A Kingdom of Mediacy: On Maurice Manning and Snakedoctor

/ /

by Maurice Manning
(Copper Canyon Press, 2023, 111 pp. $18)

I recently visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and found myself lingering before the Triptych from the Chapel of Notre Dame des Sceaux. Other works in the gallery were no less deserving of my attention, but the sheer number of them tempted me to rush along. It was the triptych’s form that prompted me to linger. Each of the three panels can stand alone as a work of art, but its full meaning is mediated only by the presence of the others. So, instead of quickly moving on, I gazed beyond one panel before going back to it in a rich cycle of departure and return.

I enjoy a similar experience when reading Maurice Manning’s poetry. With each new book, I find myself reaching for previous ones and discovering ways that the new elucidates the old (and vice versa) through various overlapping themes, images, terms, and symbols. I suppose some of this mutual-coherence comes inadvertently from Manning’s personal and poetic development, but much of it is by design.

Like a painter of triptychs, Manning has tended to work in threes. In an interview with Still: The Journal, he explains that his first three books—Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions (2001), A Companion for Owls (2004), and Bucolics (2007)—“work as a trilogy” which, despite stark differences in subject matter and style, offers “three perspectives on the same thing.” He describes in similar terms his second trilogy of books: The Common Man (2010), The Gone and the Going Away (2013), and One Man’s Dark (2017).

“Those two trilogies were rather exhausting,” Manning confesses to Marianne Worthington in a interview for Appalachian Heritage. “There will always be some connections between my books, but the idea of playing looser is appealing to me.” He certainly broke new ground in his subsequent book, Railsplitter (2019), but with the publication of his latest collection, Snakedoctor (2023), Manning seems poised to pull off not just another trilogy, but a remarkable trilogy of trilogies (or triptych of triptychs, if you will). Whether Manning intends Snakedoctor to be the second book of a third trilogy isn’t clear. Yet, to use his description of his first trilogy, Railsplitter and Snakedoctor sure seem to offer “different perspectives on the same thing.”

In its subtitle, Manning describes Railsplitter as containing his Reflections on the Art of Poetry Composed in the Posthumous Voice of Honest Abe Lincoln, Former Pres., US. Yet many of the poems also raise questions about the nature and obligations of citizenship and the role of the poetic imagination in helping us mediate our sense of distance from time and place so that we can live healthy, meaningful lives. For one pithy example, consider the opening and closing lines of “On Silence”: “Poetry is the art of silence….and that is where I’ve tried to live.” A similar movement occurs throughout the collection—ars poetica implying ars vitae.

In ways much more personal and concrete, this same interplay animates the poems we encounter in Snakedoctor. Manning makes this philosophy explicit in “After Reading Charles Wright, I Turn Out the Light and Listen to the Rain”:

……………..I’ve wanted to believe that art
and life could share a common purpose—
the aesthetic implying the ethical,
a way of being and going on.

To understand the significance of this interplay to Snakedoctor—and to Manning’s poetry as a whole—we first need to consider why Manning frames these lines as a response to Charles Wright.

Manning’s personal and professional trajectory bears striking similarities to Wright’s. Both are Appalachian poets whose rural upbringings gave no indication they would one day become university professors and hold significant places in American letters. If literary justice is served, Manning will likely follow Wright in receiving national honors (The Common Man was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) and perhaps even in being named Poet Laureate of the United States. And, not coincidentally, Manning’s apparent trilogy of trilogies resembles Wright’s same achievement—though Manning’s unfinished project already surpasses Wright’s in several respects.

At a fundamental level, Manning’s work is set apart by his belief in the narrative quality of the world—a belief manifested in poetry that conveys self-forgetful wonderment at nature, a sincere longing for transcendence, and a quiet hope that beauty will last. His humility might prevent him from admitting any literary distinction, but Manning does admit some philosophical disagreement with Wright in an interview with Brian Brodeur for Literary Matters:

[Wright will] observe a landscape of great beauty and then crash it all with the notion that the beauty won’t last, or that the perceiver will die. I think his poems wrestle with that pang—we are capable of wonderful perception and can take in the beauties in the world and human experience, but we die and our sense of having had some sort of transcendent experience will both end and, in that end, won’t matter very much. I certainly see his point and admire how all of this plays out in his poems, but I don’t necessarily share his position.

