25 February 2008

Even London bridge has fallen down, and moved to Arizona

fire department water slide, Hinton, WV

Back in January, Kentucky poet Maurice Manning visited Radford and spent an evening at McConnell library sharing a few of his poems. For whatever reason I didn't attend, but his reading is one that I genuinely regret missing. His latest book, Bucolics, is a series of 70 unpuncuated, lyrical poems held together by a single voice, a shepherd addressing a higher power that he calls "boss." Part of what I like about the poems is that, while they could be called "Appalachian" poetry, they aren't self-consciously Appalachian. I'm not completely sure what I mean by that. I suppose what I mean is that some poetry consciously sets out to be the kind of Appalachian lit. that gets taught in universities. To his credit, Manning's poetry goes beyond that. The poems are firmly rooted in the earth, in the specifics of place, but they address questions, concerns, and a general wonder at the mystery of life that can't be tied down to any single region. Fellow poet Andrew Hudgins described the poems as a "seamless and utterly contemporary melding of Virgil, Hesiod, the Bible, folk songs, labor songs, and God knows what all else into something new and wonderful."

I like the poems. The only issue I have with them is the repeated use of the word "boss." In a way, it works; it evokes a higher power without calling up all the trappings of organized religion, and it's suitably ambiguous to refer to more than one kind of boss. My problem with it is that I associate the constant use of the word "boss" with Bo, a man I worked with several years ago at New River Trail State Park. I usually worked alone, either mowing the bottoms next to the river or--if they couldn't find anything else for me to do-- trimming a 30 year growth of assorted weeds and vines from a random snaky hill. Ocassionally, they'd pair me up with Bo to build a fence or paint a shed or something. He was a nice guy, almost too nice, and part of his reportoire of niceness involved calling every man boss (it's not a big deal, really; I'm not sure why it bothered me). I guess I could have told him to stop, it bugged me, but I never did. It would've been like telling him the shape of his head bugged me. Although he was 30 years my senior, every sentence was "well, boss, if you don't mind we're going to cut the angle like this..." or "all I have is an 8th grade education, boss, I'll leave it up to you." I guess it was his way of appearing diplomatic; he usually did things the way he had planned, but he liked to call people boss to suggest they were in control and that he was open to anything.

All of this is neither here nor there, except when I read Manning's poems from Bucolics, I see Bo sweeping up the floor of the workroom where we kept the time clock, winking at me and saying something like, "hey, boss, there's some biscuits in the office" or "what'dya think of that pretty little girl, boss." It's a hard vision to reconcile with Manning's poetry.

3 poems from Bucolics.


the night is trotting toward me Boss
as if you tapped it with a switch
or clicked your tongue against your teeth
it's coming down the pasture soon
I'll hear the leather tackle squeak
I'll see your ankle swinging in
the stirrup Boss you ride the night
but you don't need to hurry no
you've been this way a time or two
before you've hauled your wagon full
of stars it's all old hat for you
you get here when you get here O
I guess you like the same old thing
it's funny but I like it too
I like it when you ride the night
across the sky as if it were
a nag a worn-out horse you don't
mind riding O you get along
your horse is made of silver Boss
it clips like sleep it clops like you


when I see the shadow of the hawk
but not the hawk itself do you know
what it feels like Boss a stone a stone
set on my chest it weighs me down
it's stronger than the horse's strain
against the plow lines Boss it's like
the river after rain I can't
hold back the pull the pull that makes
me like its heft I even like
the shadow's tiny yoke O Boss
I feel its curve around my neck
I see a flap of wings so black
it binds me to the furrows Boss
a shadow smarter than the sting
of a switch though it is lighter than
a feather though it is thinner than
a leaf that shadow stone is one
of many wonders Boss for all
the world it makes me think of you
you heavy thing you never move


I put my face against
the horse's shoulder Boss
I breathed into the frost
so white upon his coat
I saw the patch I left
a darker spot as dark
as darkness gets I let
the horse cut through the field
the spot was looking out
an empty eye unblinking
unblinking Boss which one
of us was that supposed
to be O was it you
so steady Boss or was
that patch of empty me

No comments: