This Thing I Read: Oceans by Sarah Manguso

“Oceans” is an essay by Sarah Manguso that was published in the spring 2019 issue of The Paris Review. I read this essay on a Friday afternoon in early spring after returning home from a lovely celebratory lunch with a dear friend at one of my favorite restaurants, The Whistling Table. I enjoyed eating their fantastic black and blue salad while we caught up on the latest and greatest going on in life and writing.

One reason “Oceans” works is because Manguso writes with a wandering and wondering brilliance exploring themes of time and water and illness and the body. Seriously. After I read this essay I ordered three of her books and I will be reading them in the very near future. How have I not known about Sarah Manguso before now? Is the question I keep asking myself.

Something Manguso does really well is move deep into an idea instead of hovering above like a helicopter that hasn’t received permission to land yet. She writes:

I am not interested in depictions of the actual ocean. I don’t want to look at beautiful pictures of it. I’m not interested in beauty. I’m interested in the ways that people deal with the ocean. I am interested in forms that are so large, you can’t see the boundaries, so you just have to believe in them. They demand faith. I’m interested in people for whom that faith is a problem.

She begins with what she’s not interested in, what she doesn’t want. She cuts it away to see what’s left. And what’s left is something that she can’t fully comprehend. It requires faith. But that faith isn’t what she’s interested in either. She’s interested in the people who struggle to have that faith.

This is perfect. And I’m going to try to incorporate this approach in my own writing about faith and loneliness. Can I remove some aspects of loneliness that are lying on the surface and see what’s waiting for me underneath all of those chunks of stuff that seem important—and maybe they are important to someone else. But what’s under all of it? That’s what I want to discover.

The emotions this essay conjure up in me are sadness and a longing for the things that are bad to be undone. The essay itself is sad but not in an overwhelming way. Manguso’s incorporation of the other related threads like the thread of water and the thread of how writing works keeps me from despair.

This essay helps me understand others who have suffered in ways I haven’t suffered, specifically people who have had cancer. But it also helps me connect with myself and my own suffering because there are commonalities in all suffering, right? We all experience things that move us through time, in our bodies, in ways we wish we could avoid but somehow, some way, we manage to navigate that movement from point A to point B to point C and on and on.

What I want to remember besides all of this essay is one part where she talks about a lecture she was giving on writing. She writes, “The lecture was all about my proud discovery that in order to write well, in order to make anything of quality, I had to give the authority over my work to the work itself, the form itself. I’d had to maintain a dynamic balance between will and surrender.”

That’s a lot to think about. I’m so glad I get to do so.