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April's Book
Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions
by Maurice Manning

Bill:
We’ve been on some exciting reading adventures on the bookclub@ket, but none has taken us on a lyrical journey quite like Maurice Manning’s book of poetry, entitled Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions. The winner of Yale University’s series of younger poets, Manning will surprise and delight you with his imagery and imagination. It’s Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions. The bookclub@ket starts now.

Bill:
Let’s get everybody’s first impression about the book, sort of top-of-mind thoughts about Book of Visions. Dava, what did you think about it?

Dava:
Well, I thought it was refreshing and daring.

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
I thought you were going to say, for some reason, zany and wacky.

[Everyone laughs]

Dava:
I don’t know—but yeah, it was.

Bill:
Who else?

Jonathan:
Well, it was very surprising, very intense, the language highly charged and very coherent, because all the poems are linked—a coherent body.

Bill:
We will get back to that.

Jonathan:
No doubt.

Wilma:
Well, I was surprised, as Jonathan was. I was really very pleasantly surprised, because I thought this was just going to be a nice sweet book of poems, and it’s just really a great ... a wonderful book of poems that almost makes up a novel, truly. Did you think the same thing?

Gabrielle:
Same thing. Unexpected and very happy with the way it twists and turns and uses the characters throughout.

Bill:
Why did you immediately think that it was going to be a sweet book of poetry?

Wilma:
Good question. I have no idea. Sometimes I think that I’m very severe on books of poetry because I don’t want something to be too sweet and syrupy. I was afraid it was going to be something like that, or people who try ... push too hard at writing poetry. That puts me off a little bit. So I think I am very critical. So when I started into this and—“Oh, this might be good.” That’s why I think I was surprised. It had nothing to do with the book itself or Maurice Manning or the title. It just was my basic impression of what poetry sometimes is.

Bill:
Now Jonathan, you had him as a student at the University of Kentucky, and I’m sure that you certainly didn’t think it was going to be just a sweet book of poetry, I don’t imagine. Or did you?

Jonathan:
No, I didn’t teach him in creative writing. But I think the idea of it being sweet poetry ... I mean, it’s set in the rural South, and so you think, is this going to be a pastoral vision?—i.e., a vision of, you know, rural nature as a splendid and revivifying and revitalizing place. If so, you are sadly disappointed, because it’s in some ways a very anti-pastoral vision of this place where this kid grows up, as being a very violent and brutal place surrounded by forces of destruction. But there is a deeper meaning within it, I think: the idea of a kind of spiritual regeneration that Lawrence Booth sees in his visions and he hopes for in life. And so it’s really a very powerful book, and Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions is also Maurice Manning’s book of visions of Lawrence Booth.

[Everyone agrees]

Bill:
And you said at the very beginning the poems are all linked, and some tie, and yet is there a central theme that sort of winds through the entire three sections?

[Everyone talks at once]

Bill:
What about that, Dava?

Dava:
Well, I think there’s a very present theme of freedom: that Lawrence Booth is always looking for freedom from the way his life is now. There is a lot of talk about trains, a lot of planes in the poems.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Dava:
A lot of galloping horses—things that represent being unfettered. And from reading the poems, you can obviously see what Lawrence Booth’s troubles are and you can understand it, but I think that is present in almost all the poems.

Wilma:
Because this was short enough to read twice, I read through it first fast, and then when I went back, I was very impressed at how he dropped hints to us about what some of the major themes or imagery would be even from the very first poem. In the very first poem, called “Bellwether,” he talks about the Great Field—which is for him probably literally a field in the acreage that he has, but then also more than that. It is a place where he can dream and be free and run as a boy. And he talks about the river, and even at the end of the book, he talks about [how] the only thing that he has found out that can’t die is a river. And then he says that he is the only guest out in the Great Field. And this theme of loneliness and being somehow separated from society and not fitting in, whether he really is separated from society, I think we all feel that way. So there are some basic themes. He talks about horses; here he talks about Indians and buffaloes and the wilderness and birds and so on. So even in the very first poem, if you go back, some of the imagery that carried him throughout is there, too. So I was impressed by that.

Gabrielle:
I made the mistake at first of just flipping through and randomly picking out poems and reading it, and then all of a sudden I started seeing the connection. And I went back at the beginning and then—wow—all of a sudden it flowed, and you saw that the poems individually stood up by themselves, but when you read it all together, it was almost like a story that was weaving throughout the book.

