reflection: Grace Farag on Maurice Manning
Let’s think about the landscape now
where all of this is happening.
–Maurice Manning, “The Burthen of the Mystery Indeed”
I want to begin with a memory. This happened more than 10 years ago, when I was living in Northern California. Near my house was a trail that cut behind and through a residential area to a large park. If you drove, you could get to the park in 5 minutes; walking the trail took more like 20. Sometimes I walked it with my roommates, but this time I want to tell you about, I walked it alone. It was late afternoon, I think in the fall, and the long light was filled with gold. The air had that cool, fresh quality that comes after rain.
Eventually I found myself on top of a small hill just outside the park. I stopped and turned slowly, looking at the world on every side. To the west, the melting sun. To the east, a rainbow arcing down in front of dark clouds. To the south, a shadowy mountain dusted on top with snow. It was a stunning sight, and I knew right then that I would never see anything like it again.
Then I looked right in front of me, and I saw how the ground was covered in yellow mustard flowers. So common, I thought. I actually felt a little sorry for them, caught in between all the impossible glory of that late autumn day. What could these simple little flowers mean to the God who had set the world around me on fire with snow and rainbow and sun all at once?
In that same moment, it dawned on me—I knew somehow that to God, those mustard flowers were truly as wonderful as that once-in-a-lifetime sunset. There was nothing common at all about them. I had stopped in awe at the sight of the liquid clouds, the glowing rainbow, the dusky mountain, but God’s heart leaped with that same delight over mustard flowers. They were a wonder and a mystery every day, infused with their own inheritance of God’s grandeur and glory—and every day I walked past them like they were nothing.
I have to confess that when I first began reading the poems in Maurice Manning’s The Common Man, I wasn’t sure if I liked them. The voice, the tone, the subject matter, the very words themselves—none of it was anything that I, a native Californian, could relate to. Consider these lines from the very first poem in the collection, called “Moonshine”:
The older boy said, Take ye a slash
o’ this—hit’ll make yore sticker peck out—
Or what about these from “Sowing Butter Beans With A Stick”:
When these here beans get up they’ll stand
a top hat higher than your head.
And fetching home a mess? Why all
you’ll have to say is Howdy do
and they’ll fall right in your basket. Shucks,
it mightn’t hurt to slap a few
across your morning plate and see
if that won’t make you feel as if
you’d died and gone up yonder way.
If that makes sense to you, I’m going to hazard a guess you probably didn’t grow up saying or hearing things like “radical” or “so gnarly” or “dude, bro”, as I did. But I pressed on through all the strangeness, and I’m glad.
Because one of the things I learned, continue to learn, from reading the strangely landscaped poetry in The Common Man is to pay attention to place I find myself. It seems to me that Manning’s poetry says, among many many other things, speak your language, not mine. Tell the stories God has given you, and I’ll tell the ones He’s given me. But to do that, you have to listen. And that means you have to pay hard and close attention, not just once or twice, but every day, always, for the rest of your life.
That is prayer, and that is art.
See what I mean in these lines from Manning’s poem “Emptying a Rain Gauge”:
to hear it, but the world has a voice
behind it saying to anyone
in earshot, What are you gonna do?
That’s evangelical, my friends,
in a worldly, not a churchly, sense,
and ministerial, because
every day something has to save the day—
or the days get lost and so do you.
Of course there is theology in Manning’s poetry, but it is not the straightforward obvious kind, which means, I think, that it is the more true kind. It’s the kind that sees love and hope and faith and divine mystery in things like moonshine and butter beans, donkeys and drunks, and anyone and anything else who inhabits the place where you find yourself. No doubt, in mustard flowers, too.
The poems in Maurice Manning’s The Common Man make up a map of a transparent world that calls out for our attention and remembrance. For here is where the veil gets thin between us and the Holy of Holies, and there is not a man or a woman who is common in the sight of God.
All the world can be on fire if only we have the eyes, the heart, to see. God, make us worthy of your stories. Amen.
Grace Farag is a writer living in Southern California. Her work has appeared in various places, including San Marino Patch (where she has contributed articles on, among many other things, the art of John Frame and a museum exhibit about novelist/poet Charles Bukowski), a devotional prayer book on gender injustice issues, the online journal Ontologica and Offerings: A Creative Anthology.