Winter Work

Maurice Manning


Out of pronouncements, out of being
tired of too much concern and knowing
I could enjoy an absolute
serenity inside my chores,
as plain as a prayer—one utterance—
I swept the rain from my face to rest
and to mind the lap of mist that hung
from a swaying thread of spider silk
and the yellow spider, wicked looking,
at the edge of its geometry
with the zigzag scar, as if two
immutable worlds were roughly sewn
together.  Sunday afternoon
in November, a mild fall rain
was drifting down, and I believe
in that moment a spirit called me to go
over the edge of my own hill
to where the ridge divides and slopes
down to low untended hills,
a dark, less risen place, as if God
left out the leavening to leave
an uninviting place alone.
It was a kind of work to go.
My other work, planting trees,
I set aside and started walking;
my walk was up and over and down
and farther away, to the farthest woods.
A light goes on in the mind of even
the meanest man and then it goes
back out, and his mind goes back,
back to its ordinary unlit room
with his bed and a cup on the table
and maybe a book.  I’d read a book
on how to shape a tree and leave
inside its form an empty cup,
but I had closed the book and thought
nature would never see itself
with such abstraction.  A bird is a form
from a distance, a gear in the silent workings
of the sky, but that perspective rises
ironically from being idle,
from keeping far away from the work.
Such thoughts were dropping as I continued
over the ridge and down to the knot
and burl of the lower hills, the figure—
I realized I’d never see
myself—of a man thoughtlessly walking
into the genius of a wet
unceasing machine.  I crossed a stream
that narrowed at a spread of rocks
and motionless on the other bank
I saw a green grass snake,
like a piece of dropped green rope;
besides a patch or so of moss
and the green clouds of cedar trees,
it was the only green around.
It isn’t fall enough, I thought,
and thought I’d found a strange expression,
but looking up I saw one stranger—
a giant apple tree rose
in the deep woods and formed a bloom,
no longer subject to a hand,
but wild, with a cobbled bed of apples
mounding up the leaf carpet
on the ground, and a pair of perfect apples
floated like two dreams at once
from the dripping branches of the tree.
Here was work done once, and maybe
work to do again, work
I could continue, so I fetched
a knife from my pocket and gently cut
two green shoots from the tree.
I didn’t linger any longer,
but returned and wrapped the shoots in a rag
and buried them in sawdust and straw.
In March, when the young trees wake,
I’ll notch a branch and graft a shoot
and then another and hope they hold.
I’m tired of our rebellion, tired
of running from the faithful world.
More work will come, another spring,
more green and other living dreams,
but first must be the winter’s time;
I’ll have prayer for them, a plea,
I’ll walk the ridge in the cold one day
and wonder what is happening
in the low untended hills below—
that, too, is work, winter work.

        return to poetry

Maurice Manning’s first book of poems, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions was chosen by poet and judge W.S. Merwin for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. His subsequent books include A Companion for Owls: Being the Commonplace Book of D. Boone, Lone Hunter, Back Woodsman, &c., and Bucolics.  His fourth book of poetry, The Common Man, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2011.  A new collection called The Gone and The Going Away is forthcoming.  Manning teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and in the fall he will begin teaching at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky.  He lives in Kentucky and is currently a Guggenheim fellow.