Beautiful Doubt: A Manual for Living by Sharon Dolin (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016)

Emily Jaeger


Sharon Dolin’s latest collection of poems, Manual for Living, is ‘A Guide for the Perplexed’ written in a state of perplexity. Com-prised of three ekphrastic sections, Manual for Living presents three different sets of self-advice which the reader, along with Dolin, tries on and then challenges. Employing a sparkling linguistic palette, Dolin’s poems rejoice, mourn a little, and then laugh at life’s reality of not knowing the future, the divine, or one’s own purpose.

In the first poem of the first section, “Manual for Living,” Dolin, working from Sharon Lebell’s translation of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, offers the following take on his counsel:

    Approach Life as If It Were a Banquet
    Or a lunch basket crammed with
    pleasure in restraint and blood oranges.
    Your rightful portion averts your ireful potion:
    caress what can’t be blessed, cup shadows under breasts.
    Let pass what’s out of ken: lover, job, riches,
    a ripe peach
                    until it reaches you.
Employing epigrammatic verse, Dolin directly addresses the reader/self, navigating the risk of being overly didactic through irony. If Epictetus says “approach life as if it were a banquet,” Dolin immediately undercuts his formality with a picnic. As the poems progress, they often subvert his advice and his ideal of dispassionate distance from “what’s out of ken.” The lunch basket is the perfect image for Dolin’s poetic style, “crammed with pleasure in restraint.” Dolin’s precise attention to sound drives each poem in the collection, as seen, for example, in re-straint//orange, portion//potion, caress//blessed//breasts. Her heavy use of consonance and rhyme itself leads to pleasure, along with the wit and beauty of her surprising lyric imagery.

Unsatisfied with Epictetus’s advice, in “Black Paintings,” a series in dialogue with Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings, Dolin confronts the proximity of death in its many possible guises. Though the shortest section in the book, “Black Paintings” contains the emotional stakes of the whole project. One of the challenges of ekphrastic poetry is whether or not the poems can stand on their own. Here, even if the reader is not familiar with the paintings, the poems embody the chaos of the cruel unknown that Dolin is struggling with throughout the book. There is a resounding sense of isolation and lack of control, as in “Pilgrimage,” where the speaker is dragged along on a journey she didn’t sign up for:

    And I am on the side blatting along
    though it is not my journey,
    not my song.
When the poems are read next to Goya’s paintings, it is possible to track the position of the speaker, who often embodies a figure on the edge of canvas (like the singer in “Pilgrimage”) or even an object, but never the central image or crowd. The speaker’s position reads as a question of the writer’s role in the face of what cannot be known, a trope which comes up multiple times in the section. One of the least convincing moments is in “Saturn,” when Dolin, speaking of the future, falls back on the overly familiar idea of the poem preserving the author’s immortality.

The final section, “Of Hours,” responds to the liturgical tradition of the book of hours—collections of psalms and prayers organized for recitation in weekly cycles. For the initiated, “Of Hours” is filled with the echoes of Jewish psalms and liturgy. Dolin’s multiple references to Moses suggest the poet’s similar role of turning divine revelation into verse. Each poem portrays a different hour of the day and the acts of noticing—the rooster’s call, morning tea, “the syllable sighs of the sycamore”—reflect a shared tradition of both Judaism and poetry in which time is transcended through attention.

Reminiscent of the religious poet George Herbert, Dolin balances poems about theological doubt with speaking directly to the divine, commanding it to “Tell me what you desire of me.” Dolin also attempts to portray doubt structurally: fragmented lines that scatter across the page and guillemets allow for enjambment within an enjambed line. However, the odd punctuation and much of the visual fragmentation can distract from the work that she is already doing with her language. The highlight of this section is how she subverts the aversion to the unknown. Rather than keeping a dispassionate distance from what cannot be explained, Dolin shows that doubt is an opportunity for engagement. With the help of an apt enjambment, doubt is even a mode of prayer:
    When I waver I pray
                you will set me on the highest rock
    For even my doubt is holy and drum-taps your praise

Emily Jaeger is co-editor/co-founder of Window Cat Press. Her poetry has appeared in Four Way Review, Soundings East, Incessant Pipe Salon, and elsewhere. Her chapbook is The Evolution of Parasites from Sibling Rivalry Press (2016).