Folksy, Whip-Smart, and Self-Aware: Maurice Manning’s “The Common Man”

4X4CLT poet for December, Maurice Manning, joins us for two events. First, celebrate the release of this edition of the poetry and art posters on Friday November 30 from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at Resident Culture Brewing. Manning’s master class, Writing By Ear,  will be held at Charlotte Lit on Saturday, December 1 from 10 am to 1 pm and is currently sold out. Email us at admin@charlottelit.org to be added to the waiting list.


In Kentucky, the muse might be an older boy who says, “Take ye a slash / o’ this — hit’ll make yore sticker peck out— “; or the muse might be the moonshine the boy hands over. Either way, Maurice Manning’s The Common Man begins with a hint of the illicit and a shot of whiskey. Such an initiation forecasts the diction, desire, and occasional delinquency that course through Manning’s fourth collection, which amasses to an oral history of the landscape and community that the poet has consistently and creatively plumbed. Manning’s earlier collections each coalesce around a specific figure: an imagined adolescent (Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions); Daniel Boone (A Companion for Owls); a breathless shepherd (Bucolics).

The eponymous speaker in The Common Man is part listener, whose poems are determined by others’ stories, and part bookish poet, whose titles — “The Old Clodhopper’s Aubade,” “A Panegyric Against the Consolation of Grief” — derive more from a library than a neighbor’s porch. Manning invokes poetic tradition to collide it with the poetry he finds in a place that’s home to pawpaw trees, philosophizing farmers, and even a talking horse. The resulting poems are a conscious mix of high and low. But more than Manning’s previous collections, this book is hellbent on narrative. Folksy, whip-smart, and self-aware, the speaker asks, “You reckon I could ever run out / of stories in my heart to tell?” The poems often unfold with the pacing and plainer syntax of prose, their lines predictably broken. Their turns occur in their turning on the reader, with metaphysically gesturing questions such as: “Were you / raised up with a beast beside you?” Or: “[M]aybe you’re thinking why / is this man so bent on darkness?” The speaker perforates the poems’ intense localness by implicating the reader in the community his poems shape, reminding her, “Part of me / resides out there, and part of you / is out there too. Let’s hope we’ve got / that much in common, a fair amount / if you think about it very long.”

The poems take on the burden of many sadnesses that transcend place: the sadness that comes from relying on a remote God, the sadness that comes from mourning an irretrievable past, the sadness that comes from longing for the love of a good woman. Though Manning dedicates this book to the memory of his grandmothers, the women in these poems are elusive, appearing only in the form of fantasy, comic relief, or some amalgam of the two. This reader wonders what stories they might tell, were they given more chances to speak.


December 2018 4X4CLT poet Maurice Manning is the author of six collections of poetry.  His first book, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, was selected by W.S. Merwin for the Yale Series of Younger Poets.  His fourth book, The Common Man, was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize. A former Guggenheim fellow, Manning teaches at Transylvania University and for the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. He lives with his family on a small farm in Kentucky.  His next book, Railsplitter, will be published in 2019.


September 2018 4X4CLT poet Cecily Parks is author of the poetry collections Field Folly Snow (University of Georgia, 2008) and O’Nights (Alice James, 2015). She also edited the anthology The Echoing Green: Poems of Fields, Meadows, and Grasses (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets, 2016). Her poems appear in The New Republic, The New Yorker, Tin House, and elsewhere. The recipient of a Pushcart Prize, she teaches in the MFA Program at Texas State University.

This review originally appeared July 15, 2010 in Orion Magazine. We’ve reprinted here with their permission. Visit their website at orionmagazine.org.

Morri Creech’s Blue Rooms

The Arts at Queens proudly presents The English Department Reading Series and poet Morri Creech, Tuesday, November 13, 7 pm, Ketner Auditorium, Sykes Building, Queens University of Charlotte.


Nov 13, poet Morri Creech reads from his just-released fourth collection, Blue Rooms. The book is eagerly anticipated; his previous, The Sleep of Reason, was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. You may have seen his poem “The Choice” painted as a Wall Poem at Brevard & 9th Streets, or may have attended one of his classes at Charlotte Lit. Morri is my colleague and friend at Queens University.

