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In the lower common room of Adams House on Thursday night, a quiet, thoughtful group of students and other members of the Cambridge community gathered to hear award-winning poet Maurice Manning read from his latest work, A Compilation for Owls: Being the Commonplace Book of D.Boone, Long Hunter, Black Woodsman & Co. The Yale Younger Poet (2002) and professor of English at Indiana University seemed awestruck that such a large crowd had gathered on his behalf.
The humble, soft-spoken Kentucky native gave an hour-long reading of selected poems from A Compilation for Owls as well as a sneak peek at his most recent works, then engaged the crowd in an intimate and compelling personal discussion. Despite the din of slamming doors and noisy footsteps penetrating the room from outside, Manning transported the audience with his poems about wilderness into the bleak emotional state of the being forced to endure living “completely alone with no one to talk to.”
The sole force driving this series of poetic works into being was, according to Manning, the American legend Daniel Boone. Taking the perspective of the historical frontiersman, Manning composed a voluminous poetic discussion on the meaning of loneliness, grief, and the life and times of Boone, who was “a citizen of nowhere” at his death, according to Manning. He went on to describe the poems in a personal sense, including stories from the spans of time in his life when he himself lived alone, though all of the poems were spoken in impersonal voices. A sense of the meaning of Manning’s new works in the context of his own life may best be conveyed by the lines, “it was yours...only a dream/ a mean and beautiful one, but yours.”
In the confines of historical limitations, and a particular frame of mind, the body of A Compilation for Owls presents a strikingly provocative and multifaceted poetic exploration into the mind the historical legend. Along with a talent for thoroughly identifying his characters in his prose, Manning has a rare and unique ability to capture the grotesque in a moving, thoughtful way. Many of the gruesome snapshots of reality convey a purposeful meaning, as in the emotional tribute to Boone’s deceased son, Israel, which provides a startlingly graphic yet real and passionate description of the way a person like Boone might react to seeing his young son’s buzzard-ridden carcass. Despite the inherently unfamiliar nature of the work, set roughly in the latter half of the 18th century, the elements of human nature are stunningly resonant with the contemporary reader.
The works of Maurice Manning propose human understanding as an alternative to discrimination and isolation, proving that a common humanity can carry across space and time through a poignant body of literature.
—Staff writer Mary Catherine Brouder can be reached at email@example.com.
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