We see Manning’s simultaneous admiration and disagreement at work in “After Reading Charles Wright…” After forty-seven lines of loose tetrameter, he flirts with the idea of abandoning formal constraints and following Wright’s characteristic free-verse before reaffirming his commitment to “the sense of meaning” that form conveys:

And I must free myself from the left
margin to let the line float
alive, symbolically, back and forth
or out of sight, like a leaf in water.
The figure, the phrase, alive to its own
…………………motion, entwined with the other motion
……………………………below, or popping up in the water
……………………………………..somewhere approaching the other side.
………………………………………………….Whatever is on the other side.
……………………………………..defining the space around it,
………………………………………………….even an awkward, absent
………….It looks like a dropped line to me—
I still can’t do it unconsciously,
and still can’t break it all apart
on purpose to leave the sense of meaning

Manning’s reluctance here to follow Wright’s free-verse isn’t a matter of mere aesthetics but arises from questions of personal identity, belonging, and responsibility: to what extent are we able to free ourselves from the “margins” of the world, so to speak—the boundaries that define our being—and live as unmediated selves? To what extent can we “leave the sense of meaning behind”?

Wright describes himself as a “God-fearing unbeliever.” Though his religious upbringing “left [him] with the glowing shards of things which have continued to dazzle at [him],” he tells the New York Times, he’s long-since left behind the sense of any God-conferred meaning to the world. In “Ancient of Days,” he compares the world to one of the hazy, indeterminate landscapes painted by the English Romantic, J.M.W. Turner, before describing his own ars poetica:

This is an old man’s poetry,
……………………………….written by someone who’s spent his life
Looking for one truth.
Sorry, pal, there isn’t one.

Unless, O my, whatever the eye makes out,
And sends us, on its rough-road trace,
To the heart, is part of it

Speaking to NPR, Wright elaborates on these lines: “how [the landscape and beauty of the world] affects us may be the one truth that there is.” Such relativity proves an ongoing hurdle for Wright because the aesthetic can imply the ethical only if the former has real content. Consider “Cicada” from Wright’s Chickamauga: it opens like a narrative but soon evolves into an imagistic contemplation on the “emptiness at the heart of being” and concludes “in the dark tree of the self.” Deprived of any objective ground for truth and beauty, the self is loosed from the margins, shifting back and forth across the pages of this world, in want of some place to belong.

Wright’s relativity helps explain why his poetry is so “utterly non-narrative,” as David Baker describes it. In his review of Chickamauga, Baker writes admiringly: “Almost nothing ever happens in a Charles Wright poem. This is his central act of restraint, a spiritualist’s abstinence, where meditation is not absence but an alternative to action and to linear, dramatic finality.”

Far from demonstrating restraint, however, Wright’s contemplative approach occasionally leaves the subjects of his poems buckling beneath the weight of unrestrained self-reflection and self-expression. In the absence of any dramatic finality, the poet must impose his or her self-authoritative gaze in order to “give the illusion of circularity and completion,” as Wright once advised students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Free-verse poets, especially, must impose themselves throughout their poems. Without the aid of formal boundaries such as meter or rhyme, “your job is to give the illusion of organization or the authority of organization,” Wright told the students before finally conceding: “I think your problem with form is unanswerable by me because I don’t know an answer. It is the question I work with all the time. How do you get disparate things and try to mold them into a—not whole—but unified series of parts?”

A similar metaphysical-aesthetic question lies at the very center of Snakedoctor, providing the gravitational weight that holds each poem—and perhaps all of Manning’s poetry—together. He asks it half-way through the title poem, “Snakedoctor”:

…………………………..Is there a way
to grasp it all, the joy, the grief,
and see it all together, not
as doom or fate, but as a whole
complete and plainly unified,
and a way to be alive in the world?

Manning’s question isn’t driven by idle metaphysical speculation but by a genuine existential need to hold together somehow his own joys and griefs. “A lot / of my childhood was filled with sorrow / …but once or twice it was magical,” he writes in “Mr. True”, a poem about the ups-and-downs of living with his alcoholic father who yet managed to teach him something about love. Manning wrote “Mr. True” in the fall of 2015 at a time of intensely intermingled joy and grief—the birth of his long-awaited daughter, Lillian, and the death of his father, Alex. “It was something of a blurry time last fall to be in the presence of life coming into the world and life coming out at the same view,” he shared at the 2016 Sewanee Writers’ Conference. “I’m still figuring out how to interpret that and what to make of it.”

The “blur” of the world is a term and theme that appears throughout Snakedoctor. In “Blue Hole,” Manning describes his “father’s father”—suggesting unfamiliarity—as one “lost in the blur of Time and grief”. In “Like Flicks of Flame,” newspapers leave a “blur of backward letters” on his hands, conveying the apparent senselessness of the world’s events. The blur isn’t always ominous, however: it emits a green “brightness” in “The Garden” and he likens his own poetry to “a field in early spring / with two or three blurry symbols” in “Turner.”