Bill:
If you would, begin to look for some examples of what we are talking about, too, and some sections that you would like to read from, because, as you just pointed out ... I think both of you made excellent points. You just can’t sort of leaf through it and choose one or two because you might find one that is sort of pastoral in its setting or terrifying in a way or maddening in another way.

Wilma:
Well, I’ll tell you one place, and I liked this very much. There is one called “Envoy” here, and actually what it is, it’s several personal ads, but they actually are Lawrence Booth’s ads to find a woman. And here are the ads, and they bring up some of the things that he’s talking about here. The first one says:

“Man who believes television
is the mouthpiece of the devil,
seeks female with similar views.

“Attention all ladies who like
biscuits: man has gristmill
and two or three acres of wheat.

“Are you a woman cast out from society?
Man with thirty-seven acres
and big muscles can provide refuge.

“Would like to find sober woman (beer okay),
interested in pick-up trucks, old-time
Gospel music, buffalo trails.

“Grown man who likes red dogs
and skipping rocks, hoping against
hope some woman likes same.

“Man who lives several hundred
years in the past would like to find
woman zealous for spinning wheels.”

Now, in some of his imagery ... You know you are looking at spinning wheels there, but it’s spinning heels, also. And then the last one:

“Eccentric (?) gentleman (negotiable)—
tinker/farmer searching the heavens
for the true spark of love (breast-size unimportant). Please.”

And all of these are personal ads; that is, Lawrence Booth’s personal ads in his mind, and some of the things he is seeking in life. Not just women, but it has some things here—and he is seeking a woman every moment of the book—but also some other things about wanting to go back in time, not wanting the society. The society is too much for him—you know, today’s world. So I found that little poem interesting. And did you find the same thing?

Gabrielle:
Yeah, I liked it. I liked the humor, too. And the poems are really fast-paced, and you read them very quickly, but there is a lot of humor that you kind of chuckled [at]. And other times you felt, whoa, that’s really complex when you started thinking about the metaphors and what they represented.

Bill:
Jonathan, you said to me that the book is written with sort of a guidepost or a road map with the Dramatis Personae. I’m sure it’s intentional; the poet wouldn’t do anything other than that. But that’s a real help. It certainly guides the reader.

Jonathan:
Yes, the Dramatis Personae at the beginning, as you would get in the beginning of a play, describes who the characters are who are going to appear. In some respects it’s not that helpful ...

[Everyone laughs]

Jonathan:
For instance, the missionary woman is “peek-a-boo bright star on the western horizon, endowed with certain properties such as transformation.” So she almost seems like something out of Greek myths: a kind of star, yet also a being who can change shapes. But I think that the one that figures an awful lot here is Mad Daddy ...

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
... who is the oppressive father figure in the book. I think when we get back to the question of the sequentiality of the poems ... I mean they are all ordered in a particular way. I mean, it does go from infancy to maturity, and you know we have poems about him being a child and then we have poems about him being 10 years old and then poems where he’s 12 years old, and then poems about him growing up and leaving home and then finally the ultimate poem: His father, Mad Daddy, kills himself in a kind of strange moment of self-immolation when he sets himself on fire. Then the final poem, it seems to me, is Lawrence Booth taking over the Great Field—taking over the home place and calling to all the birds in the sky to come and visit his field. And it’s a wonderful, generous, exuberant, open ending to the book which I thought I’d just read.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
And he begins by calling out for crows. Now normally farmers try to scare crows, and here he is calling for all the crows to come to his field, and I think there are all sorts of implicit critical suggestions in this: suggestions of openness and people coming in—people who are called pilgrims—and the suggestion is also that they are immigrants, and it is a kind of very open political suggestion here, as well as being the general tone of generosity. He says:

“Booth can give them sanctuary—he has a near
plenitude, with the thirty-seven acres, the Great Field,
the tip topping trees, the blithe creek
and he is half-lathered from wildly galloping
around to make them welcome, kowtowing
and paving their way with a trail of cracked corn
and sunflower seed. Oh, send word to the tiny wrens,
the speckled finches, the hoot owls, and all the other
immigrants: the black darlings of the field and sky,
the raven-tressed wayfarers, are at last arrived!”

