Poet Maurice Manning’s fourth collection of poetry, The Common Man, continues the author’s love affair with rural life. Told through a series of unrhymed ballad couplets,The Common Man is Manning’s most tender tribute to his Appalachian home to date.
In Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, his first book which was published in the prestigious Yale Younger Poets series, Manning took on the persona of Lawrence Booth, a poor Southern young man. In his second, A Companion for Owls, Manning explored the life and legend of Kentuckian Daniel Boone. Bucolics, Manning’s third project, focused on the voice of a farm hand who addressed a deity he called “Boss.” The voice inCommon Man retains the unrefined passion and plain-spoken insight found in Bucolics. However, unlike the third collection, Manning takes on a narrative style. The poems in Common Man are typically stories, and sometimes far-fetched ones. Manning acknowledges the style that inspired him in his dedication. He dedicates the book to his grandmother, whom, he writes, “told me stories.” The book, then, follows that storytelling tradition.
Common Man at times reads like a Library of Congress archive, the poems a transcript of the scratchy dialects recorded on a research excursion. Manning employs dialect and syntax to create a rhythm of truncated gerunds and elided words, though he is judicious with its use. Manning saves the rural speech patterns for direct dialogue, and then only sparingly, as in the poem “Thunderbolt, My Foot.” The speaker’s father asks, “ . . . Hey! / you wanna hear a dirty lim’rick?” In the same poem, mosquitoes are “skeeters” and the speaker references his “double-great-granddaddy.” Manning preserves both structure and a natural rhythm by writing his verses in iambic tetrameter. This metrical format creates the framework for the language of the book.
To aid the illusion of front porch conversation, Manning inserts a need to grandstand among his characters. The speaker in “Thunderbolt, My Foot,” frames his story with a preamble that touts some of the fantastic details from the poem. The speaker then declares, “Besides, I’m wound up tighter than / a clock and it’s time to commence this tale!” Other poems begin with a hedging statement, such as in “A Man With a Rooster in His Dream,” in which the speaker warns he’s about to say something strange. “Giddyup, Ye Banties!” begins en media res, with a scatterbrained, “What have we been talking about?” This added detail may frustrate the reader, who only wants the speaker to “get on with it.” That effect creates setting, and makes the reader a direct participant in the poem.
The poems in this collection allegedly cover a range of experiences and peoples through many different voices, but Manning fails to differentiate clearly enough between perspectives. A single narrative voice takes hold in each poem. That voice is unpretentious. It expresses a wisdom rooted in heritage and the land. The voice itself compels the reader, but its repetition throughout dulls the narrative poems. One cannot read the entire book in one sitting without fatigue from Manning’s blanket use of this particular persona. This same problem plagues Manning’s third collection. The issue may arise as a reaction to the portrayal some authors give the Southern figure. The Appalachian archetype is an indigent ignoramus. Manning chooses the opposite extreme, and assumes every one is a philosopher. Common Man, like Bucolics, is a book best enjoyed in moderate doses.
Common Man succeeds as an elegy for a dying way of life. The poem “A Panegyric Against the Consolation of Grief” is the clearest expression of the book’s thesis. As well, it is the “heart” of this project, placed nearly half-way through the collection. In “Panegyric” Manning argues for the merits of grief. He equates grief with memory, and says for rural life, grief will soon be all that’s left. He writes, “. . . that scene is fading out, / little by little it’s being felled, / all felled, and it won’t be coming back.” Manning’s efforts in Common Man suggest a desire to preserve that rural scene, and to honor the dignity of its people.
Review by Angela Hatton