The poems of Blue Rooms explore the perceiving mind and the possibilities and limitations of language. Words themselves are the question, what they can and cannot contain, and what this means at a personal level, given the emotional weight of “what slips the net of language.” The book includes ekphrastic poems, which reflect on works of art. They do so with such a depth of voice that, although knowledge of art references reveals satisfyingly complex layers, such knowledge is not required.

In the opening sequence, “Self Portrait as Magritte,” the books’ thematic concerns unfold brilliantly through the figure of this painter, a surrealist known for finding the strange in the every day and for mislabeling objects. As these poems reference art, the art provides a means to comment on language. The reverberations between the two media, poetry and painting, echo the work of Magritte. The self-portrait structure of this series is particularly engaging. Identity is rendered elusive. The self cannot recognize itself, is tangible and yet not present, seeable and yet unknowable. Others cannot be known; “The kissing lovers’ shrouded heads / Lean together in ignorance.”

The second poem in this group references Magritte’s “The Mysteries of the Horizon,” an oil painting with three men in bowler hats beneath three slivers of moon: “These three men share my look and dress./ I cannot say which one is me./ Three ways I face the emptiness,/ The central man, the mystery.” The poems feel inevitable in their form, yet there is also a haunting use of the sentence, creating perhaps a sort of identity question within the kept form itself: how, within these metered, end-rhymed lines, do the poems create such stillness? The space generated by this unhurried music holds revelations that raise more questions: “The self is still our best disguise.”

Throughout the book, the exploration continues, through pastoral paintings and the works of Cézanne. The imagery rendered through language begins to take on a different feel in this context. The apple, the camshaft bolt, the skull: each are explored as parts of a still life blurring into narrative and back again to still life. Certain poems suggest a kinship to the philosophical poetry of Wallace Stevens. There are discoveries to make in the diction, which starts to feel as characteristic as the brushstrokes of Cézanne (natter” and “daub” and “smutch”), creating a particular voice within the disruptive concerns about identity.

There is an increasing urgency, and the tone becomes more burdened. Leonardo da Vinci is featured as the dissector of the corpse. Poems explore violence. The journey of the book leads to “a trick of perception.” In the “Self-Portrait After Goya” sequence, near the book’s end, Goya paints “my nightmare,” and “I cannot speak, strapped to my fever chair.” Language has ultimately led to the cost of the questions, “the circling birds / Of sheer unreason,” the suffering and the sleeplessness, and the terrible images Goya depicts while “trapped in his head.” The final poem on a Japanese folding screen, which follows this sequence, brings relief.


Morri Creech was born in Moncks Corner, SC, and was educated at Winthrop University and McNeese State University. He is the author of four collections of poetry, including his latest, Blue Rooms (The Waywiser Press), and The Sleep of Reason, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is the Writer in Residence at Queens University of Charlotte, where he teaches courses in both the undergraduate creative writing program and in the low residency MFA program.


Julie Funderburk is author of the poetry collection The Door That Always Opens (LSU Press). She is the recipient of fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council and the Sewanee Writers Conference. She is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte.

Kathryn Schwille on Kevin McIlvoy’s novel “At the Gate of All Wonder”

Samantha Peabody is a bioacoustician, an oddball recluse living in the Pisgah National Forest who runs a year-long “Sonic Adventure Program,” taking children into the woods for one week a month to teach them to hear what others ignore. She’s at the center of Kevin McIlvoy’s original new novel, At the Gate of All Wonder (Tupelo Press), a journal-like recollection of her year with a pair of particularly sturdy, intuitive children.

A trip into the forest with Samantha Peabody is no ordinary adventure. This one is a bread-crumb trail to the heart’s strange workings, cast against Pisgah’s sounds and the limits of ear and soul.

