Review by Lydia McDermott
by Maurice Manning
15 East 26th Street, 15th Floor
New York, NY 10010
112 pp., $23.00, 2007
Into the fragmented irony of 2007 cracks the voice of a field hand addressing his God, his "Boss," in Maurice Manning's latest volume of poetry, Bucolics. For those who have read his previous collections, Lawrence Booth's Book of Visions and A Companion for Owls, the subject will not seem foreign. The form, however, will be surprising.
What startles in the form is its consistency. In Manning's previous collections, afadavits, lists, maps, letters, and hand-drawn symbols pepper the tight lyrics. In this newest collection, however, every poem is written in the same form: a relatively short yet repetitive lyric with no punctuation and no capitalization other than that of the name "Boss." None of the poems carries a title. The lack of punctuation and the double spacing isolate each word and line from the next, cushioning them in white space, forcing the reader to slow down and puzzle out the syntax. At first glance, Bucolics does
not look like a book by Manning at all.
But Manning's distinct voice permeates the collection. As in A Companion for Owls, where the majority of the poems are written from the perspective of Daniel Boone, Manning creates a persona who spends his time pondering nature, humanity, and a higher power called "Boss." Though the speaker addresses the Boss in poems that are like prayers, he has a "rustic" vocabulary and an often irreverent tone.
This character is closest to the cosmos when he contemplates the nature around him and the work he performs with his hands. Manning captures a sense of pure wonder in this voice. In XXVI, the field hand considers the Boss's work:
you sow the sticky stuff that sticks
the honey to the yellow belly
of the bee but then O green-thumbed Boss
you save a seed for me...
The reader is forced to examine the minute details of a bee's work. This slow reverie in nature at work captivates and pulls the reader through phrases and sentences run together in a building wonderment. Yet the language, like the objects it portrays, is
beautiful in its simplicity.
The narrator often talks to Boss in colloquialisms, asking whether he gets "tickled" and calling him names such as "rounder," "birdbrain," "blowhard," and "fancy-pants." He addresses Boss unabashedly. LV begins "do you put your trousers on one leg / at a time like me or do you just snap / your fingers Boss you fancy-pants" and ends "...I've had it up to here / O Boss I've had enough of you." Yet, a little later, in LXXVI, the narrator rambles on in a litany of thanks, ending:
. . . thank you for
two hands to make a cup
to hold the leaf Boss thank you
for the red bug riding on the leaf
The speaker is relentlessly faithful, and his earlier irreverence reflects a personal connection more than it does blasphemy. Through his narrator, Manning "spins a yarn," winding the simple and the cosmically complex into one tight ball.