The Gone and the Going Away

DEEP INTO THE long title poem of his 1916 book The Man Against the Sky, Edwin Arlington Robinson makes passing reference to what he calls “the book of things that are forgotten,” to which, he believes, most of human experience (and our “airy monuments” to it) has been or will be shoulder-shruggingly conscribed. And while in that poem and in his more famous Tilbury Town sketches, to which Maurice Manning’s poems have been frequently compared, Robinson fearlessly describes and laments the people and places that he feels his early twentieth-century America has left behind, he does not hold out hope for preserving or reclaiming the world that has slipped away. Manning, however, in his exceptional new collection, which describes and peoples the fictional Fog Town Holler, is dead set on actively recovering his portion of that world—specifically rural Kentucky, but also our larger collective heritage as members of individual place-based communities, natural and human, whose stories, languages, and landscapes define not only the past but also the present.

Manning understands what Robinson saw already a century before—an urbanized and relentlessly “modern” world that seems more and more “without a meaning.” He tries to counter it by desperately sketching and resketching the meaning he knows is stubbornly hanging on in our small communities, in our memories and family trees, in the grasses and wildflowers native to the places we were born. And he does it magically. If Manning’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist The Common Man was a kind of extended monologue, this new book is full of voices—stories, lectures, hearsay, tall tales, myths, half-tankas, songs, and dreams celebrating and recreating life, family, and spirit in Fog Town. The poems all share the same first-person narrator, but we hear a multiplicity of perspectives and considerations. In a typical example of the book’s shorter lyrics, “The Man Who Ate the Collard Greens,” Manning ponders joy and plenty:

And danged if I didn’t
eat the hell out of

some collards. I even hollered,
Hiyah, big woman! No telling

what all I cooked up
next I was so happy.

This sort of compressed jubilation is then balanced by a poem like the book’s long title poem, where Manning, maybe here for a moment like Robinson, soberly tells the reader that the world he lives in now, one that doesn’t always remember the sustaining joys he’s been reminding us of,

. . . feels flattened out;
it isn’t simple or difficult,
it is a world of wanting more,
but tired of having all it has.

No exuberant enjambment here, no more big women either. And such push and pull between humor and dread, life and death, bathos and pathos, old and young, country and deeper country, slowly becomes the central force of Manning’s book. By its end, the reader almost doesn’t know whether laughing and crying might not be just about the same thing, and Manning is betting that somewhere in that confused and unsettled emotional reaction is the key to our not forgetting what meaning this world really does have left.

He may well be trying to keep himself from forgetting too. This poet/narrator is by no means some all-seeing hillbilly prophet come down to teach us sad readers a thing or two about our rural past—instead his voice is more pleading, begging what’s past and present to teach him and to stay. Manning dreams a lot in this book, and in one such dream poem he imagines a kind of heaven for himself in a homeplace. He conjures up a time when

. . . The ghosts
will wake, the children will have names;
they’ll make a circle and set it turning,
then draw me in it, too, singing,
O, how lovely is the evening,
that gloomy song, that mountain round
with all the ding-dongs at the end.

In this vision, Manning, in a way, imagines forever unforgetting the past that Robinson thought was gone. He’s saved himself with the most basic of things—a place, its people, and one of its songs. Here, and in all of these surprising and skillful poems, he may just be trying to save the rest of us too.