“In the thickets near us, finches split and spat and spewed cedar berries…we began to hear the in-whispering of tree boluses, the inverted echoing cups of stones having the smallest hiding spaces beneath them, the resonant silences in empty bird and wasps nests. After hearing the rhythm of the earth’s soft-palate sounds, we could hear the timbre of its hard-palate sounds: the empty shells and keels and the tight-fisted fleshless ribs of dead creatures no bigger than seeds and pods.”

The forest hums with music, evoked by McIlvoy’s lyrical word play and sentences that swell and bump against each other with energy and surprise. Beneath the soundscape, revenge, estrangement, betrayal and devotion crawl through the novel in a tip-of-the-iceberg treatment that yields a disturbing story. The children’s mother is the divorce lawyer Peabody hired after her husband’s affair: “Carla murdered his spirit exactly as I had asked.” When they divorced, Peabody kept his precious books, “a punch to the Adam’s apple.” Husband Robert did not stand a chance.

As a teacher, Peabody is lovable but cranky, with high expectations for the children, aged six and eight. “If one of you can tell me what the buzzing noise is I will not eat your portions of our crackers later today.” Nothing is easy. The children camp in the cold, they must not read. The Sonic Adventure includes an excursion through February fog to The Place of Nothing There.

Evoking myth, ghosts and the enchanted woods of fairy tales, At the Gate of All Wonder is, like all of McIlvoy’s work, a marvel of language. “The spring foliage around and above our campsite muted certain distant sounds and encapsulated us as if we were silky chestnuts. The senses fuse when one is held in the rose-velvet lining that is contained in the prickly bur of a very cold March. The sound and soundlessness inside our tent was isolating, it was pungent, tightening our scalps, reissuing cidery and sour tastes in our mouths.”

At the Gate of All Wonder is a layered tale that bears examination, and reward is in the re-reading. What a sharp-eyed reader finds in this book today may not be what she finds tomorrow. There is inspiration in these pages. A reader might want to keep it by her side and see what shows up.


Join us at Charlotte Lit on Wednesday, November 7 from 7 to 8:30 pm for “I Went Out to the Hazel Wood”— A Reading & Conversation about Place, with Kevin McIlvoy and Kathryn Schwille. This free event features two writers whose recent books are set in forests. They come together to talk about place as a generative force for storytellers. The Pisgah National Forest became the engine for McIlvoy’s remarkable At the Gate of Wonder. Much of Schwille’s evocative What Luck, This Life is set in the East Texas woods. Join them for a discussion of how location can become what Eudora Welty called the “ground conductor” of emotion, belief and a story’s charge. Free, but space is limited, so please register here so we can save you a place.

Review of Kathryn Schwille’s “What Luck, This Life”

Kathryn Schwille has written a riveting debut novel that brilliantly juxtaposes recovery efforts in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia explosion with the daily challenges facing the residents of a small East Texas town who literally pick up the pieces. What Luck, This Life illuminates life in small-town America, capturing perfectly the cadence of people too often relegated to one-dimensional caricatures. Kathryn paints a word picture of the people and places in fictional Kiser, Texas, so authentic and affecting that both are instantly relatable.

She also captures the real-life horror of the shuttle disaster and the macabre scavenger hunt that ensued to reclaim the parts, human and otherwise, strewn across the landscape. Down a dirt road in a pasture, a young boy, whose intuitive skills render him strange and different to the townsfolk, spots an astronaut’s body stuck in a tree, with “no foot at the end of the leg.” His dad (separated from the boy’s mother after revealing that he’s gay) uses a bucket truck to bring it down, finding the body’s smell “sharp, but not yet foul…. The crows had been on him; their droppings on his chest.” At an elderly black man’s home, a female astronaut’s severed hand is found in a backyard woodpile. Across town, the police chief tells NASA—which asserts no bodies will be found because they would have burned up—that  “a man found a leg out on 621….  What do you want him to do, put it in a 4X4 and bring it to you?”

The recovery efforts become a tantalizing backdrop to the human drama already unfolding for the working class residents of Kiser, “a dinky, third fiddle town near the Sabine River, a rank and slither-filled water that keeps Texas apart from Louisiana.” Schwille uses time fluidly, easily shifting back and forth through years, months, even days, to underscore how decisions made—or delayed—mold and change lives.

