by

Monday’s Poem: ‘Provincial Thought,’ by Maurice Manning

 

We get things in our head, a sort
of wonder I suppose, a notion,
about where to stand on the hill to see
the white blur of a steeple eight
or maybe ten miles away
at the center of a country town
whose school has been consolidated,
and the little country store, where news
and gossip spread around and maybe
a local discovery was claimed
by one of the loafers there, is closed.
Going to find that spot on the hill
in order to see from a certain prospect
a world far enough away it seems
a symbol is a walk that brings
an important silence down on us.
You could say, I guess, it makes us think—
just walking up a hill to find
a part in the distance that looks familiar.
It makes me think that walking in silence
and going up to where the woods
have made an agreement to leave
an opening—that walk has become
a plain responsibility.
Yet it seems to be a kind of freedom.
One time, a pretty good while back,
I was walking up the little hill
early in the spring before
the leaves had laced the trees together,
and I looked down the hollow and saw
a solitary splay of white,
an early patch of dogwood blossom.
It looked farther away than it was;
it struck me as a symbol inside
another symbol, a silence inside
a silence, and another silence fell
on me.  The blossom patch was strange,
but it reminded me of something—
an old woman’s puff of breath,
or a white shadow, or maybe both.
It has seemed too much to think about,
an abundance too great for words
or the slower motions of my mind,
and that itself is now a thought,
lodged in a place of its own across
from a hill and in between a distance
of other hills and things unseen—
I’ve kept it there, and I will keep it,
from loyalty or sentiment
it doesn’t matter, I’m keeping it.

 

 

© by Maurice Manning.  Printed by permission of the author.

 

Maurice Manning is currently a Guggenheim fellow.  His fourth book of poetry, The Common Man, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2011.  Manning teaches in the M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and in the fall he will begin teaching at Transylvania University in Lexington.  He lives in Kentucky.

 

The Chronicle’s poetry blogger, Lisa Russ Spaar, notes:   In his essay “Tales Within Tales Within Tales” (1981), novelist John Barth writes that “we tell stories and listen to them because we live stories and live in them,” and that  “to cease to narrate, as the capital example of Scheherazade reminds us, is to die.”  Luckily most of us don’t have to spin tales with the life-or-death urgency of Scheherazade, but it is true that some people are better at telling stories than the rest of us.  Why do we heed certain voices, hanging on every breath, while the logorrhea of others makes us want to put the phone down on the desk and do our taxes, or suddenly remember a pressing reason—a shrink appointment, an elapsed parking meter—to absent the premises?

“Don’t sit at the piano,” Charles Wright has been known to say, “unless you can play.”  Maurice Manning, Wright’s fellow Appalachian poet and kindred pilgrim spirit in the realms of faith and doubt, can play.  By this, I mean that he can write. And he can tell a story. In the decade-plus-change since W.S. Merwin selected his Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions (2001) for the Yale Younger Poets Prize, Manning, a native Kentuckian, has, with a rare and credible humility, humor, and enviable formal mojo, authored four subsequent collections, each arrestingly fresh in its tellings.  A Companion for Owls:  Being the Commonplace Book of D. Boone, Lone Hunter, Back Woodsman, &c. (2004), for instance, is a series of persona poems in the voice of the eponymous figure—as myth, as man, as “ground”; Bucolics (2008) is a kind of vernacular breviary of untitled psalm/poems addressed to someone the narrator calls “Boss.”

Taking a close look at the tune and lyrics, so to speak, of Manning’s “Provincial Thought” may help account for the intimate hold his poems—seemingly simple and seemingly simply told, but concerned with complex spiritual and emotional wonderings—have over his many devoted readers. From the very start are three engaging factors—understatement, beginning with the title’s “provincial” (and its implication of something local and, if not naïve, then unpretentious) and reinforced by plain speech diction and colloquial qualifiers like “sort of” and “maybe” and “seems,” “I guess,” and “you could say”; the patient, peripatetic pacing of the four-stress lines; and a rich mix of pronouns (we, I, you—we’re all close, invested, and involved).

The story (the “thought”) Manning articulates in is not driven by plot; not a lot happens, at least not in any sort of real-time present, active way.  A speaker (and the reader, who is invited along) climbs a hill and stands in a place that allows him to see a steeple, “maybe ten miles away,” that is “at the center of a country town / whose school has been consolidated, / and the little country store, where news  / and gossip spread around and maybe / a local discovery was claimed / by one of the loafers there, is closed.”  Like Emily Dickinson’s certain slant of light, Manning’s steeple is a signal of “internal difference -  / Where the Meanings, are -,”  and these meanings, in the case of “Provincial Thought,” deepen into all that the steeple signifies: the town around it (“unseen” from this distance, but nonetheless understood),  the losses, closings, and changes that irrevocably alter a place and whose passing in actual time and enduring in imagination define who we are.

The libretto of this song, then, is an ostinato (< Italian, “stubborn”) re-turning to and exploration into the significance of

Going to find that spot on the hill
in order to see from a certain prospect
a world far enough away it seems
a symbol. . . ,
a recurring walk that, finally comes to feel for the speaker both like a “plain responsibility” and a “kind of freedom.” It is the tune, the music, of Manning’s lines, though, that lends the poem its subtle but primal magnetism, its aura of devotion.  As the speaker unfolds his tale within his tale within his tale,

 

I looked down the hollow and saw
a solitary splay of white,
an early patch of dogwood blossom.
It looked farther away than it was;
it struck me as a symbol inside
another symbol, a silence inside
a silence, and another silence fell
on me,

 

it is the closely keyed modulations of the vowels that hold and patiently mold the meditation, the long “o”s in particular—suppose, notion, loafers, closed, going, hollow, slower, own, motions—so that the word “symbol,” finally, seems itself to be a blossom patch, a puff of breath, or a white shadow, whatever it is that is “too much to think about, / an abundance too great for words / or the slower motions of my mind,” an entity that “is now a thought, / lodged in a place of its own” and that, whether “from loyalty or sentiment/ it doesn’t matter” (and that “from” is so deftly placed—are we keeping the symbol away from loyalty or sentiment or out of loyalty or sentiment, or both?) is now made manifest and in safe “keeping” by the poem.

Reading the work of Maurice Manning affects me with the mysterious force I feel reading Robert Penn Warren’s “Tell Me a Story”:  “Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood / By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard / The great geese hoot northward. . . . // I did not know what was happening in my heart.”  Penn Warren’s poem ends this way:

 

Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me story.

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight.

 

That in our century, our moment of mania, the “provincial thought” of Maurice Manning heeds this call is ample cause for heeding Manning’s poetic voice, as well.

 

*

 

N.B.  For the summer months, Lisa Russ Spaar will take a hiatus from her weekly “Monday’s Poem” postings, though she will present monthly columns on contemporary poetry.  The weekly poems and commentaries will resume in September.

 

 

(Photo by A.C.K.)

 

 

 

 

 

Return to Top