Here's the first of what I hope to be a regular feature on this blog, a mini-response to a book of poetry I've recently finished reading. I don't mean for these to be standard book reviews, but rather a spattering of thoughts and impressions.
Bucolics is Maurice Manning's third full-length collection. I was first introduced to Manning in one of Davis McCombs' form & theory classes where we read Lawrence Booth's Book of Visions, Manning's first book, which is also quite good. In Bucolics, Manning gathers together a series of untitled and unpunctuated poems. Their subject matter is a speaker in conversation with the divine, and their musicality, images, and repeated themes call to mind a book of psalms. However, this is not the language of the high church. The poems are rooted in a rural, agricultural voice, with a revolving cast of characters, including horses, barns, birds, and the fields.
The speaker addresses the divine as "Boss," and I did have a bit of trouble with this at first. "Boss" called to mind a master/slave relationship, and given that Manning himself is from Kentucky, I felt a bit off-balance to begin. Yet one of the fantastic elements of this book is the way that the individual poems build on one another, washing over the reader like waves cresting. By the time I'd read, re-read, and digested the first handful of poems, I had settled into the use of "Boss" to address the divine, the bigger-than-me force in the universe. As someone with personal issues with organized religion, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the poems. Manning is never preachy and never settles into Judeo-Christian exclusivity. Rather, he exposes the questions embedded in our own humanity.
Here are some lines from my favorites. From "XXVI": "you toss the stars like clover seed / you sling them through the sky you must / be glad to be a sower Boss." Later in the same poem:
the honey to the suckle Boss
you sow the sticky stuff that sticks
the honey to the yellow belly
of the bee
As most of you know, my central images are drawn from the landscape of the Midwest and the residue of family farming, although my immediate family members no longer farm. The down-to-earth nature of Manning's voice definitely works for me.
In the end, I read the book in two sittings, splitting it almost perfectly in half. I recommend reading the book this way, if not all at once, for those of you with longer attention spans. The poems call back and forth amongst themselves and the collective nature of the book is one of its strongest points.