An Iron Ring Fastened to a Rail in the Barn

I’ve got a banjo six feet long

and a red-handled Barlow knife,

so I’ve got the credentials, Mister, to do

the things I do. It takes a lot

of figuring and time to do it.

The barn is just an empty church,

a solemn spirit is inside it.

Something was tied to a rail, because

an iron ring is fastened there—

maybe to suffer, I don’t know.

A world of art is in front of you,

not always elegant art,

but art that reveals its passion. I’ve decided

to love the elegant less than I love

the wild, the untamed passionate art.

The blurt and cackle of birds, the look

of a curled-up lower leaf on a tree,

the tree itself from underneath—

the unexpected shadowy shape.

This distance across the hills is something

you can hear, like a voice. It’s space and time

and the sky-domed air and objects and trees,

the shapes of living things, the wonder

of everything, the only art.

Even a world that’s surreal begins

with the world as it is in plain sight

and mystical for being itself.

And what am I to do, to add to it my little portion of being?

Whoever heard of a six-foot banjo?

That’s like playing a man—but playing a man

or a longish woman is something you have

to do if you’re serious about

this art, and I don’t mean poetry,

I mean the larger art of being

alive in the world and suddenly seeing

an iron ring and wondering what

was its use and if it was an art

and if there was suffering involved.

I’ve come to believe that art can be

a beautiful, necessary wound,

a piercing of the soul and then,

after a dark time, a joy.


Maurice Manning’s most recent books are The Gone and the Going Away, his fifth collection of poems, and The Rag-Picker’s Guide to Poetry, co-edited with Eleanor Wilner. A former Guggenheim fellow, Manning has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and is a member of The Fellowship of Southern Writers. He teaches at Transylvania University and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

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