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Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 10.03.21 PMMaurice Manning’s poetry in his 2010 col­lection “The Common Man” is an invi­tation to con­verse with the unique voices of his rustic Ken­tucky home. Manning uses each poem as an oppor­tunity to narrate a single tale. But beyond merely relating events, his nar­rators sing of them­selves, their con­crete per­son­al­ities and manners, and their rela­tion­ships to their neighbors, the natural world, and the Divine.

Reading these poems can feel like a face-to-face encounter with a fully-realized persona that tugs on your ear or wafts across a fire. The collection’s com­bi­nation of con­spir­a­torial, illicit, or leg­en­darily scan­dalous activ­ities with phi­los­o­phizing creates a mar­velous friction. For instance, the first poem begins with a swig of moon­shine that pro­vokes reflection on family, place, and sto­ry­telling. In poems like “That Durned Ole Via Neg­ativa,” meta­physical and Ken­tuckian worlds collide as an audibly une­d­u­cated, ungram­matical speaker med­i­tates on the tran­sience of a painful world: “You can’t say naw / without the trickle of a smile. / … / Down in / that gloomy sadness always is / a hope.… My, / but we’re in a lonesome country now. / I wonder if we ever leave it? / We could say yeah, but wouldn’t we / be wiser if we stuck it out / with naw.”

The voices’ unprac­ticed air lends them a real quality. The nar­rators hes­itate, recon­sider, digress, and dis­tract them­selves, all the while revealing the sig­nif­i­cance each moment they relate has rep­re­sented in their own stories. As Manning’s opening poem con­cludes, “This was the first time I heard the story / I was born to tell. The first time I knew / That I was in the story too.”

The idioms, myths, and set­tings of Manning’s native coun­tryside furnish each poem with a pur­poseful def­i­n­ition that makes the tales acces­sible

and imme­diate, giving access to the per­sonal and com­munal history of Manning’s Ken­tucky childhood. These are poems best read out loud, and slowly, in a group. Solitary reading can make the nar­ra­tives feel repet­itive and for­get­table, however evocative on their own.

Many of Manning’s poems are about the natural world and about God, betraying the poet’s con­fessed inspi­ration from Gerard Manley Hopkins. Poems such as “Prayer to God my God in a Time of Des­o­lation” are addressed through the narrator’s com­pli­cated rela­tionship with a remote God, who bears ques­tions and accu­sa­tions drawn from the struggle of the prayer-giver to under­stand himself as he was created. Others are honest and comic tales of country life retold by their more bookish, but sym­pa­thetic, hearer, whose lit­erary titles might some­times con­trast with his subject matter — for example, “The Old Clodhopper’s Aubade” or “Ars Poetica Shaggy and Brown.”

More of Manning’s per­son­ality is revealed in med­i­ta­tions on animals, which take special sig­nif­i­cance for anxious nar­rators more at home among farm­stock than with their broken or fragile rela­tions with neighbors and family.

The unpre­ten­tious verse of “The Common Man” is no excuse for Manning to avoid reflection on perennial poetic sub­jects, and the acces­si­bility of his rhythmic cou­plets means this col­lection is easy to rec­ommend to lovers of poetry.