“Turner” reads like an indirect response to Wright’s own Turner poem, “Ancient of Days.” Yes, Manning agrees, our experience of the world can feel like we’re “living in a Turner painting, / a haunted cave of melody / so indistinct, almost unseen.” These lines echo others from “Snakedoctor”:

The mind approaches what this means,
this scene suggesting significance
beyond itself, but most of the time
it trickles down, below the realm
of memory and drips away
in the lightless cavern of consciousness.

Here, Manning depicts truth as something external to us. Our minds can approach a thing’s meaning, our thoughts might correspond to it, but its meaning isn’t reducible to its effect on us. Truth belongs to the particulars of the world. It can appear “as plain and silent as a banjo / hanging from a peg,” Manning writes in Railsplitter, or like “the rain / thump[ing] the bottom of the tub….I enjoy that kind of truth,” he muses in Snakedoctor (“I’ve Got Those Mean Old No. 10 Washtub Blues”).

Yet the meaning of a particular thing isn’t fully intelligible on its own. As with viewing each panel of a triptych, we approach a thing’s significance as we see what other things it signifies “beyond itself.” In his essay “On Poetic Truth”, philosopher H.D. Lewis explains, “An isolated fact, a unit or atom, cut loose from the universe, has no significance for the scientist, the philosopher, or the poet. It derives its significance from the reality to which it belongs.” Manning makes a similar claim in his uncollected poem, “Some Observations about Creation in Early Spring”: “I just can’t see one part / existing, or meaning really, without / requiring every other part / also to exist and to mean.”

Manning illustrates this principle throughout Snakedoctor, such as in “White Oak Shadow Half a Mile Away”—a poem he dedicates to Charles Wright. In language that evokes the “blur” of the world, he recounts seeing the shadow of a tree that, at a distance, looks only “like a smudge / of India ink” until, drawing closer, he makes out the true shape of the shadow and, beyond it, the “actual tree” it signifies until, finally, he sees the sunlight that makes such signification possible.

A similar three-fold process of signification occurs in “The Gospel of Happiness”, a kind of double-sonnet in loose, unrhymed tetrameter. Manning notices what, from a distance, appears to be a “useless and lonely” leaf on a barren branch. Yet, because it appears to move “by design,” he’s drawn beyond the shadowy appearance of the thing and discovers “the leaf wasn’t a leaf, but a wing, / and then [he] saw the rest of the bird, / the miracle, and was revived.” Note that what revives him isn’t the bird alone but what the bird signifies beyond itself: that even apparently useless and lonely things might be “part of the whole design.”

In “Two Shadows”, yet another three-fold signification occurs, but mediated this time by a purposeful, personal love. As Manning walks with his toddler-aged daughter, he plays games with his shadow, “tipping and twirling” and “show[ing] her how / to turn her shadow into a bird” so that “afterward, when she sees a shadow, / perhaps she’ll think of birds or me.” The implication seems to be that, just as his literal shadow signifies his loving presence, life’s proverbial shadows might be transfigured if we can see that a personal love stands behind them.

This interpretation is bolstered by “No-Nap Nelly,” an uncollected poem that Manning read immediately before “Two Shadows” at the 2017 Sewanee Writers’ Conference and that he may have omitted from Snakedoctor due to similarities between the two. Here, Manning uses his imagination to help his daughter attune the design of her humming to “the larger design in front of her,” the “living symphony” of the world, in which “even a wild, unruly creature like No-Nap Nelly can see it because, by love, she’s part of it” (n.b., because I don’t have a print copy, I’m guessing at the punctuation and capitalization).

At the Sewanee conference, Manning immediately followed his reading of “No-Nap Nelly” and “Two Shadows” with an early version of “Snakedoctor”—an ordering which suggests a thematic unity, with the latter poem perhaps serving as a gloss on the former two. Compare the previous lines from “No-Nap Nelly” with these opening lines from “Snakedoctor”:

This is a dream, in which the love
residing in the world because
creation is wholly by design,
returns to everything that is
or ever was…

What is the source of this love residing in the world, of which even wild, unruly creatures are a part? Manning omitted the line “because / creation is wholly by design” for the book version of “Snakedoctor”, but the title itself hints that this “love” carries religious connotations. He explains in the penultimate stanza:

I’ve called this poem “Snakedoctor”
because I found a dragonfly
elegantly dead on the steps
of a church I was about to enter,
and remembered snakedoctor was
the equally poetic word
some country people used to use
to name this mesmerizing bug.
Unmoving now, it resembles a cross,
an awkwardly disfigured cross.

