Maurice Manning is an experienced poet. The Pulitzer Prize finalist’s sixth collection of poems, One Man’s Dark (Copper Canyon Press, 2017), is an example of strong craftsmanship: voice-driven verse with a focus on musicality and economy. Manning’s lines are some of the tightest in contemporary poetry; he is a precision poet in the truest sense of the word. Efficient line-composition is an essential skill for a poet because it does the all the hard work and is the foundation and structure, letting each poem offer up its unique personality.
The most successful poems in this collection are either thought-based or vision-based, using their energy to make meaning through ideas or deep images. A perfect example of the thought-based poem is “Passion” which is the second poem in the collection. It begins with an image: “All of the sumac is scarlet now / and the thistle heads have gone to silk / and around the field the goldenrod / nods in the rain, and anything / with leaves or height is lowered.” Then it switches to a complex meditation on two types of rain. The speaker begins by describing the first type of rain: “I liked the constant sound and motion, / how that sound and motion eventually / became the same blurred expression.” He then describes the second type of rain “that fell from the branches with less precision, / yet had an independent order, / a rain that couldn’t help itself / from being strange or stirring me / to believe the first rain—steady / and unified—is necessary / for the second, the other, singular rain.”
This second type of rain might be what the speaker identifies as passion, or as he puts it: “an accidental counterpart / to unity, a blind pursuit, / like all desire….” These feelings are confirmed in the major moment of the poem:
What cannot be repeated, what
will not be uniform, what breaks
away defiantly from control—
I’ve been a student of this art.
It is one of God’s better tricks
to make monotony revealing,
but disruption is a subtle craft.
This is the big turn of the poem because it transforms the second rain into a metaphorical celebration of a passionate, almost anarchistic spirit that burns within the speaker. He sees himself reflected in this one simple aspect of nature. The poem is no longer a poem about rain but about the speaker himself: “Rain makes itself and makes, / through more and more, the field believes / this is eternity for now.”
Other poems that follow a similar thought-pattern can be seen in “Theology,” “Symbolism,” “A Portion of the Cosmos in Kentucky,” and “Old-Time Kentucky Salt-Kettle Dream,” which is an especially stirring poem in five parts. Like “Passion,” the speaker becomes meditative, but this time, darker feelings surface:
Even now I see the dry bed
suddenly gorged with rain and then
I see myself beside the stream,
half-broken by my breaking passion
for seeing all things move at once
in one direction, toward the river
and, farther, toward the symbol the river
becomes in thought…
The imaginative power of dreams is a pronounced theme throughout this collection. Here, Manning incorporates both dream and passion further along in the poem: “When I was a boy, God gave me this, / the dream to make the world whole / by my dream, and a dream before my own / remembered, like salt cooked down / in a kettle, a rick of oak beside it….” He continues:
and passion—the passionate dream, even
the passionate, reckless act of rage
or hate or consummation—comes
from being alone, from being alone
with being alone, and being still…
These thought-based poems are full of fire and brooding magnetism. This is done by Manning at select points in the collection and they are special moments to savor.
The other kind of poem in One Man’s Dark—the vision-based type—serve as companion poems to the deeper thinking poems. Pure images build on one another until the reader is stimulated into full sensory consciousness. This happens in “Patch of Light in Deep Woods.” The poem itself is simplistic. The speaker does nothing more than stand in a patch of woods and observes what he sees with everything spinning around the central image of the poem:
and then six or seven, a spiral stream
of hummingbirds pours through the hole
as silver-green swirled down a funnel;
around the lit patch of green
on the ground is a coil of trumpet vine
and even the flourish of courtesy
before the orange bells is silent…
More examples of vision-based work occur in other poems such as “Obedience” and “Amid the Flood of Mortal Ills Prevailing” which showcases Manning’s expertise as an image-maker. Once again, the structure is simple, but the poem is pleasurably consumed by the image of a black horse. It appears five lines in:
…and soon the black horse
slick and shiny raises its head
and wades into the tall grass
like a shadow entering a dream.
There is little motion now except
the horse and the splash of butterflies
thrown up behind it like yellow froth
wrung from the winding course of green.
This image borders on the erotic. In fact, it is probably the most erotic moment of the entire collection. Manning summons a pure nature image that magnetizes the readers and brings their eyes back to that moment over and over again until they forget what the poem is about. The next line keeps the poem on solid footing: “And where is the black horse bound?” This is such a basic question, and yet, the richness of what came before it turns the question into a raw exclamation. Only a master poet could take such a flat question and transform it into a deep, almost sexual, metaphysical moment.
What is regretful about this collection: there aren’t enough poems like these. One Man’s Dark is too heavy on narrative work where the speaker is obligated to serve as a type-casted, down-home, folksy Southerner giving outside readers an inside view of rural Kentucky life. Manning is capable of much more: he is a high-level poet and a confident builder of rock-hard poems, but they get lost in narrative fluff. He is a passionate and immensely talented poet which the most successful poems in this collection prove time and again.
Originally published in Pleiades, Summer 2018