Maurice Manning

A Thread Worth Pulling

You have to wonder, why go on
with tale after tale of highly doubtful
people who find themselves ensnared
in a knot of unlikely events,
many of which defy reason,
offend polite taste, and invite
belief in the utterly ludicrous?
I suppose one answer would be satire,
or at least a stab at it, to see
if you can give the wickedness
and folly people bring to the world
a just reward.  Invention, too,
implies reality is broken,
or insufficient to fix the mess.
The mess I mean is in the spirit,
something is wrong, and this is a way
to pick the lock on the prison door
and swing it open, that together
we may stroll into the light of freedom,
or simply to get out of the prison,
and the prison I mean is in the mind,
a mind conceived in loneliness,
though with the longing for otherwise.
If someone boasts about a chicken,
we see how hollow it is to boast.
Yet if someone says, I’ll now present
my imitation of a chicken—
and sits there silent and stone-faced
for a couple of beats then says, that’s hit,
I was thinking of a quiet chicken,
a chicken lost in reverie—
the imitation invites belief,
but just as soon, we wonder why
a person who’s imagining
anything would start with a chicken
and take it further to imagine
a chicken could have a reverie.
But then the impossible arrives—
it might be true, maybe a chicken
is capable of reverie,
maybe it has an inner vision
so clear and mesmerizing the chicken
briefly departs the conscious world,
and when it returns a well of wisdom
appears behind the creature’s eyes.
I wouldn’t want to rule it out
that a chicken could have a reverie.
To give high-minded thought to a subject
that wouldn’t ordinarily
command such attention is always a thread
worth pulling, because you never know
what else will come out when you pull.
It could be a surprisingly cogent chicken,
or a toothless man who nevertheless
was the best whistler anywhere,
or a blind woman who lived alone
because she knew where everything was,
or an owl commanding the night from a tree,
a sound to hear from unknown distance—
so you begin in unknown distance
and wander home to see who’s there,
and if the scarecrow’s where you left it.

A Reaching Thing

The Swopes were fine, upstanding people
with unremarkable children except
for the baby, Luther, known as Lute,
who claimed a truth-telling haint
was always following him around
to jump in if someone was lying
or plank-blind to an obvious truth,
because Lute was simple-minded and prone
to fall for falsehoods big and small.
Lute said the haint was Ballard Boggs,
the ghost of a blacksmith who’d died,
a hundred and fifty-two years ago
not at the forge as one might expect,
but from a tree blown down in a storm
on top of the privy where Ballard Boggs
at midnight with a plop of triumph
had lately concluded his final heave
of relief as a living soul in the world.
The ghost of Ball Boggs had, clearly,
conveyed the dire and tragic details
of his demise to Lute Swope
over the course of their long acquaintance
after Ball arrived in ghostly form
to serve Lute Swope as his protector.
The fact that Lute could speak of his haint
and the sad result of Ball’s life
with sympathy and plain knowledge
made Lute’s belief in a ghost persuasive.
Nobody doubted Ball was real.
He was a powerful help to Lute
in school, especially when the answer
to a question was either True of False.
When that was the case Lute Swope
stood high above the other scholars—
thanks to the wisdom of old Ball,
there was a brain and a half between them.
But matters got pinched when Lute went to church,
as he often did with his humble folks.
They’d sit in the pew for the preacher’s blast
against every happiness in the world
and some no one had ever heard of,
like the sin of loving the world, and the people
would fall out crying because they’d learned
another thing they shouldn’t do,
but likely had done it a time or two,
so they wept in shame.  And then old Ball,
the ghost, would lean in the ear of Lute
and say, he’s wrong, he’s got it wrong—
that preacher’s awful loud, but he’s wrong.
The spirit is a reaching thing,
and reaches out from all Creation,
wherever you are it’s bound to find you.
To shout that the only thing to do
is to ramble sad and broken down
the road of suffering because
that’s all there is in the world—sorrow
after sorrow until the joyous day
of death—is a damnable bane of the truth.
He’s preaching the Gospel of Misery!
So, eventually such instruction prompted
young Luther Swope to speak, after
the preacher strutted and cried in rage
and sent the congregation to Hell,
ending with a vicious amen.
Now, Preacher, I’ve got a haint named Ball,
killed in an outhouse accident,
who speaks to me and says you’re wrong,
he says you’re preaching pure deception.
You’ve made us all feel terrible
and told us the world is only a place
to suffer out a pitiful life.
And now you’re fixing to pass the plate,
to pay you for making us feel helpless.
But all around us here is hope—
grass-heads toss in the wind,
an old mule finds the shade,
a seed pops up out of the ground
on its way to climbing up the pole.
Brothers and Sisters, I ask you now,
does that sound like misery to you?
I wasn’t blessed with brains, but thanks
to Ballard Boggs, my haint, I’ve learned
how to see the world for what it is,
the Life that makes our lives have meaning,
because it reaches out to us
and claims us all wherever we are.
And the world reached out for Ballard Boggs
in the outhouse that night when the tree
fell down in the storm and mashed him flatter
than a railroad penny, a moment
after Ball delivered his last burden
down the old hole, as they say,
and received his final recognition,
but in that instant he knew he belonged.
My fellow believers, why shouldn’t we
also belong?  Isn’t that our call,
to belong to the world we’re in right now?
And isn’t that a comfort to hold?
To belong to each other and the world—
that’s what I’ve learned from a haint, who loved
the world so well he came back to it.
And so the witty, Luther Swope,
out-preached the regular preacher that day,
though, of course, he didn’t gloat, because
a witty is never the kind to gloat,
it’s something that isn’t in his nature.
Lute’s themes, as you might imagine, did not
sit well with the preacher, who simmered and fumed,
because he didn’t believe in ghosts,
and later assembled the grave deacons
who struck the name of Luther Swope
from the rolls.  They kicked him out, and told him
with sneers, to go into this world
he was talking about—if he could find it.
But moseying along, Lute did,
and the ghost of Ballard Boggs went, too,
and left those people to themselves
if all they wanted was misery.

Maurice Manning                           

Maurice Manning’s first book, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, was selected by W.S. Merwin for the Yale Series of Younger Poets and published in 2001. Since then, Manning has published six other collections, including The Common Man, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2011, and One Man’s DarkRailsplitter is his seventh collection. Manning has held fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the Hawthornden International Retreat for Writers in Scotland. A former Guggenheim fellow, Manning teaches at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and for the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. His poems and essays have appeared in various magazines and journals, including TIME, Garden & Gun, The Sewanee Review, Commonweal, Plume, Virginia Quarterly Review, Five Points, and The New Yorker. Manning lives with his family on a small farm in Kentucky.