Manning’s juxtaposition of “snakedoctor”, “dragonfly”, and “cross” is richly allusive. The cross, of course, alludes to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But Christ’s cross was foreshadowed by another biblical account of God using a brass snake on a pole to heal his snake-bitten people. In both cases, the image of a cross represents God’s enduring love for the world.

If Manning has this message in mind, he might also be alluding to another source: Will Campbell’s autobiography, Brother to a Dragonfly. In his interview with Still: The Journal, Manning discusses how Campbell’s story shaped him: “It spoke to me about my own experience very clearly and my familial history and the social world that I was part of in Danville [Kentucky] growing up….really informed my moral, political and even poetic views.”

In one particularly striking moment of Campbell’s autobiography, an atheist friend presses him to explain the Christian message in ten words or less, to which Campbell replies, “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.” Manning makes a similarly frank, tongue-in-cheek claim in the opening and closing lines of “Snakedoctor”:

This is a dream, in which the love
residing always in the world
returns to everything that is
or ever was—even to you,
Marvella Hall, so tall and strict,
my teacher in first grade

I wanted you to know that you are loved,
you are loved, you are loved, you horsy old woman.

To all the wild, unruly creatures of the world—Marvella Hall, Charles Wright, himself, his daughter, and us—Manning sings a gospel of love. However, he adds a caveat halfway through the poem: “love resides in the world. / But you have to look for it, and your heart / must open its metaphysical door / and then the love swoops in like a swallow.”

This looking for (and leaving behind) signs of love in the world is Manning’s relentless aim throughout Snakedoctor. In various grammatical forms, “see” appears more frequently than any other term. And if we count synonyms—look, notice, imagine (as internal sight), etc.—this motif eclipses all others. But mostly, it’s his use of narrative, metaphor, simile, imagery, and other figures of speech and thought that conveys our need to look, to use our various means of sight to mediate our sense of distance from the world and from the “love residing always” in it.

This sense of distance assumes various guises in Snakedoctor—geographical, temporal, cultural, cognitive, spiritual, etc. But mediating these distances requires first that we mediate our false sense of metaphysical distance from the world. None of us belongs to ourselves, so we can’t derive our significance from internal realities alone. As with shadows and trees and everything else in the world, our existence and meaning “requir[es] every other part / also to exist and to mean.” Each of us is but a “part of the whole design,” the “living symphony” that God is conducting and has made us to join. As Manning puts it in “The Gospel of Music,” God is a like “serious banjo player / with an inscrutable face, who said / to everything alive, I made / the world for singing. Now, you sing.

In the imperative “you sing”, we can sense Manning working out one of the ethical implications of his art. Just as he has a fatherly duty to expand his daughter’s vocabulary for the world (“The Gospel of Music”), it’s his poetic duty to expand his (and our) vocabulary for joy in a world with so much grief. In an uncollected poem, “Sunrise in the Underworld”, which was published around the same time that “The Gospel of Music” was written, Manning acknowledges this duty explicitly:

I mean, some mornings you cannot stop
yourself from looking around and being
convinced there is a God who made
the world and I am living in it.
There must be something good in that.
One of my duties is to speak
of joy—in the face of everything
against it. I’m speaking of it now.

Here, Manning shows us what it means to open the “metaphysical door[s]” of our hearts—to confess our createdness, our contingency, our inability to dictate the facts of our existence, and yet preserve with wild-eyed faith the stubborn belief that life is meaningful—to “grasp it all, the joy, the grief, / and see it all together, not / as doom or fate, but as a whole / complete and plainly unified.”

Such faith is especially important when the world, like a Turner painting, seems blurry and inscrutable to us. “To be unknowing / is a biggie when it comes to faith,” Manning writes in “The Red Chair.” He elaborates on this theme in his essay for Commonweal, “Keeping the Rhythm”:

Faith is the realm that asks us to think, to work, to be active, to be patient, and to accept our entry into the unknown. We blindly agree something will come of it, even if what comes is wholly inscrutable. What a strange task to grab hold of! And yet, if I look around where I live and reflect on my upbringing, there seems no greater task. We should, after all, be seeking fulfilling lives—understanding the purpose of our lives and making something useful of them.

Manning’s association of faithful purpose with “keeping the rhythm” appears also in “Turner”. Here he describes his ars poetica as:

the effort to capture time in time,
in verse, in the ancient rhythm of verse,
not in my voice, but a timeless voice
haunted by a timeless voice
before it—rhythmic, keeping time
to the world of trees and fields and fog
resounding, as if a fog resounds—
that is the effort of my art.