The characters reflect a diversity of small-town life that’s refreshing. Some are likable; some not. But their voices and experiences shine with authenticity. They tackle the myriad problems we all know so well, and of which small towns are not immune—domestic violence, drug abuse, depression, suicide, illness, love, divorce, death.

What Luck, This Life is enhanced by Schwille’s keen observation skills, honed during her years as a journalist. That skill shows in her beautifully detailed descriptions that bring the East Texas landscape to life. Yet it is her wordsmanship, and the delightful lyricism of her prose, that make the novel special. “Pine warbler opens song…a one-note trill that goads aside the shroud of dawn. She perches on a tulip tree that’s uncommon in this forest, its life a chance of brawny wind from far-off meadow… At tip of crown, a tiny bulge of someday leaf protrudes toward winter’s day, though limbs still hold dried cups of spent samaras—dead leaves pointing skyward, spoils of hope. Where warbler sings, a branch is broken, and down below, another: jagged rips that came yesterday, that came with shake and roar…. Drunk with pleasure at morning mist, roots register all landings – this weight tiny, that one big.”

Lovely.

At every juncture, What Luck is quietly, almost stealthily, thought-provoking and contemplative. One character laments the nature of death and “the forces at play within us,” and declares “what do any of us know about how the end truly comes about.” It is a wonderment and mystery we can all recognize.

This is a debut novel to treasure and to ponder. Readers will find themselves returning again and again to the people and places in Kiser, Texas, for the truths and wisdom they reveal about and to all of us.


Fannie Flono, retired associate editor of The Charlotte Observer, is an award-winning journalist and author of Thriving in the Shadows: The Black Experience In Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.


Kathryn Schwille reads from What Luck, This Life at Park Road Books, Thursday, September 20, 7 to 8:30 pm.

Cecily Parks’ “O’Nights”

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s classic, hermited study of the natural world, he acknowledges his immersive contemplation might be considered odd. “This was sheer idleness to my fellow townsmen, no doubt; but if the birds and flowers had tried me by their standard, I should not have been found wanting.” That standard—of the stars, the moon, the meadow—is the one Cecily Parks’ aspires to in her second collection of poetry, O’Nights (Alice James Books, 2015). Its speaker is the female incarnation of a present-day wanderer trying to commune with what’s left of the wild, one whose solitary forest wanderings mark her even after she finds love and returns to an urban environment.

The stars said, Follow us. They drew me deep
into the disheveled spruces to introduce me.
to loss. My fields were ill. They weren’t my fields.

My trees were being killed. They weren’t my trees.
I was nervous that this natural world would see
that I was filthy-footed in silk, a woman

pretending to be a man to trip a pyrotechnic grace. Oh yes,
I wanted the world to be wild again. I believed

I might hold weather in my hands
and mend it . .  .

—from “When I Was Thoreau at Night”

O’Nights, which takes its title from an anecdote found in Thoreau’s journal, is split into three sections. In the first, the speaker is alone and spends her days (and nights) closely observing the natural world. While she may be the sole human, her solitude expands to encompass a wider community of the forest where she finds herself in conversation with the wild entities that surround her. She is alone, but not lonely. “Hurricane Song,” the powerful, opening poem, describes the “little kidnapped thrill that comes with drastic weather,” the feeling of being out in a storm’s overture. She’s on the same level as the pines, the grass, and the deer who “flips herself over and over, white tail-spark,/black hoof-sparks, brown wheel.” This leveling serves as a reminder that we humans are animals after all, still part of an ecosystem, still subject to the whims of weather. A sense of restless energy runs through this section as the speaker, eschewing comfort and convention, roams alone.