It’s a fantastic ending to a book which has been so much about him being victimized and oppressed by this abusive and drunken father figure who’s finally dead. And once since ... It’s like an Oedipal overthrow; it’s the story of the Oedipal overthrow—killing a father. Only the father basically kills himself. But I think that it is a story, coherent, and it’s all there in all its parts, but it’s quite right that in any given part it seems to be woven in and of itself. Any given poem seems to be a world in and of itself.

Gabrielle:
Right.

Wilma:
Jonathan has talked about the ending, and I thought ... I liked one of the beginning poems, too, and it has to do with the beginning as far as innocence. It has to do with his innocence. One called “Wave,” and it has to do with him as a little boy. And I liked even the sounds in here, a lot of w and b sounds, like a windy day.

[Everyone agrees]

Wilma:
It says:

“Wash day, and young Booth is in the yard
weaseled under the whipping sheets like a bug,
lying on his back, bare feet kicking the billows,
right eye winking at the downy clouds, ten dirty
fingers woven in the grass. No one on earth
can see him and no one knows about the tickly
feeling swimming like a fish beneath his breast.
Being the only fluttering boy in spring is all he wants
on such a bright and windy day, while he pretends to hide
from his poor grandmother, the long-widowed sweet one
who lives on top of the mountain, who has the powder box
full of buttons and marbles, and the three stray dominos
with Chinese dragons coiled on the back. The sneaky old devil
has not yet tried to strangle him. Everybody he knows
is a big-boned woman except, every everybody
he knows is a big-boned woman except Mad Daddy. For now, the whispery
world is full of honeybees and clover; it is a very sleepy time
and he has so many sleepy days ahead, plus some terrible ones.”

So I think this is a really good beginning: the idea that he was, and we all are at some time ... This innocent, beautiful day, and yet there are some foreboding things here. The Chinese dragons coiled on the back of the dominos; that’s something foreboding. And the mention of Mad Daddy and then, of course, the last idea that he has a lot of sleepy days ahead, but then he also has a lot of terrible ones. So I liked this, and I think you are right. At the end there is a positive note. It starts with a positive note; at the end there is a positive note. Throughout, he is unhinged; he is trying to search for something.

Gabrielle:
Right.

Bill:
And then as the beautiful part at the very beginning, zany at times—“surprising” is a word that was used, too. Because it does start with a lovely forming of words in “Wave,” and then it really ends on that note, too, but in between there are some ...

Gabrielle:
Dreadful Chapters.

Bill:
Terrifying. And back to Mad Daddy, too, and all of the other names. In fact, could any of you tell us more about W.S. Merwin, who’s at Yale and chooses the young poets—and is a poet himself and a translator and does a lot of writing. But he writes ... Again, in the foreword, and that's again something that you don’t always have in a book of poetry either. Not only do you not have the dramatis personae—sort of the guidebook, if you will—but you don’t have the foreword where this writer/critic/translator/chooser of the prize tells us a lot about it. He says:

“Violence occurs, or threatens to occur, in many of the poems, and the father-figures, especially Law’s father, are the source of most of it. Law’s father, Mad Daddy ‘with a shotgun full of history,’ appears in different pieces as Ole Dreadful Daddy, Ole Black Jack Daddy, Crackshot Daddy, Ninety-Proof Daddy ...”

It goes on and on and on.

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Bill:
Is this sort of inherent, this outrage and this hatred that sort of builds throughout? And you see it in different places. The poem “Raptor”—that’s the one where they are sitting at the ...

Gabrielle:
Dinner table.

Bill:
... dinner table.

Gabrielle:
Yeah, and he looks over at his dad. I remember they are saying prayer, and he peeks out of one eye, and he looks at his dad, and I think there are three, actually, birds that he thinks he sees. There is one that he thinks ... that is kind of the true father and then one that’s evil lurking, that you don’t know what’s going to happen. Then there is another. I kind felt of past, present, future types of visions.

Wilma:
I liked the way, also, concerning his father and many other things, [that] we’re not sure sometimes whether Lawrence Booth is having a vision or actually it’s happening.