Compare these lines to Wright’s ars poetica in “Ancient of Days”: “This is an old man’s poetry… there isn’t one [truth]” except for “whatever the eye makes out.” Whereas Wright sees a world that, in the end, is meaningless and discordant, Manning has opened the metaphysical door of his heart to a “timeless voice” and “ancient rhythm.” And so, while Wright attempts to impose his unmediated self onto the world and give illusions of order, Manning gladly surrenders to a pre-existent order and the goodness of being mediated by it.

In one sense, the “timeless voice” to which Manning’s poetry keeps time is the natural “world of trees and fields and fog.” Across every page of Snakedoctor, Manning portrays in delightful manner what Matthew Arnold calls, “The grandeur of the spectacle given by the world, the grandeur of the sense of its all being not ourselves, being above and beyond ourselves and immeasurably dwarfing us.” In place of Arnold’s language of height, Manning often uses the language of distance to convey the spectacular other-ness of the world:

This distance across the hills is something
you can hear, like a voice. It’s space and time
and the sky-domed air and objects and trees,
the shapes of living things, the wonder
of everything, the only art.

You’d be forgiven for not guessing that such oracular-sounding lines come from a poem titled, “An Iron Ring Fastened to a Rail in the Barn.” Yet they show that Manning doesn’t reserve his poetic delight for obvious spectacles. Like a child experiencing a thing for the first time, his poems savor the quotidian and mundane: the “very particular click” of dominoes, bubbles on the surface of moonshine, sounds reverberating in a number 10 washtub, the “solemn ceremony” of pissing outside, marginalia in a used book, and “that little hat-like thing above / the a in flâneurish.” “Even a world that’s surreal begins / with the world as it is in plain sight / and mystical for being itself,” he explains.

Manning’s encounters with such spectacles invariably leave him changed, with his sense of self simultaneously diminished and enlarged, respectively, by his sense of distance from and proximity to the world around him. For instance, in “Reading a Book in the Woods,” Manning looks up from his reading and notices “the spindly trunks of two trees / have twisted twice around each other.” Instead of serving as a break from his book, however, he finds that these trees—and all the woods—are a book of a different kind. Just as one might “lose” himself to a great book only to find that, through that act of surrender, he has somehow gained part of himself, so too does Manning find himself enriched by the spectacular other-ness of the world: “Now, / by looking up, I know the book / is reading me” and “[I] have been changed, and walk farther into the woods and farther than that.”

In a more literal sense, Manning’s reference to a “timeless voice / haunted by a timeless voice before it” refers to actual books that have helped mediate Manning’s sense of self. In his preface to Railsplitter, Manning praises Lincoln’s abundant use of literary references in his speeches and writings, “demonstrating that his mind was formed not just by present matters or professional duties but more importantly by the broader recognition that meaning and values are handed down to us through the wisdom of those who thought and wrote and acted before us.” The same could be said of Manning who pays homage throughout Snakedoctor to an eclectic range of literary influences, including: Robert Penn Warren’s Audubon (“A Crooked Star in Pencil on a Page”), H.E. Jacques’ How to Know the Trees (“Randy Woodred”), William Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of Poetry (“The Golden Treachery of Poetry”), and Jacques Maritain’s Art and Poetry (“A Little Red Book”).

In several of these poems and others, Manning reflects on the phenomenon of encountering unexpected voices in the form of marginalia left behind in used books. “It’s strange, / but you can skim these notes, almost / illegible, and get the feel / of the larger poem and what the poet, / the younger one, was apprehending,” he writes in “A Crooked Star in Pencil on a Page”. Like gazing back and forth between the panels of a triptych, Manning enjoys the interplay of reading a book, reading another reader’s marginal notes, and then seeing how one sheds light on the other and on himself.

Beyond his books and fellow readers, Manning acknowledges a debt—primarily in the form of dedicatory epigraphs—to certain authors and other individuals who have shaped his experiences, beliefs, and values. Intriguingly, none of the poems in his seven previous collections features a dedicatory epigraph. It’s surprising, then, that Snakedoctor includes seven dedications—a fact that underscores the uniquely personal nature of this collection.

In the most literal sense, Manning’s poetry keeps time to the “timeless voice” of his ancestors. In Rob Curry’s and Tim Plester’s short documentary, Matter is a Relative Matter, Manning plays a recording that he took in 1992 of his 102 year-old great-great aunt Clara. He’s since listened to that recording countless times, marveling at what he calls the “living poetry” of her voice—her dialect, grammar, storytelling, etc. Her tendency to speak in four-beat lines (“a animal a-knowin’ that much”) remains a vocal characteristic of many Kentuckians—one that directly shaped Manning’s decision to write the poems of Snakedoctor in lines of loose tetrameter. In “Sinner Man”, a poem about his grandfather, Manning draws our attention to this characteristic:

Do you hear this four-beat line I’ve got
clinging and clanging roughly along,
reader, out there in the lonely world?
I think I got it from him, my father’s
father, whose voice I never hear,
not a single syllable or word,
but imagine what it sounded like—
he gave me something after all.

