope.

Sharon DolinThe final section, “Of Hours” takes its genesis from a series of paintings, An Album of Hours by Ellen Wiener, and has the poet speaking to a divine you, “God” however you define or interpret that presence. The poems here are marked by some formal innovation with the use of the >> double carat. At times the >> seems to signal time passing, as in “How Many Dawns (5:30 a.m.)”:

The awakening gene-chains I first gave

my son >> O happy day! >> to me you gave first
_____I think of the cicada’s gnawing buzz >> my dog’s
__________first tentative swim >> the hazy sun after yesterday’s
_______________rain >> your unfailing return…

or a thought pause as it moves and touches one thing then another as seen here in “Psalm of Morning Mist”:

Upon my tongue >> pond
___________________(upon gitim >> inchworm)
Upon wind chimes >> Ruby Meadhowhawk
_____________________________(upon trumpet >> fish net)
Upon machalath >> mimosa
___________________(upon guitar >> sand bar)

At times the direction of it seems to signal a through-ness, thought carried forward or an image strung like an arrow pointed at the next image in a list: “crow >> worm >> mussel >> mimosa >> / lily of the valley >> sea grass >> lichen >> algae >>”. It works in other ways, too: cause-and-effect, problem-and-solution, or simply a breath mark for a pause as in “With Roses (6:30 a.m.):

I’m empty >> quench me with song
I’m guarded >> open me as the undine
I’m sleepy >> waken me to strum
I’m clipped and shorn of night >> with each note brighten me

Halfway through “Duet of Tree House and Rain” they change direction:

Duet of Tree House and Rain

Which in the context of this poem seems to signal the second voice of a duet taking the lead on passing the lines back and forth. It’s a refreshing performance, forcing the reader to pause and reflect on the marker, of what is capable in the unit-line of a poem. And it resonates in a contemporary book of hours to have a symbol to mark the seconds, to slow us down from the fast-paced rate of information we consume.

Manual for Living is a welcome addition to Dolin’s body of work. If you are new to her work or a long-time lover of her words, you won’t be disappointed with the continued wit and wry way of looking at the world. There is great pleasure in how she cleaves language, and as she says in the benediction “Your Will Is Always / yours…”

___________________…Soldier on.

_____Though you cower in a trench of how
though you swivet with the fret of why

though your spine has hoisted up
_____its white sky flag,
clamber on.

Matthew Hittinger is the author of The Erotic Postulate (2014) and Skin Shift (2012) both from Sibling Rivalry Press, and the chapbook Pear Slip (2007). He received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan where he won a Hopwood Award for Poetry. His work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, has been adapted into art songs, and in 2012 Poets & Writers Magazine named him a Debut Poet on their 8th annual list. Matthew lives and works in New York City. More from this author →