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Wilma:
And so what I used as a guidepost there, and I think this is very important ... Actually the book is set up like a play; that’s why you have the dramatis personae at the beginning. But you also have several places in the book—I think about seven—you have Black Damon speaking, and Black Damon is his best friend. The critic at the beginning also mentioned this, and he wondered why those passages from Black Damon were written, actually, in almost embarrassing, stereotypical-like black language, kind of a minstrel show. I happened to really like those passages, simply because Black Damon’s the only one you can trust in this book because he’s not having the visions. In other words, if I get from him [that] something is happening, because he summarizes some things, then I understand then that this really happened. It wasn’t one of Lawrence Booth’s visions. And the reason I’m saying that ... I kind of like that. I almost see him like the fool in King Lear, because the fool is always talking kind of gibberish, and he’s always talking in rhyme, and yet he’s the only person that can tell King Lear the truth. Of course, I’m not sure that’s what Maurice Manning had in mind. But it might well be, you know, the idea that this is clouded in questions. Black Damon is the only one that is telling us what we can believe here. And he even tells when the two boys are on the railroad track and Lawrence Booth is actually ...

Gabrielle:
[laughs]

Wilma:
... playing with matches, and they are wondering whether they ought to hop the train or not, and Lawrence Booth has visions of, oh, what’s life about? Can we jump the train? What can we do? Black Damon looks back and says, “Your pants are on fire.”

Gabrielle:
Pants are on fire.

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
So the idea is, you have got a bigger problem right now to fool with. Your pants are on fire. So he tells us the truth.

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Wilma:
Did you see that?

Gabrielle:
And also, isn’t it interesting that even though it’s a short and a brief poem, you automatically see the relationship and the bond between the two?

Wilma:
Yes.

Gabrielle:
And when he passes away, you can feel the hurt ...

Wilma:
Yes.

Gabrielle:
... that Lawrence Booth feels of losing someone.

Jonathan:
Also, I think, about the language of Black Damon ... He’s introduced in a series of seven works; each one is called “dreadful chapter.”

[Everyone agrees]

Jonathan:
Dreadful Chapter One to Dreadful Chapter Seven. And the language is, as you said, stereotypical African-American speech written colloquially, and I think there is a tradition of this in American literature. I mean, partly it’s harking back to the kind of regionalist colloquial traditions in American literature. I think it’s a book that therefore is claiming its part in the tradition and also suggesting that there are influences flowing into it. I’m thinking of, I guess, Jim ...

Wilma:
Sure.

Jonathan:
... [from] Huckleberry Finn.

Wilma:
Exactly.

Bill:
But of course, Merwin refers in the foreword to him as an Andy—that dialect and language that was on television—and radio first. Radio first for so many years. Well, let me just ask. You know, only Maurice Manning ... If he were here, would he be able to tell us? I’m curious: Why invent that character? Why use a Black Damon as your vehicle there? I mean, I don’t really know.

Wilma:
In what part? Or just as the friend, you mean?

Bill:
As the friend, and as one who would not just be an African-American friend, but be one who speaks ...

Wilma:
... speaks the truth.

Bill:
Right.

Wilma:
And, and ...

Bill:
And speaks in that dialect.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Bill:
I mean, he could have been a black friend and not used the outrageous ...

Gabrielle:
I thought there was a message in there. I thought that he had a lot of political messages; that he was trying to get even as the tree. Remember the poem that he was a tree, and he was welcoming everybody to come, but then they cut off the limbs, and they made paper for the political propaganda?

Wilma:
Own use.

Gabrielle:
Their own use. And so I felt like a lot of times there were these personal perspectives that were woven throughout the poems.

Dava:
Well, also I think that was part of it. There were a lot of different styles in each of the poems. We read examples of most of the ones [that] have been of the same type, where, you know, it seems more like a ... almost prose [rather] than a poem. But there are just various types of poems. We have the Dreadful Chapters, one through seven, which are told through different dialogue, as we have said. There is also “Proof,” which is an actual geometric proof, and ...

Bill:
“School Report.”

Dava:
Yeah, there is a school report. There is even like a list ...

Wilma:
“School Report” is good.

Dava:
... in here about names that Black Damon and Lawrence call each other. So it’s different with each poem that you read, and even in its style it’s different. And I think that’s what keeps it interesting and also what conveys the message he is trying to convey, because if they were all the same poem ... You’d almost get lost and just bored if they were the same style.

Jonathan:
Well, Black Damon is an alternative narrator. I mean, most of the poems are narrated by the same omniscient narrator, and then Black Damon is an alternative narrator ...

