A MERCY BRANCHES OUT: 
The Poetry of Maurice Manning
(Tamara Miles)

Posted on November 11, 2016 by in Verity La Reviews

I am never quite certain, as I read the poetry of Maurice Manning, whether his heart lives in a foreign country — the one he might call heaven — or whether it is tucked behind a jar of moonshine hidden somewhere in a Kentucky holler. The characters that populate his poems are all caught up in their daily living, with its work and curses, its strategies for loving and coping.  The poet stands in their yards and houses, observing it all with wonder.

Many of his poems reflect his home state of Kentucky and the colorful people and other creatures who have been his companions in that culture of farming and family among the apple trees, where he knew careful beauty, holiness, whittling, and games of mumblety-peg.  He teaches English at Transylvania University and regularly serves as faculty at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. His greatest joy, a baby girl, arrived in 2015; before her, he explained recently, ‘the way of love was crookedy, now clear/the rhyme I’ve listened for is here’. All of his future poems, he claims, will be written with her in mind.

He looks for grace in couplets and free stanzas that breathe in the occasional rhyme, in both unusual and common experiences: a woman driven up a tree by a bear and then rescued, a man tilting his eyes away from beauty as it stands in his doorway, a speaker conducting an endless one-sided conversation with a God named Boss.

That Manning — or the persona under which he writes in Bucolics, loves this God, there’s little doubt.  The tender affection with which the poet/speaker addresses him is at once touching and surprising:

394864       O green-thumbed Boss
       you save a seed for me you sow
       it in the furrow of my eye
       as if seedtime Boss is a little bit
       like sleep I think inside my eye
       you keep a little patch of green.

       (XXVI, Bucolics)

But that he is also keenly aware of a kind of ongoing estrangement is just as evident, as in this passage from poem XXII (also in Bucolics):

       …it doesn’t matter how
       I feel about it what I want
       from you is nothing Boss compared
       to what you want from me you want
       it all to always go your way.

In the lines that follow, he grudgingly points out that Boss would just as soon have a briar (‘for its thorns’) as the daisies the poet might offer. Also, in ‘Dead Tree, Two Crows, Morning Fog’ (from The Common Man), he reminds us,

       I didn’t make the world
       the way it is, so black and white
       sometimes it’s blinding.

In other words, he seems to say that he is not responsible for the troubles of this world, with its endless divisions — someone greater, a distant and stubborn creator is responsible.

In her book Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry, Louise Gluck has observed that poems are ‘autobiography, but divested of the trappings of chronology and comment’. In Manning’s poems, we hear his true voice and see his life unfolding in episodes from different times and perspectives: a child, at times, at other times a man in love or remembering love — and heartbroken about it in each case because it is not what he dreamed it would be. Like T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, he finds that his efforts to communicate, to share himself fully with a woman, leave him disappointed. What he writes about women bears a kind of muddy generosity toward their depth and remoteness from men. His approach to death is similar. It can be ‘a mercy, the vision blurred and burning there,’ the speaker of ‘Moonshine’ (from The Common Man) claims.

Manning wants to write what is true — no doubt; the speaker claims in ‘Three Truths, One Story’ (The Common Man), that everything he is saying is true. The truth, however, is couched in a turnip seed, both an actual seed and a man named Turnipseed with whom the speaker is familiar. That he is also acquainted with a family by the name of Stonecypher reveals his captive interest in deciphering the truth, which some people seem to clutch like stones in their hands. He seems concerned, to some extent, about appearing blasphemous or offending God in word or action; for example, in the erotic poem ‘The Hour of Power and the Sassafras Tree,’ the speaker interrupts the lovemaking scene with talk of another poem about two tomatoes, which he claims he hasn’t written yet, and his joy at ‘slurping up the juice’ (The Gone and the Going Away).

thecommonman-198x300In the same poem, reverting back to Laney Cain’s country body and her offer of her virginity to him, he claims not to believe in religion, then admits, ‘but I have one, or it has me/and once or twice, it’s gotten me in trouble,’ which is why he says to Laney, who is enjoying their sexual play, ‘The Lord is surely watching us’. Also, in the poem ‘A Blasphemy’ (The Common Man), in which he references God as Old Yam and Elder Sweet Potato, the speaker nevertheless acknowledges his reverence in prayer: ‘I need you now up there to give my people happiness,’ and admits that calling God by these irreverent names is both ‘pretty funny and kind of sad’.  At other times, God is ‘Boss’ and the speaker talks casually to him as he might to a long-distant, familiar employer whom he respects and feels comfortable with, but never gets to meet face to face. This ‘you above,’ he observes in ‘Blasphemy’… ‘doesn’t say too much’.

