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The Common Man, Maurice Manning’s fourth collection, is a series of ballad-like narratives, set down in loose, unrhymed iambic tetrameter, that honors the strange beauty of the landscape and the idiosyncratic adventures and personalities of the old-timers who were his neighbors, friends, and family of the Kentucky mountain country he knew as a child. Playing off the book’s title, Manning demonstrates that no one is common or simple. Instead, he creates a detailed, complex, and poignant portrait—by turns serious ...
The Common Man, Maurice Manning’s fourth collection, is a series of ballad-like narratives, set down in loose, unrhymed iambic tetrameter, that honors the strange beauty of the landscape and the idiosyncratic adventures and personalities of the old-timers who were his neighbors, friends, and family of the Kentucky mountain country he knew as a child. Playing off the book’s title, Manning demonstrates that no one is common or simple. Instead, he creates a detailed, complex, and poignant portrait—by turns serious and hilarious, philosophical and speculative, but ultimately tragic—of a fast-disappearing aspect of American culture. The Common Man’s accessibility and its enthusiastic and sincere charms make it the perfect antidote to the glib ironies that characterize much contemporary American verse. It will also help to strengthen Manning’s reputation as one of his generation’s most important and original voices.
The older boy said, Take ye a slash
o' this - hit'll make yore sticker peck out -
which would have been a more profound
effect than putting hair on my chest,
to which I was already accustomed.
Proverbially, of course, he was right.
I took a slash, another, and then
I felt an impassioned swelling, though
between my ears, as they say, a hot
illumination in my brain.
The shine had not been cut; full of
the moon it was for sure. I knew
the mountain county it came from -
my family's section, on Little Goose.
A distant cousin would have been proud
to know another cousin was drinking
what might as well be blood, at least
the bonds that come with blood, the laugh
before the tragic truth, the love
of certain women, the hate for lies,
the knowledge that death can be a mercy,
the vision blurred and burning there
in the mind and in the wounded heart.
This was the first time I heard the story
I was born to tell, the first I knew
that I was in the story, too.
If you go up the holler far
enough you'll spy a little house
half-hidden in the trees. It's dark
up there all day and when the night
comes down it's darker yet. There's two
old brothers living in that house
and the younger one is fatter than
a tick with lies and sassy tales.
One time, a bear came through and ate
a couple dozen pawpaws these brothers
had shaken from the tree and left
lined up on the porch rail to ripen,
and Murdock, their good-for-nothing dog
who had retired to the porch on account
of all the work he'd done that day,
never so much as growled nor raised
an eye. The brothers were tending to
the pole beans in the garden patch
and once the bear had slunk away
both brothers said at once: Why, shoot
an' H-E-double-toothpicks, Murdock!
And then the younger one said: Jinx.
And the older brother spit in the dirt.
According to the younger one -
who couldn't hold his belly still
from all the laughter he'd provoked -
it was about a year and a half
before he let his brother speak,
but then it didn't last too long
on account of Murdock treed a woman.
She'd come up there to see how poor
these brothers were and if they needed
some religious reading material.
She called hello, then Murdock woofed
his woof as fierce as he could be,
and she shinnied up the pawpaw tree
and hollered: Help! Ole Murdock, well,
he never left the porch. The brothers
were digging a privy hole behind
the house and when the woman hollered,
they came running around and six feet off
the ground this pretty red-haired woman
was trembling in the pawpaw tree,
and the poor thing's skirt had gotten bunched
around her thighs as she was climbing up -
this otherwise respectable woman
came near to blinding the brothers right there,
her bloomers were so bright. Now, it took
a moment or two before the brothers
could gather their wits, but once they did
they tried to look concerned and turned
to the porch and said in a single voice:
You son-of-a-biscuit-eater, Murdock,
you've done scared this young gal halfway out of
her drawers! The younger brother grinned,
and jinxed the older one again.
Because I jinxed him! he told me one day
when I asked why I'd never heard
the older brother speak. How long
has he been jinxed? I asked. Lord, years!
he said, and I don't reckon he
remembers how to speak, and it's been
so long, I've plumb forgot his name;
I can't take back the jinx no more.
Now remember what I said - this man
is fatter than a junebug with lies
and he can spread them pretty thick,
though I've never minded listening.
Many a time I've stopped up there
to visit and every time it seems
the younger brother has just been waiting.
What's the good word? he always asks.
Yes, many a time I've stopped up there,
but I've never seen a pawpaw tree.
Lord knows what became of that young woman
or if she continued her ministry;
and one day ole Murdock went to Heaven -
why, even a bad dog gets to go.