(reblogged from Eleventh Stack)
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.