That line from George Herbert opens Bucolics, Maurice Manning's third book.
Haunting and funny, innovative and heartening, this collection of seventy untitled, unpunctuated poems features a nameless land laborer talking to his creator, whom he calls 'boss.' Not a religious book in the traditional sense, this is rather one of questions, wonder, and, at times, sadness. The poems move like a reverie and it strikes deep. I swallowed big pieces of this book when I first picked it up; as I neared the end, I took it in tiny sips, not wanting my first read to be over so soon. And while the book is a smooth, easy read, it's as deceptively simple as a psalm.
The fourth poem reads:
are you every sorry Boss ever
have a problem ever get
shamefaced stuff your hands
in your big boss pockets
it’s never easy is it Boss never
boss ever get a slow start ever
feel like you’re at the end
of the line the end of your rope
have you ever had it up to here
wherever that is on you I know
it’s high up to your neck Boss
the top of your head you must
be tall to take it all the way
you do taller than the top
of the moon Boss O I wonder
what you see when you look up
But I don't like excerpting that one poem, because Bucolics is very much a collection. While Manning published individual poems in literary magazines, it's hard for me to imagine their singular impact. Each gathers strength from the poems that surround it, and I'm glad I was first introduced to this work as a whole. The narrative is catalyzed by juxtaposition; emotion hangs in the breaks between poems and lines. Funny little rhythms and syntactical reocurrance tell big stories. I haven't read anything like this before.
I'm not the only one who was a little bewildered by my encounter with this book. Poet Andrew Hudgins described this as " seamless and utterly contemporary melding of Virgil, Hesiod, the Bible, folk songs, labor songs, and God knows what all else into something new and wonderful." I'd add that the collection is firmly grounded (so to speak) in the soil of the Earth. The patterns of nature and of the narrator's work with animals and dirt are echoed in this extended poetic cycle. And if that sounds too serious for your taste, know that these poems are webbed with humor.
I wonder if that horse’s spots are real
or painted on it makes me smile
to think about it Boss even
field hands need a laugh or two
a rusty riddle a twisty tongue
I wouldn’t put it past you O
you sneaky devil you cutup Boss
I heard once that the more you like a piece of writing, the more tempted you are to demonstrate its virtues by simply quote from the thing. As is the case for me now. After Lawrence Booth's Book of Visions and A Companion for Owls: Being the Commonplace Book of D. Boone, Long Hunter, Back Woodsman &c., Bucolics affirms Manning as my very favorite living poet. And I'd like nothing more than to put a copy of his poems in your hand.
If it sounds like I'm gushing, maybe I am. So let me shift to urgency: Read this book. Now