He credits these and other ancestors for giving him a “built-in library of tales” that shape the subjects and style of his own poetry. “I think I merely needed / a voice…and together they gave it to me,” he writes in “Three Old Mountain Women.”

Yet, again, Manning’s decisions about the form and content of his poetry aren’t merely aesthetic—the aesthetic implies the ethical. When he flirts with and then rejects Wright’s free verse style, refusing “to leave the sense of meaning / behind,” he’s ultimately rejecting the ethic of the unmediated self and clinging instead to his familial, cultural, and spiritual heritage. He’s embracing an ethic of citizenship.

In his preface to Railsplitter, Manning writes that “citizenship…is a solemn task” that we can’t fulfill unless we recognize, as Lincoln did, that our “identity” and “sense of self” is mediated by “the wisdom of those who thought and wrote and acted before us.” This description resembles what his fellow Kentucky poet, Wendell Berry, calls “membership”—consciously belonging to a people and place and gladly fulfilling the obligations that such belonging entails.

In “Planting Trees in God’s Country”, Manning relates these two modes of being—belonging and fulfilling—with two modes of thought: memory and imagination. He opens the poem with a memory—not his own, but one passed down to him through records and stories—that registers his sense of belonging: “My people sot down…here, in deep woods and on hills / steep and rugged and rocky.” This sense of belonging affords a commensurate sense of obligation that Manning can’t fulfill without the aid of his imagination. In a move that’s reminiscent of Christian contemplative traditions, Manning uses his imagination to “place” himself in both the past and future so that he can better discern and fulfill his obligations in the present:

We also have to imagine the past
and believe we come from it, not
to undo it, but simply to imagine
and therefore belong, by opening
the ground. And then imagine shade
in summer coming to this place
again and birdsong in the branches
of heaven-reaching trees, living
ladders stuck in the ground to give
the future another rung of its past.
The invitation is to climb.
One thing I know about God’s country—it’s all
there is, and it’s supposed to be alive.

Manning isn’t describing a hypothetical scenario. For years, he has belonged to a group of conservationists called the Kentucky Writers and Artists for Reforestation who plant trees by the thousands on abandoned strip mine sites across Kentucky. After leaving one such site in Pulaski County, he realized he had been planting trees less than a mile from a cemetery where many of his ancestors are buried. He later penned “Planting Trees in God’s Country” to reflect on the profundity of that experience, as he shares in Curry’s and Plester’s documentary:

I found it really profound that they had died in the nineteenth century and then, in the twentieth, coal mining comes in and strips this land and left it permanently scarred. Then, in the twenty-first century, I just happened to be planting trees on the same ground with the idea that that scar will be repaired.

It’s rather modest for Manning to describe this convergence as something that “just happened.” His ability even to recognize the land as scarred is the fruit of believing that the world is meaningful, that there’s a way that things ought to be. His sense of obligation to repair those scars is the fruit of believing that he belongs to a people and a place. And the hope that motivates and sustains his efforts is the fruit of believing that beauty will outlast him: “We’re planting saplings, two feet tall, and most of us won’t be alive in fifty years but those trees will be mature and they stand a chance of living two or three hundred years,” he tells David Kern in an interview for FORMA.

These same beliefs drove Manning to undertake a much more personal work of conservation: buying a nineteenth century farmhouse in Washington County to restore it and rejuvenate its twenty acres of soil. Like the trees he plants on scarred land, Manning dreams that this farm will be a type of “living ladder”—one that might repair certain family scars by giving his present and future family “another rung of its past.” Speaking to Curry and Plester, he explains:

At some point, I just realized there was something wrong in my dad’s life and there were things wrong in my mother’s. And through perhaps imagination but also just through actual observation, I remember thinking, “Well, if they lived in their real home, they would be more complete.” So, at some point, I had this intuition that it would be my responsibility to reestablish my family’s bond to the land.

Again, it’s Manning’s imagination that enables him to “see” his family’s past and future so that he can discern his obligations in the present. A similar dynamic recurs throughout Snakedoctor in poems such as: “Moving Through the House,” “Two Shadows,” “A Penitentiary Rocking Chair”, “The Knot”, “Translation”, and numerous others. Yet perhaps the most poignant and personal example is “Walking into the Distance,” another of Manning’s double-sonnets in unrhymed tetrameter. The opening lines read:

Midsummer and the path in the woods
is dark. I cannot see its end
or rather what I know to be
its sudden fading at the fence
before an unkempt, lonely field.
I cannot see the other end
when I look back, midway
on the walk I’ve taken, stepping slowly.

