April 25, 2009

Review by Casey Thayer

by Maurice Manning

Yale University Press
P.O. Box 209040
New Haven, CT 06520-9040
ISBN 9-780300-089981
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. Continue reading

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