[Everyone agrees]

Jonathan:
... telling similar events but in his own way. I’m sort of interested in the name Damon because Damon, meaning D-a-e-m-o-n, suggests a kind of—not quite demonic, but irrational energy that was in himself, which is part of the self but which is a kind of alter ego. I’m wondering whether we can see Black Damon as a kind of alter ego of LB or Law, on one hand, and also just one more mask for the poet to wear.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
But certainly I think that the language, the stereotypical black language, in a sense is an embrace of Southern cultural traditions—which may be ambiguous in some ways, but then there are other ways in which LB’s politics are very upfront. The Daughters of the American Confederacy, what about that?

Gabrielle:
Yeah. And he jumps on the table!

Jonathan:
It was an extraordinary poem, the way it was presented as a legal suit.

Gabrielle:
Right.

Bill:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
And ...

Bill:
Tell me about ... Tell me about Red Dog.

Wilma:
Red Dog is his best friend, a real dog. I mean Red Dog, a dog that stays ...

Bill:
Red dog.

Wilma:
... that stays with him and is really his only friend, and even survives buckshot from Mad Daddy and even survives beyond Black Damon, so you know he is still with him at the end. I didn’t wonder—and we talked about this before ... Because Red Dog is a beer, you are wondering, you know: Is this something that he’s kept? I mean because there are passages where Lawrence Booth is drunk, and so we are wondering [about] Red Dog being my best friend. I was wondering about that, too. There are so many levels in poetry. I mean, I may be going too far, because this may just be a dog.

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
But anyway, I liked—well, we all liked Red Dog. What’s not to like about Red Dog? I was going ... I like Red Dog.

Bill:
Well, he was the only friend. Although Black Damon was ...

Wilma:
He was a friend, but he dies. And what a horrifying ... Was that an unbelievable poem, when Black Damon is dead?

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Bill:
But maybe Red Dog in the end is the only ... I mean, just like a dog is supposed to be. They greet you; they never had a bad day. You can have a rotten day and they still ...

Gabrielle:
Unconditional.

Bill:
... run to the door. Yeah, sure. So that’s sort of that.

Wilma:
And we’re not sure that Missionary Woman is real, but we’re pretty sure that Red Dog is real.

Bill:
Well, it’s real in his mind.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Wilma:
Who Missionary Woman is.

Bill:
Yeah, don’t you think?

Wilma:
The only reason I’m thinking she may not be real is Black Damon never mentions her. You know, he mentions everything else, but he doesn’t mention Missionary Woman. And of course, Lawrence Booth himself says something about Missionary Woman being maybe one of his visions. We don’t know. But it’s kind of his quest just to be part of something.

Bill:
Painted rather well. Yes.

Gabrielle:
In his mind.

Wilma:
In his mind. She had good legs, he said.

Bill:
And other parts. “A Condensed History of Beauty,” on page 36 again. As Dava pointed out a minute ago of “Proof” ... And we start with “Wave” and end ... You know, in between there are some tricks that he throws out there. And Jonathan, I won’t read into that, but that’s 70 years of chronological order, of sort of a history of this from 1907 to 1976, just like that: in a page and ... not even a page and a half. And you really get a sense of what’s going on there. So in this, what you—help me, all of you—we have sonnets and we have rhyme and we have all sorts of other demonstrations of different and varied ways in which Maurice Manning has put this together. It’s, again, surprising and unique and all of the other.

Gabrielle:
It lives up to the title. Visions—the Book of Visions.

[Everyone agrees]

Gabrielle:
Because you don’t always have the same vision. It’s always coming at you in a different format. I thought it added to the book.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Gabrielle:
I liked the differences.

Dava:
And then there is always talk about poetic license, and there is always usage of phrases that are just like, what is that? Like I remember reading “Pegasus,” and it says:

“or a ribcage made of tempered steel, plus the cucumber
smell of a snake in a ditch.”

I mean, that’s what I love about poetry. You can just put together a sentence that doesn’t make sense literally, but that evokes some sort of sensory image to it. I really enjoy that always with poetry.

Wilma:
And for an author to do so much in so few pages ...

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Wilma:
You know, to give us so much. I think only poetry can do that, too, Dava.

Bill:
Well, April being Poetry Month, National Poetry Month and all of that, it’s certainly a fitting book. And Jonathan, we talked some weeks ago about your very first impression, and I think you did like the rest of us ... And we would suggest that people do go back and pick it up and read it a couple more times and that sort of thing. But what—do you remember what you told me about your very first impression of it?

Jonathan:
No. Are you going to tell me?

[Everyone laughs]

Jonathan:
No, I remember I was thinking that the language is very striking ...

 

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