- Manual For Living by Sharon Dolin
Sharon Dolin’s latest collection, Manual for Living, is poetry whose language is lit by Gerard Manley Hopkins’s lantern, which still blazes after a century. It is poetry precise in diction, with delight deepening with meanings discovered and an unabashed relish in alliteration and the full range of rhymes, and it’s all in service of a self that’s pitched to heightened spiritual awareness. Dolin stages her work in response to art and literature. Each of the twenty-four poems in the book’s first section takes a line from Epictetus’s Manual for Living as the title, the second part is a dozen ekphraksis responses to Francisco de Goya’s so-called Black Paintings, and the final twenty-four poems are a “contemporary book of hours,” poem-prayers marking a day’s cycle.
The first pleasure of this collection is the language itself. Not only is it lush and intricate, but its energy propels it forward. For example, in “Approach Life as If It Were a Banquet” Dolan writes: “Your rightful portion averts your ireful potion: / caress what can’t be blessed, cup shadows under breasts.” In this couplet, the parallelism of “rightful portion” and “ireful potion” not only balances the line, seeming to unify the idea, but the speaker’s point pivots on the verb “averts,” in both the sense of “turn away from” and “to prevent.”
Dolin’s poems seem to indicate their process. They are like wood-fired pottery; out of the kiln, an attentive gaze can “read” a pot, tracing which part faced toward or away from the fire, following the flame-path around pots, and understanding how ash fell and how much. In the poem, “Everything Has Two Handles” the idea of opposition, like a controlling metaphor, shapes the poem, as in this stanza:
The handle you refuse to grasp proclaims you more than one you lurch to reach.
In the second half of the poem, as if written in the key of long I, the sense of propelling is most evident.
Why mire in the right / wrong amphora song.
No vigilance in this choir of one. No fast hook in the urn’s broken-off arm.
Vie with hot verities.
The pie is getting cold.
Not only is the philosophic (“the right” and “verities”) countered with actual pie but dualism is contained in the phrase “the choir of one.” Listening, sounds don’t harken backwards like much end-rhyme does, but the sound of “wrong” leaps forward to the song, the sound of “urn” suggests the image of the handle being a broken arm, and the vying leads us home to the cooling pie. I’m not suggesting that this is how Dolin composes her poems, just indicating that the effect is a tension of expectation and delight, one that heightens the attentiveness to where these surprising connections emerge, which is the purpose of form.
The unity of the book is another pleasure. Despite their distinctive approaches, the three sections don’t feel separate; they are different acts in a unified drama. Each is coherent and yet thematically linked. Through it all is a spiritual longing, the soul’s dialogue—a traditional sensibility in contemporary lingo—rife with the pain of divorce and complicated self-awareness. This is evident in “Psalm of the Flying Shell (4:30 am),” the first of the book of hours poems where she writes that “my life is spiraling in the conch / of consciousness.” The ending of that poem reveals a direct prayerful address, absent in the book until now: [End Page 70]
I am thrumming
your praises as the only way to hear with the soul’s inner ear
Tell me what you desire of me
This movement in the speaker/s makes Manual for Living so rich and rewarding. Springboarding from Epictetus’s advice in the first part, the speaker sounds self-assured, professorial in its imperative mood, as in “Make Full Use of What Happens to You” where each couplet presents a new directive: “In the fall of grief, harvest / winter...