The poet William Carlos Williams, in his essay “Revelation,” writes that “The objective of writing is to reveal. It is not to teach, not to advertise, not even to communicate (for that needs two) but to reveal, which needs no other than the man himself…Reveal what? That which is inside the man.” Hints of this mission appear in work by the poet Maurice Manning as well, notably in his new collection, The Gone and the Going Away. “The Slate” is a lengthy, swirling catalog of the names given to people and places in Manning’s hometown. Manning, in the name of evoking those particulars and by extension himself, writes that,
I learned it young,
when I was just a scratch of a boy
and I skipped down Shoestring Branch
to Fog Town Holler and found
Old Tiny Too, who told me where
I was from, and who my people were,
and how they named the world around them.
This is not the first time Manning has spoken to the roots of his project as a poet. Consider “Moonshine,” from his 2010 collection The Common Man, when he concludes with the observation that: “This was the first time I heard the story I was born to tell, the first I knew that I was in the story, too.” It sounds almost like a calling, and Manning treats his subjects with gravity and respect. He is gentle-spirited and generous, but he doesn’t paint the life around him as an idyll. None of this is a surprise, given the tenor of his earlier work. In “A Panegyric Against the Consolation of Grief”, also from The Common Man, Manning writes,
That’s what I mean by grief, and why
it shouldn’t be consoled; it hides
a deeper, unanswerable grief
and where it comes from. What the hell’s
a panegyric anyway?
Some pretty praise, a speech. We’ve had
enough of those, especially
on the rural scene – the fields at dusk,
a dog and a man admiring it.
Fortunately he also appreciates the value of humor to the proceedings, though it’s more irreverence, gentle bemusement and good-natured teasing than mockery. Consider the opening lines of “The Slate”:
Way back, the men had funny names
like Tiny, who was anything
but small, and Tiny’s son was called
Too Tiny or Double T,
and Tiny’s wife who was big and mean
was called Honey, and everybody
called Honey’s sister Birdie, and Birdie,
who couldn’t talk much less whistle,
was beautiful but touched in the head
“The Hour of Power and the Sassafras Tree” recalls an early encounter with a young woman, the daughter of a preacher. The speaker has misgivings:
Well what about your Holiness?
I asked, and stretched my arms across
the rock as if I needed ballast.
We only play the music there,
she laughed and wiggled down.
“The Prayer” is addressed, “O Lord of all greening,/Lord of night, probably Lord/of jiggling things like ladies.” There are also moments of playfulness, as in the case of “The Louder Finch”, a poem devoted to a pair of birds, both of which “are yellow, but/the louder one’s the yellower,” and then “True wit arrives like this,/to pluck the branch then flit away – not fly, flit.”
Manning moves deftly between artifice and observation in these poems, particularly where the voice is concerned. He recreates the cadences of speech, exaggerating them just enough at key moments to heighten the impact, particularly in the Roney Laswell poems, the first of which, “The Complaint Against Roney Laswell’s Rooster”, opens the collection and sets a tone:
Attention, Mister Roney Laswell – Roney,
short for Tyrone, I hear –
the hour your rooster blows,
four, is too early.
Another two would do. Go, speak to your rooster, Roney.
There is also the brief, almost imagist quality of poems like “The Old Mule”, in which “I see/the woman driving the mule. Shading her face, the bonnet.” The stark, regretful tone of “The Hill People” stands out as well, with its trip into “a town that wasn’t a town,” where the people “had appetite but not desire” and no doubt no hope no lie no mirth/no tenderness no shame.”
Maurice Manning has established himself as a vital and prolific American poet. His work might chase up thoughts of contemporaries like Rodney Jones at times, but the sheer variety and control sets Manning apart. The seventy poems in Bucolics create an almost meditative spell as they run from page to page. Manning, a Kentucky poet, reimagines the great Kentuckian Daniel Boone’s commonplace book in verse in A Companion for Owls. The Common Man’s gradual accumulation of details and personalities forms a panoramic picture of the unassuming world Manning has made it his business to chronicle. W.S. Merwin chose him as a Yale Younger Poet more than a decade ago now, on the strength of Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, his daring and vivid debut, a collection as suited and rewarding to repeat readings as any in recent years. Manning ends The Common Man’s “Ars Poetica Shaggy and Brown” with a question: “You reckon I could ever run out/of stories in my heart to tell?” The Gone and the Going Away suggests he hasn’t. If the energy and richness running through these poems are any indication, he’s not likely to anytime soon.