IN KENTUCKY, the muse might be an older boy who says, “Take ye a slash / o’ this — hit’ll make yore sticker peck out — “; or the muse might be the moonshine the boy hands over. Either way, Maurice Manning’s The Common Man begins with a hint of the illicit and a shot of whiskey. Such an initiation forecasts the diction, desire, and occasional delinquency that course through Manning’s fourth collection, which amasses to an oral history of the landscape and community that the poet has consistently and creatively plumbed. Manning’s earlier collections each coalesce around a specific figure: an imagined adolescent (Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions); Daniel Boone (A Companion for Owls); a breathless shepherd (Bucolics).
The eponymous speaker in The Common Man is part listener, whose poems are determined by others’ stories, and part bookish poet, whose titles — “The Old Clodhopper’s Aubade,” “A Panegyric Against the Consolation of Grief” — derive more from a library than a neighbor’s porch. Manning invokes poetic tradition to collide it with the poetry he finds in a place that’s home to pawpaw trees, philosophizing farmers, and even a talking horse. The resulting poems are a conscious mix of high and low. But more than Manning’s previous collections, this book is hellbent on narrative. Folksy, whip-smart, and self-aware, the speaker asks, “You reckon I could ever run out / of stories in my heart to tell?” The poems often unfold with the pacing and plainer syntax of prose, their lines predictably broken. Their turns occur in their turning on the reader, with metaphysically gesturing questions such as: “Were you / raised up with a beast beside you?” Or: “[M]aybe you’re thinking why / is this man so bent on darkness?” The speaker perforates the poems’ intense localness by implicating the reader in the community his poems shape, reminding her, “Part of me / resides out there, and part of you / is out there too. Let’s hope we’ve got / that much in common, a fair amount / if you think about it very long.”
The poems take on the burden of many sadnesses that transcend place: the sadness that comes from relying on a remote God, the sadness that comes from mourning an irretrievable past, the sadness that comes from longing for the love of a good woman. Though Manning dedicates this book to the memory of his grandmothers, the women in these poems are elusive, appearing only in the form of fantasy, comic relief, or some amalgam of the two. This reader wonders what stories they might tell, were they given more chances to speak.