Review by Casey Thayer
LAWRENCE BOOTH’S BOOK OF VISIONS
by Maurice Manning
Yale University Press
P.O. Box 209040
New Haven, CT 06520-9040
2001, 80 pp., $16.00
The Yale Series of Younger Poets has a long history of highlighting the most promising new talents in American poetry, among them John Ashbery, Jack Gilbert, James Tate, and Robert Hass. However, perhaps due to a need to find “the next big thing” or the difficulty in predicting what kind of poetry will survive the test of time, recent Yale Series judge, W.S. Merwin, has given preference to experimental over solidly-constructed, formal, or traditional poetry (witnessed by his choice of Sean Singer’s Discography as the 2002 winner or his pick of Loren Goodman’s Famous Americans a year later). In one case, however, Merwin’s taste for the strange, poetry that he describes as “not commonplace, familiar, or of an expected kind,” paid off, leading him to choose Maurice Manning’s collection Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions as the 2000 winner. Despite the pitfalls that often plague “experimental poetry,” Manning’s first book builds an engrossing narrative and commands enough authority in voice to excuse his wilder forays into formal experimentation.
The book begins, after an opening lyric, with “Dramatis Personae,” hinting that Manning’s goal is not to craft separate, standalone poems, but instead to create a dramatic narrative surrounding a recurring cast of characters, among them “The Missionary Woman,” whom Booth eventually falls in love and starts a family with, “Black Damon,” Booth’s “pastoral comrade,” “Mad Daddy,” Booth’s father and the narrative’s villain, as well as a supporting cast of other family and community members. Though we begin mostly with Booth’s adolescence, Manning does not follow a chronological narrative. Instead, he slowly builds up his images (most notably, the flaming horse and the Great Field) and shifts forward and backward in Booth’s life in order to end on the two moments of highest drama, the death of Black Damon and the exit of Mad Daddy.
By giving it this structure, Manning reinforces the “vision” aspect of the book, encapsulated in its title. Without the constructs of chronology, readers are left wondering which “visions” reflect reality and which are figments of Booth’s imagination. Though most of the poems are told in third person, the dramatic shifts in subject and the extended and often repetitious metaphors make the poems feel less cerebral, leaving us to question the reality and authenticity of the world the narrator is creating. We are only given what seem like direct accounts of Booth’s life in the “Dreadful Chapters.” These poems, though masked by their minstrelsy style of diction, or as Merwin writes, “Amos-and-Andy lingo,” do not contain the same flights of fancy and instead directly document the strife tearing apart Booth’s home life. Consider how “Dreadful Chapter Four” allows us entrance into Booth’s mind, in this case, his thought on his sister Sissy:
But Law dont see a single funny thing–
worry dat gal got somethin wrong in her brain:
he sound like a holy ghost way he beller an sing
an walk two mile, bust a rock gin a train.
The “Dreadful Chapter” poem can deal with the subject more directly since the drama is tempered by the contorted diction and the poem is narrated, one can assume, by Black Damon, a third person observer. Though most of the collection uses the third person point-of-view, many of the poems still stem from Booth’s mind. His tendency to mythologize events is just one way he escapes the pain of dealing with them. Though the grossly exaggerated, artificial diction can certainly be insulting and as Merwin describes, on one level, “offensive,” by capturing the most tender and painful moments of the book’s narrative within these “chapters,” he dampens lines that would otherwise be far too melodramatic. This is shown most notably in Booth’s apparent wish for suicide described in “Dreadful Chapter Six”:
his lil heart so fretful sick he start thinkin sewercide;
he fetch a capgun to de sinkhole an kneel dere on de ground,
den pull de silver trigger an like de echo way it sound.
It is the balance between the fantastical elements and the direct chronicling of Booth’s life that saves some of Manning’s formal experimentation. In “Envoy,” he gives us a listing of personal ads, one of the most memorable calling for, “a woman cast out from society.” In “Proof,” Booth sets out to prove “the existence of Hell,” exposing along the way the economic hardships faced by his family (“The slope of Mad Daddy’s money clip is zero”) and his love for his dog. In one of the book’s most unusual experiments, Manning includes a fictitious Circuit Court document citing a case against Booth for crashing a meeting of the Daughters of the Confederacy and yelling out “How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!” These poems, though somewhat jarring on first read, work in tandem with the “Dreadful Chapters” to give us an outside, third-person view of Booth. They allow the narrator to reveal Booth’s inner desires while avoiding over-sentimentality, or, on a practical level, they allow us to understand things about Booth that he is unable to express himself.
Through the collection, Manning works through a chorus of unique voices to tell the narrative, at once lyrical (“Sheepish as a far off echo, Lawrence Booth wades / into the Great Field and the wide-yawning night”; “Bellwether”), humorous (“farmer searching the heavens / for the true spark of love (breast-size unimportant)”; “Envoy”), and in the seven “Dreadful Chapters,” an exaggerated Black vernacular reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn or minstrel shows that is, perhaps purposefully, difficult to read and decipher:
Law’s Pore Mama bury four boar hog toothey in de yard
say her broken down famly need ever stroke a luck dey can git–
keep corn nubbin stretchin an Ramble Off Daddy home a lil bit;
she plum tired a livin dis cheatin shoestring life so hard.
(“Dreadful Chapter Three”)
But what makes this collection memorable and worthy of praise is not the novelty of its multitude of voices, but instead that these voices often mask and suppress, while ironically witnessing, to the deep pain and hurt of Lawrence Booth. All of the “chapters” loosely fit as sonnets, some utilizing a Shakespearean rhyme scheme, most broken grammatically into quatrains and relying on voltas positioned either before the final six lines or the last two. While they break drastically from the iambic, romanticized language of Petrarch or Shakespeare, the poems deal most directly with pain and desire. The destruction chronicled in them, as well as their diction, surprise our expectations of the sonnet form all the while implying a sense of desire for deliverance from Booth’s position in life and his subjugation to his father.
However, Shakespeare and the long history of the sonnet is not the only source from which Manning draws inspiration. The repetition of “Great Field,” “Indian Tree,” the variations on “Mad Daddy” hint at the strong influence of Biblical parables in Manning’s work. The core conflict of the collection centers on the relationship between the collection’s “protagonist” and God. When described in “Dramatis Personae,” God is listed as a provider, a supplier of what people need.
By the end, the narrative becomes so engrossing, and we become wrapped up in Booth’s possible deliverance from his father, we forget the possibility that this is all a dream, a fantasy concocted by Booth as a way of escaping his horrible life. After building up a back-history with the Missionary Woman and providing us with the promise of a happy life for Booth, the narrator concedes that she could be “an exquisite work of Booth’s imagination.” This gentle reminder, that she may or may not be a fabrication, calls into question all that we’ve read, shadows the hope we’ve held that Booth is somehow able to break free from his father, which once again is a tribute to Manning’s accomplishment. He’s able to create a fictitious character and win over our sympathies through a slow build of moments from Booth’s life. The court order and the letter from Booth’s teacher home attempt to reinforce the authenticity of this character. Given the book’s title, we should expect the entire collection to be a fantasy created by Manning. However, the narrative is simply too strong and demands such a deep emotional investment that we suspend our disbelief and wholly buy into the world Manning creates.
When considered in isolation, much of this power is lost; the poems never feel completed and lose their narrative clarity. This is not a group of good poems but instead a solid collection, a cohesive narrative built poem by poem, symbol by symbol. It’s likely that singular poems will be forgotten, because to be honest, by themselves, they are forgettable. But like successful novels, the narrative sticks with readers, which in contemporary American poetry is often a rare thing to find.