Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Kentucky Poets Week: Maurice Manning

I am a great fan of poetry written in the voice of another. I once wrote a series of poems in the voice of Tallulah Bankhead. (Did you know she had an affair with Billie Holiday? They had a falling out because Billie mentioned it to a biographer and Tallulah never forgave Billie before she died. But she did bring two dozen roses to her funeral.) A poet gets to think like an actor, to get inside the head of whomever it may be, and - with no script - to say the poem-worthy things that person may have thought.

Today's poet wrote an entire lovely book in the voice of Daniel Boone, who explored the state of Kentucky. I feel like I learned more about the pioneer from this book than I ever did in history classes and yet, as the late, magnificent Kentucky poet James Baker Hall puts it on the back cover of the book, "For all their tale-telling these poems are more often meditation and prayer than story."

Me being me, one of my favorite poems from this book is just such a meditation - on time. From (page 8 of) his great work A Companion for Owls: Being the Commonplace Book of D. Boone, Long Hunter, Backwoodsman, &c. I give you Maurice Manning.

The Meaning of Time

On occasion I would meet an Indian
in possession of a broken pocket watch
(one no doubt bartered from the British or
plundered from a dead settler), who had
no idea he held a device to measure minutes
and hours, who had no notion of gears
and had a one-sided concept of springs:
simple objects of flow, mouths spilling out
the watery secrets of the netherworld.
Would such an Indian study the frozen
hands and face to see how long it takes
to make a fire, gut a buffalo? Is sunlight
dripping on the leaves a question suitable
for clocks? Can a wounded man be spoken
of in terms of neutral hours? Is the whole
world endlessness? Yes, it is. The world
is endless cause and need, slow motion
and design. The world is irreversible,
no matter how much you let it tick down:
a white man boiling berries, tying and retying
his purse strings; a red man staring at the sky;
a silver case flashing moonlight: there is no
measure or meaning in this low world:
the present is always passing away; what matters
is nature, with even-tempered mischief, always
breaking her own rules, like a child at play.


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