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Book Review: '300 Arguments,' Sarah Manguso


A new book by Sarah Manguso is tough to pin down. It claims to be a book of essays, but that label isn't exactly right, says our poetry reviewer Tess Taylor. She has this take on "300 Arguments."

TESS TAYLOR, BYLINE: This quirky collection is not really poetry, but it's not really nonfiction, either. It's no researched history of the OED or exploration of the Roman Empire. Instead, it's a book of aphorisms, those witty, parabolic puzzles where the mind spins around something abstract. There are no memories, just artifacts, and they're all lying, reads one. Or - aspiring to fame is aspiring to a life of small talk.

In the singular, any one of these might be on a refrigerator magnet or hung above your desk. Together, Manguso's 300 mysterious clusters leap and circle the question of what we do when we read or write or desire. So even though the cover calls the book nonfiction, this collection transcends any category to be something totally its own. But I'm going to go out on a limb here to argue that, collectively, Manguso's "300 Arguments" recall poetry in a few key ways.

First, they break, and the silence between elliptical phrases acts as part of the book. Next, the cryptic aphorisms do build on each other slowly, like stanzas of a long, fragmented poem. And finally, like poems, these aphorisms craft what Yeats once called the quarrel with the self.

Manguso's captured the argumentative voice of a mind sifting through a problem, circling it, animated by sorting it out. In her wake, Manguso sets problems for us to sort, as well. No one can steal something that's too small to see, says Manguso, and immediately I find myself wondering whether I think that's true. I'm not sure, but I admit I like thinking about it, and maybe that's the pleasure here.

Manguso says, I don't love writing. I love having a problem I believe I might someday write my way out of. If this is poetry, it's the poems of quarrel. And if it's nonfiction, it's not the nonfiction of fact. Instead, it's the nonfiction which maps us to our own thinking. We enter Manguso's mind - her puzzle, pleased to be puzzled, too.

SIEGEL: The book is "300 Arguments" by Sarah Manguso. Tess Taylor had our review. Her most recent collection is titled "Work And Days."

(SOUNDBITE OF NATURAL-SELF SONG, "IN THE MORNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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