In the book’s second section, the speaker is in the city, deliriously in love, “suspended in the edgy bliss.” Of these 15 poems, two are aubades—poems bidding farewell to a love at dawn. Notwithstanding the speaker’s former forest solitude, loneliness pangs around the edges of these poems. When the lover’s frequent absences are most keenly felt, the speaker’s thoughts go to foxes in their den, and back to the community she found in the natural world where “puddles count the clouds,” and where “the marsh opens its little wet mouths.” These are lush and lovely pieces. The lovers, at last, share time together in “Love Poem” and the longer “Twelve-Wired Bird-of-Paradise:” 

We’re afraid we’ll die before we’ve loved each other long enough.
There is no end 

 

to long enough. This is paradise.

The final section of O’Nights is its shortest and least thematically cohesive, but includes the standout lead poem “Bell.” Parks writes beautifully about the wild world in all its seasons and moods. If the birds and flowers tried her by their standard, her keen-eyed poems with would not be found wanting.


September 4X4CLT kicks off Labor Day weekend featuring Cecily Parks, author of O’Nights and Field, Folly, Snow. Parks reads from her work at the release party on Friday August 31 from 6 to 8 pm at SOCO Gallery. Local artists Ruth Ava Lyons and Linda Foard Roberts will also be on hand for the celebration, which is free and open to the public. September 4X4CLT posters with poems and art from these three women will be displayed at over 70 venues in and around Charlotte. On Saturday September 1 from 10 am to 1 pm, Parks will teach a master class in poetry at Charlotte Lit’s studio.

Tyree Daye’s “River Hymns”

Gabrielle Calvocoressi, author of Rocket Fantastic and featured poet for 4X4CLT in June 2017, served as final judge for the American Poetry Review’s Honickman First Book Prize. She chose Tyree Daye’s River Hymns, citing the poet’s ability “to show us a world we thought we knew and then expand our understanding.” Daye joins Charlotte Lit as featured writer for 4X4CLT in June 2018.

Daye is from Youngsville, North Carolina, a small town northeast of Raleigh with a population of 1,157 according to the 2010 census. The poems in this collection are imbued with a sense of that place. Action happens at home, in church, and outside. The separation between inside and outside is a thin one. Outside is close, sometimes capricious, where threat and beauty reside in equal measure. In “Wade Through,” the speaker’s mother is quick to pass along inherited warnings:

The presence of extended family, both living and dead, is keenly felt in these poems and the separation between those two states is also a thin one. The speaker’s grandmother is dead, but that doesn’t stop him from speaking to her. In “How Long Is Her Hair Now?” he asks, what’s the price of being / obsessed with the dead? It’s a question the poet returns to again and again. Earlier in that same poem he admits she sometimes answers back:

As one would expect from a book with “river” in its title, currents run through this book. Yes, the actual rivers—the Haw and the Neuse are named specifically—but so is the river of gin that ensnares many. As Daye notes in “Southern Silence,” one of the collection’s standouts:

And in “What is God but Rain Spilling Me Over?” the dead also gather near the river to drink and confess / in the ribcage of the pines. The strongest current, though, is that of extended family. In “Sore,” the speaker says he comes from a clutter of folks and they’re all here: aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, alive and dead, where they live, where they’re buried, what they liked to eat, how they liked to play. The family’s geography weaves in and around the rivers, living in houses they don’t own, where people they love have died or “made ghost” and haunt them still.

Calvocoressi wrote that in River Hymns she encountered “new ways to think about family and community, new ways to wrestle with my own landscape and legacy.” That’s the gift Daye’s plain-spoken but beautifully wrought lyrics offer us.


Join Charlotte Lit in welcoming Tyree Daye for two events on Wednesday June 6:

Master Class, 10 am to 1 pm: Tyree Daye teaches a master class at Charlotte Lit, “Writing the I—Giving our Poems Identity.” In this workshop, framed by Barbara Guest’s “Invisible Architecture” and Vievee Francis’ “Coming to the ‘I,’” we’ll take a look at the way the poet’s personal narrative and the poem’s symbols frame the structure and emotional connection to images. We’ll also learn ways of diving into the subconscious, where many of the images we use in our writing exist, and consider those moments of coming up for air, when our written work begins to develop identity. Register here

4X4CLT Release Party, 6:30-8:30 pm: Join us in celebrating the next release of 4X4CLT posters, featuring poems by Tyree Daye and art by Hasaan Kirkland and Kathie Roig, at C3 Lab in South End. Tyree reads from his award-winning collection River Hymns, and Kathie speaks about the creative process for her handwoven art, which will be on display. We’ll also have craft beer courtesy of Triple C Brewing and delicious bites from Earl’s Grocery. Free!

