In Railsplitter, Maurice Manning’s newest collection (Copper Canyon Press, 2019), he has taken on the voice of Abraham Lincoln to talk to readers about poetry, attention, and civilization. In his other eight books of poetry, Manning has written through persona to get vividly and surprisingly at particulars of landscape, history, and spirituality. In all cases, Manning’s treatment of these topics is intimate, thoroughly imagined, and decidedly American. This new collection, though, features Manning’s trademark historical focus with a sharpened edge, as he interrogates the people and ideas that birthed this strange and mystical country.
All the poems in this newest book are written from the voice of perhaps our greatest and most literate American president. At various points in the book, we see the president singing, joking, speaking from the afterlife, and even writing poems. Reading the collection, one gains an appreciation for the shear amount of research conducted by way of unearthing surprising facts about one of America’s most popular presidents. I, for example, did not know that Lincoln was
born and not from a state
that had never been a colony.
Similarly, I did not know that John Wilkes Booth witnessed the hanging of John Brown, or that the last line of Our American Cousin, uttered before the bullet entered Lincoln’s head was “you sockdologizing old man-trap.” Manning has scoured libraries, letters, photographs, and diaries in the belief that Lincoln’s life is “a sentence too few of my countrymen have read,” and I appreciate the new light shed on the familiar figure.
One could, of course, look for parallels to today’s political climate and find them. Manning does, after all, mention the xenophobic Know-Nothing Party, bemoaning “the names some men willingly give themselves / and wave before them as a sacred banner.” Also in the background of these poems is the debate over African-American humanity. I think, however, to read Railsplitter merely as a commentary on today’s world would be to reduce Manning’s concerns in some way, which are larger than single political seasons. Manning’s tendency to look back at the past has to do more, perhaps, with what is disappearing every day from our lives—namely, our relationship with the landscape, with time, and with each other. Don’t get the wrong idea, though. Never does Railsplitter eulogize or yearn for a simpler, romanticized time. Instead, the book attempts to render the early and complicated American president for what he was—a lenient parent, a homegrown thinker, a courtroom cut-up, and an un-ironic believer in the truth of our common experience.
Taken together, this collection of poems functions more broadly as a collage of American thought. These poems take inspiration as quickly from writers like Shakespeare, Poe, and Robert Burns as they do from raunchy limericks, folk song parodies, and pithy insults. For a young country simultaneously seeking and shirking society’s civilizing influences, this colorful bibliography seems strikingly appropriate. America has always been a country skeptical of all the Widow Douglases trying to “sivilize” our wild Tom Sawyers.
American self-reliance and individualism is built on this skeptical stance toward civilization, and our Lincoln speaker himself is productively skeptical of civilization in many of these poems. “Young Men’s Lyceum,” for example, features a young Lincoln and companion “trying to improve themselves / before civilization catches up with them.” In other places, we see Lincoln undercutting the civilized assumption that a cultured mind is a clear mind by making fun of muddy-minded rhetors in favor of those who can “say it plainly.” Manning asks us to “observe how someone speaking passionately / might still not make a lick of sense,” and asks us to see the truth in simple, common, and even vulgar things.
Manning, for example, extends Lincoln’s historical uncouthness as a larger ideological statement about the unifying potential of silliness and vulgarity. Anecdotes such as Willie and Tad peeing in the president’s top hat, whether real or not, speak to this issue indirectly. “Vulgarity: An Ode,” however, takes inspiration from a nasty playground insult and ends with Lincoln describing
the purpose of [his] life –
to make others feel more alive,
either by wisdom or vulgar phrases
or nonsense, whose sudden utterance
is like the bell of beauty ringing.
There is more than simple slapstick comedy and playground boyishness on the line here. Manning seems to read Lincoln as a figure who tried to preserve his unrefined spirit—both in his physical presentation and in his political presence. Many of these poems concern themselves with the way comedy can bring people together, and the historical anecdotes seem to make it clear that Lincoln was often willing to make himself the butt of a joke if laughing could dissolve boundaries between people. “By God I Was a Gesticulating Fool” imagines a lawyer Lincoln tugging on the whiskers of his wart to “make / [his] homely body homlier” and get the jury laughing at him. Again and again, Manning seems to be making the case for the unseemly defiance of civil norms as the site for human connection and understanding.
Behind other poems—such as one depicting a young Lincoln plowing a field with a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress in his hand—is a Puritanical industriousness and an almost religious conviction that what we give our attention to will change us. Whether standing up to recite dramatic monologues for the Young Men’s Lyceum, reflecting on Euclid’s geometry writings, or copying passages of Hamlet in the air for lack of paper, the speakers of these poems give their time and attention devotedly to language and thought.
At the same time, though, other poems bespeak existential doubts and uncertainties about the nature of knowledge in shocking ways for a man who seemed to so clearly understand his own time. There is, of course, a great doubt necessarily involved in trying to think for one’s self. “An Old Track in the Woods” declares openly, “I did what I could and doubted it.” In response to this uncertainty, poetry and poetic thought seems to blossom forth. Many of these poems, in fact, are about poetry and the mindset it affords those who write it. “This Part of the Country Is, within Itself, as Unpoetical as Any Spot on Earth,” for example, rehashes Keats’s ideas about Negative Capability as a way of obtaining knowledge by embracing uncertainty. “I believe that poetry,” says our Lincoln speaker, “is made from absence, out of nothing.” As another poem puts it, poetry’s job is “to make up something / against the nothingness around.” Lincoln himself was a strong-willed dabbler of verse writing, but still Manning’s discussion of poetics might extend the bounds of the persona for some readers. Nonetheless, these poetry poems offer a compelling level of depth to the subject matter.
Some readers accustomed to collections dedicated to ideological plurality and the inclusion of multiple voices might tire of the book’s single-speaker nature. With a couple important exceptions, all of these poems are spoken from Lincoln’s voice. All other characters are virtually absent from the book, including Marry Todd. For this reader, though, the figure himself contains enough tonal and ideological inconsistencies to achieve a compelling sense of plurality. Also, to my mind, the figure himself is rare and unique enough to warrant such sustained attention. Patriotic without being Nationalistic, dedicated to a cause without silencing or ignoring other sides, Lincoln was, to many, our country’s greatest president, and spending 81 pages with him never tires or bores this reader.
Even more than that, I find Manning’s treatment of Lincoln as a refreshing change of pace from many poetry collections that position knowledge around issues of identity to the point of fragmentation. While some modern writers write as though poetic value stems only from an experience’s uniqueness or singularity, Manning makes a new case for what is common among us and writes from the idea that poetry can bring people together. He does this, yes, by inhabiting a particular voice—one that is white, male, and Midwestern, and one that always yearns for the expression of those things that are most universal and common. In the poem “The Art of Poetry,” the poetic voice is something that
eventually ceases to be distinct
and therefore becomes itself. I don’t know how
that happens. It just becomes a common voice,
a voice that anyone hearing it would know.
This is a somewhat old-fashioned belief in poetry, not as an exercise of stating our individual truths, as uniquely positioned and fragmented as they are, but as an exercise in communicating with something larger than an individual self. I think, however, that it provides a wonderful counterpoint to a world that is increasingly atomizing and boundary-building. While we absolutely must encourage writers, especially those writing from the margins, to tell their individual truths, we must not forget what is common among us. It is unfortunate that National tensions and mistakes have made unification under one flag unlikely and problematic. People should read this book, though. Perhaps by remembering America as “the country / [that] was founded not to suppress but to lift / the common life,” and examining a time before “being American was a weight,” we can find a way to understand each other again.