Maurice Manning,
A Companion for Owls: Being the Commonplace Book of D. Boone, Long Hunter, Back Woodsman, &c.
(Harcourt, 2004)

Maurice Manning is a native of Kentucky, which makes it not terribly surprising that A Companion for Owls, his second collection of poems, has as its genesis the life of Daniel Boone. The book is cast as a journal in verse, philosophical in tone -- the voice of someone who was, in all our legendry, the embodiment of the natural man, the archetype in American mythology of the frontiersman.

This book is immersed in the life of Boone, which is perhaps one of the things that gives Manning's poems such authority: he explicates on some of the events in an extensive section of notes, and there is even a group of poems titled "Letters from Squire," Boone's brother, commenting on historical events. Manning also adds an interesting speculation on Boone's possible influence on the English Romantic poets that is well worth reading. I do not, however, want to give the impression that this is a narrative of any sort: the history is referential; the poems themselves are, as James Baker Hall points out, "more often meditation and prayer than story."

Poetry can be difficult to describe; for one thing, the most important part of poetry is what happens around and between the words, those meanings to which the words are clues, but seldom anything as clear as signposts. Manning's works in this volume pose a slightly different problem: the words are so completely concrete, so much part of the daily world, that it can be easy to miss what lies under them; Manning, fortunately, gives us ready openings to the meanings within. In some ways I am reminded of Robert Frost in such works as "Death of a Hired Man" or others from that period. There is a full measure of that sense of here-and-now, of daily life lived in everyday terms, of meanings encompassed in an uninflected, understated relation of those events that lead us to ponder our lives (as, indeed, any event might).

Manning's Boone is a profoundly sceptical man, pragmatic, open, in many ways possessed of an admirable innocence, although certainly not in any way naive, an ideal creature who, while not particularly nonjudgmental, saved his judgments for the times they were appropriate. There is an overarching sense of impatience with the follies of humanity -- not our intrinsic folly, that stems from being the imperfect creatures we are (there is full acceptance of that), but an impatience directed, rather, toward our pretensions that we are other than imperfect, that we are somehow better than the world in which we live. There are almost too many examples throughout this collection of this attitude, as in one of the last poems, "On Freedom," which ends:

... his final word
was to take it back, his heart a broken treaty,
a paper promise torn in two and tossed
aside: man's chaff is well-recorded, but
the quill he used -- from a turkey's speckled tail,
or an eagle's wing -- was a gift from the king of the sun.

Or again, in the preceding poem, "Notes on 'The Natural Man'":

... and it doesn't take long before your
conscience gets sticky, as if someone poured molasses
in your powder horn; and now, however far west I go,
I've got three dead Indians on my soul: What kind
of civilization is that?

This scepticism is directed against "civilization" and its pretensions, against our ability to choose the dross from the richest of treasures, from a man who spent his life within a level of reality that is not only foreign to us today, but may very well have been foreign to the "civilization" he was leaving behind. The contrast with Boone's own immense compassion and generosity of soul is compelling.

These are not poems that are necessarily easy (indeed, they are often quite discomforting), nor are they particularly cheerful (although sometimes wickedly, mordantly humorous) but they are extraordinarily rich, not only in the idea of the life of Daniel Boone but in their reflections on what life is really about, or perhaps what it should really be about. Manning has a way of turning on you, leading you along a perfectly innocent path until you find yourself on the edge of a precipice (and in this case, particularly, as Manning's Boone remarks, "Falling is not so much a danger as/it is profoundly tempting."). Manning's Boone is a God-fearing man, but also a man who is not so much conventionally pious as one who is deeply in tune with God's creation, which perhaps contributes to his propensity for irreverence. The best summation is Manning's own, from "On Being Raised Quaker":

I never saw the need to make my peace with God,
since I never felt we disagreed.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 29 January 2005

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