The Two Kinds of Decay

Mitchell190Emily Mitchell reviews the memoir of the poet Sarah Manguso, in the NYT Book review:

In her sharp, affecting new memoir, “The Two Kinds of Decay,” Manguso writes from the far side of a long period of remission. “For seven years I tried not to remember much because there was too much to remember,” she writes. From an original welter of experience, she has carefully culled details that remain vivid. Filtered through memory, events during her illness seem like “heavenly bodies” that “fly until they change into new forms, simpler forms, with ever fewer qualities and increasingly beautiful names.” Manguso is acutely interested in these processes of renaming and remembering, the way time changes what we say about the past. Her book is not only about illness but also about the ways we use language to describe it and cope with it.

The author of two books of poetry, Manguso brings the virtues of that form to the task of writing memoir. Her book is divided mostly into one- and two-page chapters titled like poems. She mixes high and low language, the crass and the scientific, with a lyric poet’s sure-handedness. The chapters themselves — among them “The Hematologist,” “The Forgetful Nurse,” “Corroboration” — resemble her own poetry, broken into aphoristic, discrete sections on the page. This disjointedness gives the prose a rhythm that mirrors the confusion and fragmentation of illness.

It also clears space for one of the book’s most remarkable aspects: its dark humor. What makes this account both bearable and moving is Manguso’s keen sense of the absurdities that accompany severe illness.