In his collection of essays on poetic invention, The Weather of Words, Mark Strand has referred to poetry as a way of ‘setting our internal house in order, of formalizing emotion difficult to articulate’. Manning’s efforts to articulate his emotions are delivered beautifully through the sustained monologue of Bucolics. He approaches the same ideas, the same struggles, from many fresh angles, using visual and sound imagery, diction, and rhythms that appear to arise on their own out of the message.

Raphael Cushnir, author of Setting Your Heart on Fire, has pointed out that the ways the naturalist, the hunter, the scientist, and the rancher see a wolf are unique to their individual paths.  Yes, and the way a poet sees a wolf, or a rooster, is also unique.  In one poem, Manning refers to Boss as a rooster who has lost his last feather but still carries with him his barnyard identity:

       you just can’t get above your raising
       now that makes two of us the way
       you spring from nothing nothing Boss,
       I wonder if you hatched yourself

       (XIII, Bucolics)

This wondering, this questioning heart that Manning offers to Boss is reminiscent of a moment in Robert Hass’s ‘Shame: An Aria’ (from Sun Under Wood), in which the speaker describes looking at a woman’s face, turned toward him:

       the face she wants you to see, and the rest
       that she hopes, when she can’t keep it hidden, you can somehow love
       and which, if you could love yourself, you would. (46)

Similarly, Manning’s poems to Boss are from a speaker who wants to love, wants to know and be known, but understands that if this is to happen on any deep level, both he and the God who holds himself back have to show their true faces. This requirement is extended to his readers in ‘The Burthen of the Mystery Indeed’ (The Common Man), where he writes,

       I need
       to know if you are shamed or glad,
       if this is doom or grace, because
       I know the terrible side of you
       would burn it all if you could, this spot
       of time outside of time, this place
       of too much kindness for your kind.

This poem, like Manning’s work overall, invites readers to look at the faces they are hiding, and accept the burden of knowing.

*

References

Cushnir, Raphael. Setting Your Heart on Fire. New York: Broadway, 2003.
Gluck, Louise. Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry. Hopewell: The Ecco Press, 1994.
Hass, Robert. Sun Under Wood. Hopewell: The Ecco Press, 1996.
Manning, Maurice. Bucolics. Orlando: Harcourt, 2007.
Manning, Maurice. The Common Man. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2010.
Strand, Mark. The Weather of Words. New York: Knopf, 2000.

You can read more from, and about, Maurice Manning over at The Poetry Foundation.

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photobw-1
Tamara Miles
teaches English at Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College in South Carolina. She is a proud member of Irish writer Jane Barry’s online international creativity salon known as That Curious Love of Green and a 2016 contributor at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Recent publications with her writings and artwork include Fall Lines: A Literary Convergence; Love is LoveO’Bheal Five Words; Pantheon; Love is Love; Unlost Journal; Apricity; The Tishman Review; Subprimal Poetry Art; Flash Fiction Magazine; and Auntie Bellum.

photo credit: Steve Cody

photo credit: Steve Cody


Maurice Manning
has published several books of poetry, beginning with Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions (2001), which poet W.S. Merwin judged as worthy of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, and followed by A Companion for Owls (2004), Bucolics (2007), The Common Man (2010), and The Gone and the Going Away (2013). He has received a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and other fine art fellowships.

Many of his poems reflect his home state of Kentucky and the colorful people and other creatures who have been his companions in that culture of farming and family among the apple trees, where he knew careful beauty, holiness, whittling, and games of mumblety-peg.  He teaches English at Transylvania University and regularly serves as faculty at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. His greatest joy, a baby girl, arrived in 2015; before her, he explained recently, ‘the way of love was crookedy, now clear/the rhyme I’ve listened for is here’. All of his future poems, he claims, will be written with her in mind.

Maurice’s new book, One Man’s Dark, will be be available from Copper Canyon Press in late December.

 

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