Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bossing the pastoral

The word "bucolic" doesn't exactly conjure up excitement, whether we're using it to describe country life or a pastoral poem. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I would describe many of Mary Oliver's poems as "bucolic" and I like many of her poems very much. Some of the most beautiful poems I know don't exactly have a lot happen in them, and that's a good thing. I love the idea of poetry as a study of the moment -- a keen eye, if you will. What I love about a poem is how it can sheer through distraction and focus on a sliver of life. Like how cupping your hands to the sides of your face narrows the world and lets you see things apart from the whole. How we see (and what we notice) what is outside of us tells us a lot about what's inside, which is why Wordsworth's daffodils matter, for example.

There is no reason, therefore, not to like Bucolics, a collection of poems by Maurice Manning. To be honest I didn't know much about it before I received it as a gift from my Amazon wish list-trolling brother (thank you, Brian). I added it to my wish list because I must have read some poems somewhere by Manning that I really liked. In any case they were not like the poems in Bucolics. Not that the poems in this book are bad. And not that I don't have the capability to like them (see above).

To be clear, I don't dislike this book, it just didn't always hold my attention. The book, 78 untitled and unpunctuated one-sided conversations with God, or, as Manning calls him, "Boss," is patently inoffensive and often very pretty. And I like the cadence of the poems. I actually like the lack of punctuation. It accentuates this kind of curious, almost childlike voice. In fact, I often pictured the speaker as Lennie from Of Mice and Men (it's been years since I've read that book, so in reality the voices are probably nothing alike).

But maybe 78 poems worth is just too much. Maybe I would have liked this better as a chapbook. A shorter collection of the stronger poems here would be a good thing, I think. That way Manning could weed out the received language that crops up in so many of the poems. I understand that the language matches the voice of the speaker, but I found the regular occurrence of things like "pull my leg" and "I've had it up to here" and "against the grain" and "lighter than a feather" grating. In such concise poems these terms really stuck out like a sore thumb (and he probably uses that one, too, somewhere in here).

The whole "Boss" thing gets a little too cutesy at times. I get it, okay? He's Boss, he's the boss of the world. I don't need the Boss bossing in every other poem.

But when Manning is on, he's on, and there are some strokes of brilliance in Bucolics where the connection between the speaker and the higher power he's speaking to is clear and direct. Here's one of my favorites:

I told that old dog he
could hush Boss I said
there now you're just having
a shaky little dream dream
a dream dream Boss how
about that talking to a dog
that way there there it's just
a little dream dream you
don't have to whimper that's
what I can't stand Boss
to see an old dog whimper
what's in an old dog's dream
dream anyway some rabbits Boss
or barking up a tree say do
you ever have a dream dream
Boss are you running after or
away from me tell me sometime
if your big feet ever twitch

(Maurice Manning, from Bucolics, 2007 Harcourt)

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