Book Review: One Man’s Dark (Manning)

Maurice Manning. One Man’s Dark. Port Townsend, Wa.: Copper Canyon Press, 2016. 110 pages. Hardcover. $23.00.

On the cover of One Man’s Dark, Maurice Manning’s superb new collection of poems, appears a sepia photograph of the interior of an empty tobacco barn, sunlight visible
on and through the spaced boards of the barn’s far wall. That photograph, like Manning’s poems, reflects the rural Appalachian world in which this poet is grounded, the barn’s emptiness indicative of the ongoing erosion of rural life, a recurring concern in Manning’s often elegiac poetry. Yet the radiating light in the photo attests to the underlying optimism of his writing and to the celebratory, visionary impulse that pervades the book, a stance apparent in the volume’s epigraph, a verse from the prophet Isaiah: “I will sing for my beloved my love-song about his vineyard.” For Manning, that beloved is ultimately the Creator of nature, about whom he writes, “God gave us a green world”, green being the dominant color throughout this collection, although Manning acknowledges, too, the “dimming green” that results from humanity’s assault on nature. In the face of environmental destruction, One Man’s Dark emphasizes human beings’ dependence on both nature and the divine, and thus the book is filled with poignant descriptions of nature’s beauty—especially that of woods, hills, rivers and streams, rain, and various birds—as well as with explicit references to God and to “wondering / about a world you cannot see”, including “all the unseen underneath” natural phenomena.

According to Manning, One Man’s Dark is the final volume of a trilogy that began with The Common Man (2010) and continued in The Gone and the Going Away (2013). The latter collection’s concluding poem, “The Prayer,” addresses God as “Lord of all greening, / Lord of night,” while this new book’s first poem, “The Pinch,” opens with similar religious language:

Here in Kentucky, a world and, yet,
a second, unknowable world are drawn
almost together between God’s thumb
and famous, animating finger.

It’s a tight place, but I’ve seen it—
believe me, I see it every day.

The monosyllabic diction of this quotation’s fifth line underscores the speaker’s confidence in his experience of this liminal place that yokes seen and unseen, the natural and the supernatural, the knowable and the ineluctably mysterious. The flexible, unrhymed iambic tetrameter of these lines recurs throughout the book’s forty-six poems and is perhaps Manning’s favorite meter, one that he described in an interview published in the Iron Mountain Review as “more a measure of the way we speak now” than iambic pentameter. The pinch of this poem’s title suggests complication or difficulty, but it also recalls the proverbial action that helps determine whether one is asleep or awake. In Manning’s work, however, awakening often involves acquiring both a sense of wonder and, paradoxically, the capacity to dream. Many of the poems in this collection recount dreams or mention assorted dreams: “the dream to make the world whole / by my [the poet’s] dream, and a dream before my own / remembered”; “a human dream of redemption”; and what the speaker of the book’s final poem calls “my love-dream”. In Manning’s work the term “dream” denotes both the energy of the human imagination in its mythopoeic activity and the limitations of human reason, as when he writes, “but logic has an end—it ends / in the woods, it ends inside a dream”. Human vision, he implies, must embrace the visionary if it is to begin to grasp the significance of the wonders amidst which people find themselves, for “the dream illuminates the real,” just as fiction and poetry do. In the act of creation, God also dreams, perhaps the very “dream before my own” to which Manning refers, for he presents the woods as “God’s idea, the living dream / with nothing as its precedent”. This is Manning’s version of creation ex nihilo.

Lest these remarks lead readers of this review to conclude, falsely, that One Man’s Dark is all too mystical or ethereal, I would hasten to assure those readers that the collection incorporates a wide range of poems, some of them primarily meditative and philosophical, others predominantly descriptive or narrative. Manning is a gifted storyteller who slights neither the physical world nor the metaphysical, yet who fills this book with a whimsical assortment of often-humorous characters, some of whose names clearly verge on the allegorical: Mister Key, Sylvanus Shade, Jonsee Ponder, Jonah Payne, Lucian (“Luce”) Loving, along with Loving’s antagonist, the demonic Elder Sinkhorn. In this connection, moreover, in the volume’s sixth poem Manning mentions a book titled Progress?—the question mark challenging most Americans’ assumption (at least till recently) about the inevitable course of history. This early use of the word “progress” also seems meant to allude to John Bunyan’s famous allegory and to the poet’s own pilgrimage, for in several of the poems the speaker is portrayed in motion, walking towards or into some new experience or revelation. One of the major challenges Manning sets himself is that of effectively articulating such moments of grace or of mystical communion, a challenge he successfully meets time and again in such poems as “Patch of Light in Deep Woods,” “Obedience,” “Stream at Night,” and “Amid the Flood of Mortal Ills Prevailing,” that last title a phrase from Martin Luther’s great hymn “A Mighty Fortress.”

Accompanying Maurice Manning through this collection is rewarding exercise indeed, whether he depicts a moment of illumination like that in “A Field of Tiger Lilies in Kentucky,” or recounts the anguish of remorse in “Something to Say about Possums,” or contemplates “the love beyond our love” in “The Woodcock,” a species of love that another poem professes “shall reach beyond all reason, / beyond return and understanding”. For Manning, “Faith and love are seeds to plant / in the mystery of Time”, his capitalization of Time endowing it with an aura of the sacred and highlighting its identity as a divine gift. One Man’s Dark is a major achievement, and Maurice Manning is a major American poet speaking from the heart of Appalachia.

John Lang is the author of Understanding Fred Chappell, Six Poets from the Mountain South, and most recently, Understanding Ron Rash. A Professor of English Emeritus at Emory & Henry College, where he taught from 1983 to 2012, Lang also edited The Iron Mountain Review for twenty years and coordinated the Emory & Henry College Literary Festival for twenty-five years.

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