A review by Mary Kaiser

Take any sequence of lyric poems, say Keats’s five great odes. Try not to read them as the story of a twenty-four-year-old poet confronting his own death. Try reading Sappho’s ecstatic fragments without stitching them into a series of erotic encounters. Try reading Sylvia Plath’s posthumous collection Ariel without looking for clues to her suicide.

The formalists cautioned against it, but we can’t help reading a series of poems as story. The narrative-hungry imagination reads any group of texts as a beginning, middle and end the way a magnet aligns a jumble of iron filings.

Maurice Manning uses this narrative magnetism to great advantage in his latest collection, A Companion for Owls:Being the Commonplace Book of D. Boone Long Hunter, Back Woodsman, &c. Roughly two-thirds of the poems are dramatic monologues, but interleaved among them are lyrical poems. Taken out of context, the lyrics, like the first poem “On God,” can be read as the product of a contemporary American poetic voice. But within the narrative force-field of the collection, the lyrics are energized with the voice of “Long Hunter, Back Woodsman,” Daniel Boone.

Why Daniel Boone? Because, Manning writes in the essay that closes this collection, “if ever there were a Noble Savage, surely it is Boone.” In fact, he goes on to argue that Boone could plausibly have been the image of English Romanticism’s solitary man in communion with the wilderness, free of the class conflict and political turmoil.

The Daniel Boone in Manning’s poems, however, is no Byronic hero. He might be disaffected by Jeffersonian democracy, but he is neither alienated nor alone. Married, the father of twelve children, friend of the Indian, he is an alert observer of his fellow men, and makes no claim to transcend the common human condition. In fact, in “To the Discovery Corps,” addressing Lewis and Clark, Boone inveighs against pride, calling it the most dangerous of all temptations, “of which I know/ no greater darkness, none.”

Manning gets the voice of Daniel Boone exactly right in these poems. It’s clean, sensuous, rigorously rational, rising to lyricism from a firm foundation of observation laid on bedrock of healthy skepticism. The voice of Daniel’s brother Squire appears in letters, the idiosyncratic spelling functioning as dialect: “What her you of Jeffersones kinsmen/ who bucherred and burnt up a Slave/ the night God so fercely shook the Erthe?” Manning’s faithfulness to the language of Boone’s time extends even to titles that resonate with the formal candor of eighteenth-century poetry, as in “On the Property of Magnetism,” “Advice to Rovers, and “A Description of a Crude Machine.”

If Maurice Manning’s Boone foreshadows the English Romantics, he also presages the Transcendentalism of Thoreau and Whitman. When Boone concludes in “On Being Raised Quaker” that “I never saw the need to make my peace with God,/ since I never felt we disagreed,” he’s paraphrasing Thoreau’s words on his deathbed.

Although he lived through the American Revolution, Daniel Boone participated very little in the debates of that period; he seemed more interested in the actual landscape than in theorizing about America. Manning’s Boone, who asks “What in the name of Shadrach, Meshach, and that other one/ is an inalienable right?” might agree with Thoreau that “it is not many moments that I live under a government, even in this world.”

Boone also echoes Whitman throughout the collection, with one poem, “A Contemplation of the Celestial World,” a beautiful homage to Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” At a deeper level, Boone’s embrace of physicality, his celebration, with Whitman, of “the flesh and the appetites,” pervades these poems, as for example in these lines from “Sheltowee”: “Captivity/ is not the word that I would use when women/ place a string of beads around your neck/ and giggle to themselves.” When Boone compares a landscape to the “taut thighs of a woman giving birth,” we can see in this language the slippage between the historical Boone discussed in the closing essay and the imagined Boone of the poems. As a poetic creation Boone can appropriate a frank rhapsodic diction unavailable to his historical counterpart.

Maurice Manning’s Daniel Boone is a big man, with one foot in the frontier imagination of the eighteenth century and the other firmly planted in a post-modern consciousness of all that would be lost–magnificent herds of bison, free bands of Indians, undiscovered landscapes, and most of all the chance, when all your schemes come to naught, to light out once again for the territories.

Mary Kaiser serves as poetry editor for Red Mountain Review. The book is A Companion for Owls:Being the Commonplace Book of D. Boone Long Hunter, Back Woodsman, &c. by Maurice Manning. Harcourt, 2004.

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