Maurice Manning writes captivating characters, and the single speaker in his collection Bucolics is one. He is less character, however, than figuration – son of an archetypal foundation laid by Job, and Job’s derivative, Hamlet. While to place the overlay of archetype on any work is to simplify it, the collection’s many intersections with such archetypical heroes prompt useful discussion from which blooms Manning’s own unique hero.
The collection is a petition of poems, titled numerically, spoken in appeal by a lowly field worker to the higher power he calls “Boss.” The collection urges provocative questions about the usefulness of a higher power that is apathetic, negligent, and cruel. While Job’s struggles stem from a wind-and-lightning-bolt-wielding caricature of God, it was Job, not God, who emerged as the deeper character through the poetry that illustrated these tensions. Similarly, by giving voice to his shame, pain and wonder, Manning’s speaker unwittingly creates a three-dimensional world in the face of an absent leader who is void of dimension.
Much like Hamlet, an outgrowth of the Job archetype, Manning’s speaker seems forced into verbalization; he is someone who likely lacks the natural proclivity of expression. His lot in life is a humble one, he is naïve, and his speech is a jaunty collage of unpunctuated low diction that has a tone of spontaneity. He seems to be composing as he speaks, at times finding beauty in what he witnesses fortuitously, at other times inflamed with a frustration he is unable to mask. The lines, spry and variously rhymed, betray this jazz-infused spirit; it is a lyrical evolution of biblical verse.
Both Job’s poetry and Hamlet’s soliloquies comment on themselves, and Manning’s speaker acknowledges the vortex his own questions create (I never know what’s going to cross / my path O never what will make / me ask another question that’s / a question in itself.”) Fixed in the monologic form, the speaker’s internal wonder and doubt necessitate his expression, and create his poetry. The act itself precipitates the ongoing argument of poetry and religion. A didactic read of Bucolics leads to the conclusion that poetry is a figuration of religion and that religion, take away the compelling force to make it fact, is no more than poetry. (Perhaps read “tragedy” for religion for a more Platonic, less biblical reading.)
The monologic form also establishes the grand irony of the collection, which is emphasized by the speaker’s often desperate appeals to engage the mum Boss. Boss’ silence becomes a mounting obstacle as the collection progresses; at times it is even tyrannical. The speaker wonders about Boss’ trousers, what he keeps in his pockets, and his seasonal schedule, and accuses him of being a birdbrain, a gambler, and a heartless manager. (His habit of familiarizing his god is also suggestive of Job.) The dramatic irony creates the gap in which the reader can comfortably turn the questions asked by the speaker on herself.
It is a dramatic, not a verbal irony – the speaker himself seems to be a victim of irony, as Job is a victim of an ironic God: Job’s own lack of irony only serves to exacerbate his struggle. Free from irony, Manning’s speaker’s hope at times undoes him, and at times it is his lifeline. The question of how human beings can become slaves (the servile, impulsive use of “Boss” implies both this power structure and racial divide) to an idea is inescapable. The speaker provides one answer as he admits he needs Boss to “tell him what to do.” Boss is in many ways a necessary fiction.
In the following poem, the speaker’s dream seems to accentuate his own powerlessness against understanding, that is, the limits of his own head. The desire for freedom played against confining boundaries is a recurring theme for the speaker as he struggles to know what is outside of his only known realm.
there was a fox Boss in my dream
last night a fox the color of
the field before it wakes to green
I didn’t know there was a fox
about until it moved until
it moved like it was sliding Boss
it slid across a furrow then
I barely saw it sliding to
the woods sliding to the river Boss
I never know what’s going to cross
my path O never what will make
me ask another question that’s
a question in itself I’d like
to know why everything is stuck
in the middle Boss of something else
why the fox was stuck inside my dream
though it was making for the river
do you make nothing Boss but questions
did you set that fox inside my head
did you lay that field behind my eyes
(c) Maurice Manning
This poem courtesy of Harcourt Inc.