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Bucolics: Poems

By: Maurice Manning
Reviewed by: Jeanie Thompson
Harcourt, 2007
$23, Hardcover

Like all great poetry written from the heart, Maurice Manning’s Bucolics holds up a mirror for us, reflecting our fear and awe in the corporeal world. A balm as well, its music and humor can soothe our ragged souls.

A series of seventy-eight single-stanza poems, Bucolics is a contemporary reworking of the ultimate questions: Who made us? How can we understand our lives in relation to a creator? How can we just enjoy the fact of all creation? Manning opens the book with a quotation from George Herbert: “Shepherds are honest people, let them sing.” Given this acknowledgment, Bucolics could well be called a hymnal or a book of psalms.

Working through his questions in an unnamed persona, a shepherd-like speaker asks his “Boss” about his relationship to creation: 

    did you ever have a nickname Boss 
    a favorite color ever walk around 
    in a circle for the fun of it do you 
    snap your fingers hold your breath 
    do you put things in your pocket 
    do you notch a stick for every sparrow 
    is everything a little game to you Boss  (from II)

Manning makes powerful music throughout Bucolics, and he is a poet that other poets will admire first and foremost for his masterful, audacious experimentation. But anyone who writes will be energized by Manning’s innovative poetic line: 

    if you would just sit still I’d carve 
    your face into a stick then I 
    could see you Boss a hundred times 
    a day we could listen for the owl 
    if he let out a hoot I’d turn 
    your wooden ear into the wind (from XVI)

Using iambic tetrameter lines, without regular capitalization and punctuation, often with a caesura in the middle, Manning pulls us through the poems with a gait that is not so much breathless as breath-ful.

Like W.S. Merwin, who chose Manning for the 2000 Yale Younger Poets Prize, Manning sculpts his poetic line to curve elegantly around his subject. Abandoning punctuation, which causes his syntax to run on continuously, Manning creates an energetic line that is constantly playful. The iambics are mitigated by the enjambed syntax and the result is a voice, tone, linguistic tension, and surprise: “. . . I feel your hand / on me as heavy as / a hay bale though lighter than /a shadow . . .” (from LVI). Repetition is Manning’s bellstrike, his archetypical counting out of the beats and rhythmic stresses for meaning.

Bucolics is not just a writers’ book. The questions posed and answers given in metaphor after metaphor are gritty food for thought. If you love character, setting, and story, you’ll be hooked, too. Much like a novelist, Manning works classic themes out through the one-sided conversation we witness. The speaker’s world view is molded by what he seeks, how he questions Boss daily: 

    whenever there’s a to I know 
    a fro is coming after it 
    is that a kind of tickle too 
    is there a tickle bone between 
    two days that hang together like 
    a hinge is there a reason why 
    I think you’re making fun of me 
    a reason why I like it Boss 
    you sender of the sun you rain 
    for rivers all those leaves you bend (from LXI)

As we hear questions about our future debated and dissected in the popular media, whether we know it or not we crave a poet’s voice to take us as low to the ground as the underside of a fallen leaf, or help us understand what might “bind the honey to the suckle,” as Manning writes. People should read Bucolics as an antidote to the sort of trivial language analysis we have become addicted to in the media. This is how poetry matters.

An argument could be made that Manning’s Bucolics is an elegy for humankind’s act of questioning. “What’s up with the nature of God, my man?” is not exactly street-corner patter in my hometown. But set as it is in a pastoral landscape, in an unspecified time, Manning’s Bucolics could not be more contemporary. People still question the nature of creation, participating in (hu)man (ity)’s search for meaning, to modify Victor Frankel. With Maurice Manning and his lyrical songbook, we’ve found one voice worth hearing on the subject.

Jeanie Thompson’s most recent collection of poems is White for Harvest: New and Selected Poems. 

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