Though Manning describes an actual walk that he took across his property one August afternoon, he uses Dantean language to portray this walk as symbolic of his journey through life. Compare the initial lines to the opening of Dante’s Divine Comedy:

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh—
the very thought of it renews my fear!

Based upon an account he gave at a University of Kentucky reading, Manning wrote “Walking Into the Distance” at least as early as 2018. So, like Dante, he’s writing at the midpoint of his life (“midway / on the walk I’ve taken”) and comparing his life to walking through dark woods in which the two ends of the path (the past and future) are hidden from view. Just as Dante “came to [himself]”, Manning is stirred by a similar moment of self-awareness:

There must be something on my mind,
but I prefer to notice how
the sugar maples have dispersed
themselves, the buckeyes and the beech,
and soon, though longer for me, the poplars
will tower over other trees.

The recurring dream I’ve had for years
is to imagine the great trees,
and I’ve imagined there might be
a moral purpose to such a dream.

Manning recounts this same moment of self-awareness to Curry and Plester: “I just sort of stood outside myself for a moment and realized I was imagining bigger trees.” There’s paradox at play here. Manning goes inside himself—i.e., his imagination—to stand outside himself. In the process, he enlarges himself by imposing his imagination onto the present landscape, but simultaneously diminishes himself by imagining himself out of the future landscape. Self-awareness becomes a means for self-forgetfulness. And yet, his self-forgetfulness becomes ultimately the very means for his own enrichment, as he explains in a conversation with Ryo Yamaguchi for Line/Break:

For me, going into the woods and belonging to my apprehension of nature diminishes one sense of self in a very good way and then it enlarges another sense of self so that the self is part of the whole—not separated from it. In some ways, I find myself belonging to nature and coming out of it restored and not restored to myself but to the kinship with all living things, to feel alive in the way that a tree is alive.

“The human self must undergo the journey of belonging to the world,” Manning writes in “17 O’Clock”, his recent essay for Literary Matters. Indeed, Manning’s walk in the woods symbolizes his journey for belonging and in this way imitates in miniature the greater arc of Dante’s journey. In the final canto of the Divine Comedy, Dante finds himself in the very presence of God and there experiences the purest form of self-forgetfulness: “So was my mind—completely rapt, intent, / steadfast, and motionless—gazing; and it grew ever more enkindled as it watched.” And yet, while standing outside of himself, Dante experiences the purest form of belonging: “In its profundity I saw—ingathered / and bound by love into one single volume— / what, in the universe, seems separate, scattered.” Compare now Dante’s vision of belonging with Manning’s longing in “Snakedoctor”:

………………………….Is there a way
to grasp it all, the joy, the grief,
and see it all together, not
as doom or fate, but as a whole
complete and plainly unified,
and a way to be alive in the world?
I want this to be a happy vision.
And so I will it to happiness,
though I’m unsteady as the guide.

By describing himself as “the guide”, Manning draws an additional line of comparison between himself and Dante. In the Divine Comedy, Dante is both the pilgrim and the poet, he’s undergoing the journey of belonging and guiding his readers on the same. In similar fashion, as Manning wrestles in his poetry with his sense of self, he simultaneously guides his readers to consider where they belong and how they might fulfill the obligations that such belonging entails.

Or, returning to the metaphor in “The Gospel of Music”, Manning is both a singer and an instructor who trains our ears to hear, in our own time and place, the ancient rhythms so that we might tune our voices to them and enjoy the harmony of belonging to the great symphony of the world and to the God who “made the world for singing.”

Yet our ability to hear the ancient rhythms is compromised by our inability or unwillingness to practice self-forgetful silence, as Manning laments in “Snakedoctor”: “I know adults who can’t sit still, / and people are afraid of silence, / afraid to walk in the dark and go / in the woods to find the darkness glows.” So, time and again, by way of example, advice, or exhortation, he calls us to come outside of ourselves. “Why don’t you try just being quiet?” he writes in “An Orchard at the Bottom of a Hill”. “If you can find some silence, maybe / you can listen to it” and discover “I am not alone in this world.”

