reviewed by David Craig
In The Life of an American Poet James Atlas tells us that Delmore Schwartz was, at Harvard in the 40s, “one of the earliest beneficiaries of a policy–one that continues to this day–of hiring writers to teach English composition.” It’s a move that has long benefitted everyone involved. The monolith has gotten cheap labor; the poet, his or her meager bread initially, a foot in the academic door (a door which has, thankfully, widened since that time with the development of so many creative writing courses); and the students have gotten access to sensibilities which intimately understand how important language, poetry, is.
Most of us who have come up on that ladder remember the scholarly droning during our undergrad years: professors who’d moved from the excitement of the work to peripheral issues: Freud, theory, one kind of personal flag-waving or another. Poets, on the other hand, daily depend on the life-giving pulse of language. They need poems to breathe. This helps to keep academia supple. It helps keep the emphasis where it ought to be in every course, on the literature.
Marjorie Maddox’s new book True, False, None of the Above allows the uninitiated to get a feel for that gift; but she does so much more here as well. She opens up a larger, more comprehensive Christian world, one filled with passion, sorrow, humor, and wisdom.
“History” is a great place to start because it combines all of those traits. It takes Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” into small-town suburban life. There is a lot to enjoy here: the tameness of the setting turned against itself––same issues, same darkness, handled with joyful humor. The “stone savage armed” with a packet of old seeds.
we make good neighbors, two yards of well
mowed yearning, tamed gardeners still coveting
each other’s most unruly seasons.
She knows us, knows who we are. And the recognition delights because we are all sinners on this bus. (Small-time enough for the most part!)
But Maddox contains multitudes as well; she does not stay in her backyard. Her scope is the world, and because she is a Christian, she looks unflinchingly at the signs of the times. The tragedies stack up, some humorous, mostly not: “Texas Homecoming Queen Swept Away” by a tornado, “Isla Vista, 2014,” The Boston Marathon bombing, Yankee pitching Cody Lidle slamming his jet into a fifty story skyscraper, the Paris Isis attacks, the San Bernardino shootings. These tragedies create the background for a parent who has a very vested interest in the future of the planet. It’s poignant stuff.
The answer of course is found in supplication, contemplation (and good teaching)! Here is the poem “Prayer”:
How the air
breathes and buoys–
not even the slight lift
of almost-thought, but less/
more; who can tell
the teaspoon of light
beneath wings that tilt,
just so, toward eternity?
It is the breeze
of eyelids closing,
of knees bending,
what we know of beyond.
Delicate, beautiful. Is there a better Christian poet around? I don’t think so, and the nice thing here is that her light isn’t hidden under a bushel of stealth.
I’m grateful for that.
And so her students must be. She’s alive in the classroom, engages in the process of teaching—which seems a lot like the process of writing poems. Many of these lyrics take us through the changes, angling for more depth as they proceed. “Hulga,” named after that wonderful Flannery O’Connor character, is a great example. In this poem we are introduced to a reader who seems a whole lot like that good country person: “multi-pierced nose, / your purple hair, and your Sistine-chapel neck.” The young woman seems to hold the whole Joy / Hulga thing in disdain. Perhaps she sees it as contrived. But the story is too tough-skinned for that response to gather much traction as both names pay the price for over-simplifying: “Our Good Book is full / of empty and both of us / are conned.”
Nobody gets off O’Connor’s suffering hook. Here the readers (the girl, the teacher) are visually, comically moved toward the stolen leg ending:
there’s more tale,
at the end
of this leg
O’Connor’s stories always end with the ball in our court. What about us (“this leg”)? What lies do we rely on? To what degree are we Pharisaical?
Maddox, for her part, doesn’t seem to rely on many of them. There is a great deal of anger and sorrow in this book. She is not bound by location or job description. In poem after poem, we see that we are all savagely in the middle of something, of our disordered lives, of a world which is tearing itself apart right in front of us.
Marjorie Maddox does not flinch. She never has. She is a witness. And so may we be.
DAVID CRAIG has published 21 books and edits the Jacopone da Todi Poetry Prize for the Franciscan University of Steubenville Press.