BY JACOB SUNDERLIN
Maurice Manning—the ol’ dog—knows a trick or two, so it is a testament to the strength of his newest book, The Common Man, that the poems become much more than the sum of their accomplished techniques, speakers, one-liners, and anecdotes, and that they stand alone as individual soldiers as well as a book-length collection. Let’s take the long poem “Thunderbolt, My Foot” for example, which begins:
This one’s about half-crazy! It’s got
a couple of bugs, a horse, a bunch
of history, a long preamble
on the two sides of memory,
and no telling what all else—so we’ll skip
the invocation of the Muse.
The poem—accurately described—earns its silly introduction by ending:
Well, friends, ole Thunderbolt was trouble,
he stole and killed, he even escaped
that Yankee prison, but in the end
he found a bullet in Tennessee.
I guess some folks would say that’s justice,
but I’d say the dishonor done his horse
and the shame that came his grandson’s way,
that’s something more, that’s poetry.
So, what is poetry to Manning? While I can’t say I recommend reading these poems while watching MTV’s The Hills on DVD, there is perhaps no greater juxtaposition of Americana gutter poetries this side of the King James Bible and Tha Carter III by which we might approach the challenge of this question. The Common Man discovers its poetry rooted among the idiosyncrasies of folk narratives, and the peculiar justice of analogy. With these stories, Manning sculpts hill-proverbs that skirt across the razor-thin distance between absurdity (“Well heck-o, Hoss, I can’t make up / a name like Turnipseed!”) and poignancy (“Tell me the story in your heart. Does it involve a donkey?”), much as The Hills discovers that same distance in the blank stares of characters who submit their lives to the rigid constraint of the same American narrative which gives us party planning and 24-hour sushi. Of course, the ultimate cynicism (and principal genius) of The Hills’ existence—it’s class tourism for middle class white folk, let’s face it—stands in sharp contrast to Manning’s deep affection for his own heritage of narrative, which form themselves into a complicated elegy for a disappearing culture. “I loved the helpless people I loved,” he writes in “Sad and Alone”. In other words, Manning never allows the reader to be a tourist in his Kentucky without first inviting us to engage in whisky-drunk armchair dialogue:
You could wake up in the moonlight drunk
and sneak a peek up Heaven’s skirt,
and in the morning you’d know for sure
you had a revelation, but
you can’t remember how it went!
If Bucolics was Manning’s psalms then The Common Man is his Proverbs, in which the narrative core is less important than the more otherworldly elusive loose ends. Its iambic tetrameter couplets fall a humble beat short of the heroic and find analogies between objects and stories, the stuff of which is wonderfully idiosyncratic (wringer washers, axes, rain gauges, sticks, etc.), though these provincial artifacts are never conjured for their ironic uses—more often, it is for their utility. “Dead Tree, Two Crows, and Morning Fog” works its lyric muscles in order to propel us toward its eventual undercut. In describing the title-tree:
Those arms look hoisted up and cinched
to stay in place forever, to say,
I am surrendering. Around
these parts it makes a graven image.
Note the emphasis on subjectivity—it looks hoisted up in “these parts”—as it anticipates the following shift:
I know you’re thinking now about
this tree, and maybe you’re thinking why
is this man so bent on darkness? Well,
I’m not so bent. I like the tree,
and soon enough the sun will shine
it up and make it look more friendly.
Sometimes a tree looks like a sign
of something else, that’s all I’m saying.
The book balances our cynical, back-foot expectations as readers of contemporary poetry with its own unpretentious ambition incredibly well—the natural world becomes strange in Manning’s hands, but not unrecognizably so:
I know two bluebirds tamed and flown
into a woman’s eyes. She keeps
a country lit behind them, her eyes
I mean, and those bluebirds twine their song
around a hillside there. Lord God,
but it’s a country
These kinds of passages are what make The Common Man such a fine collection, one whose stories, half-remembered, reveal their own internal poems for what they are—knots of baling wire, and heart. (Houghton Mifflin, 2010, $14.95)
Jacob Sunderlin lives and writes in Indiana.