The Davis Test, as performed by the Department of Viticulture and Enology at University of California, Davis, has apparently proved that people can’t tell the difference between red and white wine without color and temperature clues. These clues form our expectations, which in turn form a large part of what people assume is taste. Many recent books, including Sara Manguso’s first, perform a similar experiment in generic misdirection or appropriation. By insisting that a poem—a condensed work (sometimes lineated, sometimes prose) contained within a poetry book or the poetry section of a journal—is an “essay,” do poets subvert the authority of the essay label? Or do they undermine the poetry context—thereby dismantling one of the most efficient engines of contemporary disenchantment yet invented? How does expectation change the “taste” of what we read? How does it shift the criteria by which we judge its “taste”? Is context just as important to “taste” as content? Or: who cares what you call it so long as it gets you fucked up? Given one of the original meanings of “essay”—a taste of food or drink, sometimes taken before presenting the morsel to a great personage—it’s no wonder it’s become the darling genre of Duchampian renamers. Of course, another meaning of the word, “to try” or “an endeavor,” might help us to pinpoint the beauty the essay holds for contemporary poets : its willingness to take a stab, its foregrounding of the process of attempt. The essay has taken on the duties of the prose poem: it has become a kind of anything-goes sub-genre, freeing writers and readers to duck essentialist preconceptions and to “ride far beyond / the low prairie of beginnings and endings,” as Manguso puts it in the first poem of The Captain Lands in Paradise.

Manguso’s book includes two essay-poems about the necessary though specious hindsight with which one regards a transformative process like love or writing. “Short Essay on Love,” for example, moves from a thesis or declaration of fact (“All I know was I was changed”) to making snapshot attempts at explaining—the essay’s traditional examples—synecdochic evidences, tastes of love; at the same time it remains in skeptical scrutiny of its own arguments. As with all of these poems, Manguso’s attraction to the state of ecstatic wonder is met halfway by an intellectual queasiness about its own Romanticism, an anxiety which then feeds the poem’s zealousness, inflating it to unsettling effect. This excited rhetoric persuades by sheer force of enthusiasm, and, much as in Emerson’s essays, a commanding voice syncopates with a doubting one. Many of these poems have the circular, Emersonian feel of a quest for the unknown whose end has assumed an epistemological status. Keeping in mind the book’s central obsession—the ways in which discovery and fantasy (pace the title) inform each other—the grammar couldn’t be more idoneous. Witness:

What is this all about? Sometimes the real meaning moves
from specific to the general, as in the famous essay
about symbols and allegories where, in the end,
everything’s about God—earth, air, water
fire, dancing on the upper deck in a green dress.

Manguso’s use of the essay—both its argument-driven/fact-rich, and its meditative/associative, heritages—serves her trials of truth vs. falsehood and real vs. symbolic meanings. In this way she exploits the original functions of prose as a truth-telling, history-making endeavor and poetry as imagination-engaging, fiction-spinning device, thus navigating an ongoing search for the status of knowledge. “Short Essay on the Muse,” a poem which counterpoints mechanical order with accident and wonder, states that “Hearing one note sung can inspire the carefullest lie.” The lie is the “scurry to invent,” to name, something “bright and unthought” that has suddenly appeared before us. Here, as elsewhere, Manguso casts the writer as a liar with a firm belief in truth. A quick trip down some lines that explicitly address the lie/truth problem of language speaks for itself: “The truth was an infinite list”; “lying that you are too careful”; “I fell into the truth, trying to explain it”; “Because everything said in assembly is true . . .”; I wrote down the date and time as proof so it would stay true”; “Lies! Are you coming to get me?”; “. . . I don’t believe any of it”; “I may sob true love now,/ but just around the corner a truer love awaits.” Indeed, in Manguso’s paradise, truth is fluid and plural, in constant need of replacement and revival.

. . . I was only trying
to communicate without lying—
all the while the people sang
to the dust on the piano and I was writing
the last sentences in the world that were true

As in “Short Essay on the Muse” the attempt at truthful sentences here sets the prosaic (sentences penned by a lone artist) against the lyric (communal songs for piano dust). “Nevertheless this is not a logical argument against” either mode, rather an argument for inclusiveness and hybridity—properties most paradises abhor.

Manguso’s forays into the securing of truth often take the form of absurdist-inflected aphoristic assertions—statements that ultimately display vulnerability in their manic attempt at self-assured conclusiveness—and appeals to male authority (Jean Cocteau, William Gass, William Harvey, Andy Warhol, Arvol Looking Horse, Wallace Stevens—even her blurbs are all by men). “Address to Winnie in Paris,” a plea to persuade Winnie to love Harris, proceeds by cracked examples and a perpetual reliance on and displacement of authority:

Diderot writes that the word is not the thing, but a flash in whose light we
perceive the thing. Plato wrote of the need to be reconjoined with the rest
of oneself. My analyst speaks of codependent impulses in modern society.
These various explanations are metaphors for an inaccessible truth.”

Abundance overfloweth its cup; these poems are energized by hyperbole and arguments that have outgrown their rhetorical structures. Manguso fillets the signature styles of James Tate and Dean Young and disposes of their punch-line tendencies. That is, she begins with a flatly perverse or deceptively simple premise and whisks it off to exquisite extremes, often by way of berserk example and oddball qualification. Replete with meandering logics and moving misdirections, these poems plot out multiple routes and sidetrips that produce and reproduce a form of scientific subjectivity. A series of Ponge-like prose poems aims to undo their titles’ defining impulses (“The Chair,” “The Inkstain,” “The Barn”) by semantic clowning and high-speed associations. The author ducks allegory by providing a multitude of legends for her mental topographies. By mapping signs on signs and world on world, the very idea of true and real, as opposed to false and fantasy, turns Moebius strip, where insides are outsides, backwards is forwards, and we are always coming and going on a dark, undifferentiated (deer-riddled!) horizon.

Thus Manguso makes good on half her promise “to invent a distracting brand-new dance / to deliver you from all the thundering disparity of the world.” She delivers us not from “thundering disparity” but into a place where the only truth is composite and proliferating—and I am glad for it. But she does distract us with her linguistic dance. Once you’ve accepted its paradise of imagination and adjusted to the sea changes of self and science, the book stays on course. These poems are snazzy; they delight with their slaphappiness and in their yoking of the skeptical and the surefooted; they “extend what the eye sees” in ways heretofore unconsidered. All the same, they sometimes profess a kindly skepticism only to avoid the rigors of faith. Had they more faith in the spirit of the essay—to experiment at the risk of failing or not being able to finish—they might have embarked on more myriad adventures in tone and structure, instead of cycling through the strategies of their own conventions. They might have embraced a fuller emotional range in lieu of a catalogue of human antics. This is the book’s ultimate marvel: the poems’ confident joys convince us to not much mind their mild redundancies.