How to Quit Your Diary: Sarah Manguso and the Poetry of Endings

ongoingnessThe diary is not an autobiography or a self-portrait or a künstlerroman. It is a different thing, one balanced sometimes awkwardly, sometimes with poise, between public and private. A diary is performative, it possesses an “I” or a voice. It is at the same time an illusion, an almost imperative idiocy — a dream that life or time or the self can be trapped buzzing in the jar of language.

Perhaps because our selves are now teetering in new ways between public and private — we’re persistently watched, recorded, documented, and trapped, buzzing, in screens of isolation — the diary form is of renewed interest to literary writers. And perhaps because of the new ways in which we teeter, the diary is both enough and not enough at the same time.

For the poet and nonfiction writer Sarah Manguso, the negotiation of the diary has been an ongoing battle, much like a sickness, which makes it all the more interesting that her new book Ongoingness comes with the subtitle: The End of a Diary. It gives the impression that Manguso has won, or that she has come to the impossible realization that, as Nietzsche suggested, we only have words for what is dead in our hearts.

What was this battle? At some point in her life, Manguso began writing a daily diary — and the word diary comes from diarium, meaning “daily food” or “daily account” — that grew to more than 800,000 words. Ongoingness, which is less than 100 pages long, is not that book. It is a book about that diary that contains none of that diary. It is a para-diary about the obsessive act of keeping a diary.

In Ongoingness, we find that although Manguso’s reasons for obsessively keeping her diary are numerous, conflicting, — ongoing — she cannot give it up. At one point in the book, when a hypnotist asks her if he can help solve an unrelated problem, she comes to a realization that is tethered, with a wink, to her own obsession with diary keeping:

He wanted to know why I was still thinking about someone I’d gone to bed with just once, months earlier, and barely seen again.

So did I. I lay down.

My friend swung a pendant from a string above my face then asked me to close my eyes.

Why won’t you give up this imaginary problem.

The answer, suddenly accessible to me for the first time, surprised me. Because I don’t want to.

In clipped sentences, like those above, that sway between aphorism, memoir or diary, and poetry, Manguso considers the keeping of her diary in light of labor, hygiene, and weakness of the will. She meditates, too, on the form’s relation to memory and forgetting — its ongoingness. While reading it, I was reminded of Argentine author Alejandro Zambra’s metaphor for the pruning of the self; he likens it to the ridiculous but ascetically pleasing act of keeping a bonsai tree.

But where Zambra is an accomplished novelist, Manguso is a formidable poet. For me, it’s when Ongoingness veers closest to poetry that I learn the most about the relation between self and self-accounting, time and its unfolding. I found myself wondering if Manguso feels the same way. At one point, she recounts scribbling the first stanza of Yeats’ “When You Are Old” on the inside cover of her diary:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

When the book in the stanza is considered in the light of the diary form, it’s a beautiful transposition, but an incomplete one. Slowly reading (or writing) the book of one’s entire life might amount to an unbearably difficult task (one possibly less worthy of your time than you’d think). For Manguso, this obsession with diary keeping is assuaged, if not broken, by the birth of her son. “I wasn’t anything, but then the baby became a little boy who needed me more than I needed to write the diary,” she writes. “He needed me more than I needed to write about him.”

This realization, too, which comes late in the book, made me wonder whether the younger Manguso had considered the final two stanzas of Yeats’ poem, or whether poetry — more than autobiographical fiction, or diary, or memoir — might best help us to negotiate the self in these automated years. But Manguso is too wise to presume that her self-negotiation has ended with her diary. Just before the end of the book, before Ongoingness becomes an act of pure poetry, Manguso hints that the once “hygienic” act of keeping a diary has shifted elsewhere in the face of death. It sounds like a new obsession with purity:

And I’m forgetting everything. My goal now is to forget it all so that I’m clean for death. Just the vaguest memory of love, of participation in the great unity.

Ongoingness is an imperfect book, but not in the way that the self is imperfect. It isn’t an account to St. Peter at the end of of days. The book is imperfect in the way a mirror, cracked or whole, is imperfect: it can only reflect your present state right back at you. But in fragments, in strange poetic moments, Manguso is somehow able to trap herself — past, present, projected toward death — in the reflection. It’s then her book becomes a mirror that can tell time.