Review: Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating & Cooling

Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs
Beth Ann Fennelly

W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN 978-0-393-60947-9
111 pages | Memoir | $22.95

Short forms are all the rage, lately, with the profusion of prose poems and flash fiction staking (small) claims on the pages of literary journals. Add to this genre-fluidity the “micro-memoir,” another short form employed virtuosically by Beth Ann Fennelly in her new collection Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs. These pieces range from a sentence or two, to several pages in length. Many are lighthearted. Some are lists. A few are prose poems in spirit: see “A Reckoning of Kisses” and, especially, “I Was Not Going to Be Your Typical.” This is not a bad thing. Fennelly is staking a claim here by writing however she damn well pleases.

A poet by trade, Fennelly serves as the poet laureate of Mississippi, but she’s also written fiction along with her husband, the novelist, Tom Franklin. The narrative slant of even the briefest of these micro-memoirs sends their stories reverberating further than their words. For instance, take this economical recounting of life among the long married, part of a series that runs throughout the book:

Married Love, II

There will come a day—let it be many years from now—when our kids realize no married couple ever needed to retreat at high noon behind the locked bedroom door to discuss taxes.

A rare honesty and self-deprecation weaves through these pages, often with humorous results. No spoilers here, but don’t miss the fun of “Why I’m So Well Read” and “One Doesn’t Always Wish to Converse on Airplanes,” the latter an oddball encounter just weird enough to ring true. Pull up a chair, Fennelly seems to offer, have I got one for you.

Her truth telling lands solid punches, too, when addressing more serious territory. Those who have had difficult relationships with aging parents will relate to her recounting of time spent with her father, in particular “Sweet Nothing.” The sudden loss of her sister, as detailed in “Grief Vacation” is heartwrenching. Quiet fury rages through “Goner.” At three pages, one of the longest memoirs in the book, it grapples with sexual abuse in Fennelly’s childhood church. She’s left the church, but it hasn’t left her. Catholicism’s ritual and language are a recurring theme.

As ever, Fennelly writes about motherhood with beautiful ferocity (notably in her 2004 poetry collection Tender Hooks). She returns to the subject here, refracting it through its complexity in the bold “What I Think About When Someone Uses ‘Pussy’ As A Synonym For ‘Weak,’” and this humorous piece:

When They Grow Up

My oldest child will hate me because I wrote an entire book about her. My middle child will hate me because I wrote hardly a word about him. But the baby; ah, the baby. When I write about him, I call it fiction, and I’m always sure to mention he has a big penis.

In midlife many of us have lost people we love and those we don’t. Children, if we have them,  are growing or grown. We’ve lusted, and loved, and occasionally regretted it. Those who’ve not gotten there yet will appreciate Fennelly’s take on what’s to come. Heating & Cooling is an economical accounting of midlife that works by illuminating points on this timeline brightly enough to let the reader stitch together the whole.


We are thrilled to welcome Beth Ann Fennelly to Charlotte Lit December 1 and 2. 

Fennelly, the Poet Laureate of Mississippi, is the featured poet on our upcoming 4X4CLT Series 2 Number 4 posters. December 1, she’ll read from and discuss her work at our poster release party, at Resident Culture Brewing Company, 7 to 9 pm. Park Road Books will be on hand with Fennelly’s books for sale.

If you’d like to try your hand at the micro-memoir form, Fennelly teaches a master class at Charlotte Lit the following day, December 2, from 10 am to 1 pm. Spaces are filling quickly for “Build Me a Hummingbird of Words: Tiny Texts.” Register at charlottelit.org/workshops.


Credits: Photo of Beth Ann Fennelly by Jon Cancelino