Though many would certainly benefit from Manning’s instruction, his emphasis on ars poetica suggests that he’s concerned especially with fellow poets and other artists. In “Mad-Face Macleish”, he seems to address artists and poets directly, urging them to resist what he calls “the kingdom of immediacy.” Citizens of this kingdom don’t practice the sort of contemplative silence and stillness that would allow them to mediate the past and future through meaningful work in the present. They are given over to immediacy, the tyranny of now, the soul-shrinking belief that whatever presently worries or excites them is what most deserves their attention.

In his essay, “17 O’Clock”, Manning develops this critique by outlining two ways that contemporary poetry has helped to prop up the “kingdom of immediacy”. First, poets have embraced the general culture of narcissism and “enshrined the self” in such a way that it has become fashionable “to write poems of otherness rather than oneness”—perpetuating a false sense of distance from the world. Second, “poets and critics alike have decided poetry must be true, rather than aimed at discovering a truth in the world.” As a result, too much contemporary poetry is “autobiography, self-documentary, which is a serious limitation placed on the art….because it implies we can have viable poetry without the poet resorting to her or his imagination.”

These twin developments—distance from the world and distance from our poetic imaginations—are directly proportional to one another, as Manning goes on to explain:

It stands to reason that if the self represented in the contemporary poem is isolated and disconnected from the World and Time, then that self is also disconnected from real imagination, and the resulting poem is merely an expression of shabby vanity. Such poetry will not do much for readers other than congratulate their own narcissism by confirming it.

Like Narcissus’ pool of water, contemporary poetry too often reflects only the poets themselves. “It’s just a pose, / the clang of something bitter to say / it’s like a mad face staring out of the poem” Manning writes in “Mad-Face Macleish”. His solution, yet again, is to connect ars poetica with ars vitae: “I believe / in art, but only to a point. / It’s a way of being in the world. / There’s a freedom in it I enjoy.” The freedom is the opportunity to live a life and make art that’s not confined to oneself but is enlarged and invigorated by our various forms of belonging—to live in a kingdom of mediacy. Manning ends the poem by describing what this freedom looks like for him:

It’s a sweet little girl I dream
about in my own eternity,
a hope that has come to live in the world,
my part of it as least, my kingdom
of fog and trees and glittering grass.

The “sweet little girl” refers to his daughter, Lillian—an embodiment of Manning’s hope in God’s “love / residing always in the world.” As he shares in his essay “Keeping the Rhythm”, the joy of Lillian’s birth came after the grief of an earlier miscarriage. He and his wife, Amanda, share a common hope that their joys and griefs are parts of a meaningful whole: “We are simply still learning, both from grief and joy. I am prepared to believe we are called to such a task, and certainly believe music helps to get us there.”

This task of learning from grief and joy falls also on us, and Manning’s poetry, like all forms of true creativity, helps to get us there. In “17 O’Clock”, Manning writes:

That’s what I think true creativity is—an expression of hope, even if it also registers despair. It’s a paradox that leads to the peace that passeth understanding. If we get outside ourselves and beyond our particular selves to inhabit a world-conferred self of belonging, from which we are inspired to add creation to Creation, then we can find that sort of peace. And taking up such a quest is what we’re supposed to do, with patience, forgiveness, and hard-earned wisdom. And then we’re obliged to give it back to the World and Time, to keep the richness of life alive.

The phrase “add[ing] creation to creation” aptly describes Manning’s entire poetic project, but it uniquely applies to what I suppose is his third trilogy: Railsplitter, Snakedoctor, and a not-yet-published third collection. While speaking at the 2020 Kentucky State Poetry Society conference, Manning revealed the provisional title of this next collection, American Poetry, and described it in ways that sure make it sound like the third in a trilogy of books that explore the relationship between ars poetica and ars vitae. In a move that takes “add[ing] creation to creation” quite literally, Manning pored over old anthologies of American poetry, selected lines of verse that stood out to him, then used those lines as the titles for his poems. This, too, is part of Manning’s conservation work: “keeping alive old poets or bringing back poets we once read and returning some of them to our attention,” he said in his conference address.

One of these poems is titled “So Dark and So Dark in the Briary Light” after a line in Robert Hayden’s “A Road in Kentucky”. It encapsulates several themes in Snakedoctor: the human need to be “transfigured / by the grace of unaccountable love”, walking through the woods as a metaphor for life, and the poet trapped in a cave that represents the self. As with the poems of Snakedoctor, it ends on a hopeful note: “I was finally free”, Manning writes, “something was there to lead me out. / For the moment, I’ll call it passion.”

Such is Manning’s artistic passion and vision: to escape the cavern of self and enjoy the freedom of belonging to the world; to turn away from the clamorous perturbations of our navel-gazing age and tune his voice to ancient rhythms; to lose himself, so to speak, so that he can truly find himself—and to help us do the same.