Fresh News, Marojorie Maddox’s New Book of Poems.
3532 Bright Way Street
Weirton, WV 26062
T. S. Eliot tells us in BURNT NORTON that we spend too much of our time “distracted from distraction by distraction.” He’s right, of course. Most of us will do anything to keep from an unbearable reality: our teetering mortality, our prevailing sins and weaknesses, and the cross which gives both meaning. Marjorie Maddox, thankfully, writes beautifully about all three––and then moves beyond them––in her new book of poems, LOCAL NEWS FROM SOMEPLACE ELSE (Wipf & Stock). Here we read through our misplaced fascination with mass media and large-scale destruction into a more personal version of what passes, until finally we are encouraged to come face to face with the grace and courage we show in the face of the above by actually choosing to reproduce.
Our children are our greatest act of hope, and it is that fact which lifts us up. We will die, yes. And we fail much too often. But we believe too.
It is our belief which saves us.
Our plight is real, yes, and disturbing, but it so often hides beneath the bland happiness we want: drinks under sunglasses and umbrellas. We try and la-la our way through our lives. But the world, in the end, will not bend to meet us. Both people we know and people we don’t die, often horribly. All we can do it hold up a face, our drink, some kind of pose. We try to “turn/away from the echo of a knock/ back into” our lives, but we cannot.
The echo sounds a note we do not want to hear: we must live with the whole of things, with live and death, joy and suffering, not just with the parts that make us feel good.
The lies we stubbornly cling to result in complacency, and we pay. We watch tv to try and escape, get absorbed in a lurid reality which does not involve our bodies. And so we become separated from our humanity, from our lives.
So where can we turn to reclaim ourselves, some integrity?
Whom can we trust
when a smiling anchor
prophesies the utmost danger
around the corner
The stream of horrible imagery keeps us from ourselves, yet punishes us with what we’ve become, especially when the disasters are grand enough in scope to point out how far we all are from where we should be. All our alienation disappears then, and we’re met with a gulf, the want we embody because the death we see is ours.
There are the smaller disasters too, of course: the small-town murdered child. Who could believe those parents were among us? In fact, who knows who is among us.
We stare nightly at neighbors
walking too close to nursery window,
too close to the woods
where the girl was found. . .
Sin and mortality always come back to claim us––because we need to feel truly real. We need to feel who we are. This becomes especially apparent during the biggest disasters. When they happen the whole country becomes consumed, feels indicted. (After 911, if you remember, church attendance went way up everywhere––for a time.)
In Maddox’s poem on flight 93, “Pennsylvania September: the Witnesses,” we get the whole process of this book played out in microcosm. The day was “ordinary,” filled with “the routine of our lives”; and then a private horror became pressingly public. Cell phones relay the truths we cannot escape: Edward Felt calls a 911 Dispatcher: “We were the 21st century messengers/of still more, our coiled cells crackling out confusion . . . to both coasts.”
Who of us was not caught up in that “Let’s roll” courage? Who does not remember where he or she was? In the poem we share the horror as experienced by service stations attendants. Kids, too, get caught up, chase down the tragedy on their bikes. Even a photographer has to see
In the trees, what was left
of metal and flesh.
Beyond the wood, the scorched crater
swallowing who I was.
Death will not be kept out, our sin either, try though we do to exclude them. Our lives themselves seem to try to help us cover the threat in offering us boring days, but in the end even that fails. “Such an ugly thing to happen/in this lovely place,” a woman says a year later.
The irony is not lost on the reader.
So this is our plight, to be called to the edge until we learn to carry all we are with us. And finally, we do, especially if we are parents. Each scraped knee, panicked rush to the emergency makes diversion impossible. And Maddox shows us as much in the beautifully lyrical third part of her book.
But before she does so, we are permitted to feel, even more personally, the individual truth of our lives. “Cancer Diagnosis” brings us face to face with our own death, one we will not be able to avoid, no matter what our exercise regimen. Momento mori. The Shakespearean poem starts with the “O” we respond with when our breath is, for the first time, taken from us: “Words cage heart and breath,/irregular in trepidation.” We will go, and as the great ones in the past have told us, it’s best to stay conscious of that fact.
The sections of the poem continue, fittingly enough: “II. that this too too sullied flesh,” “III. would melt, thaw,” “IV. and resolve itself into a dew.” And while all flesh does “melt,” of course, in most cases it takes its time. As we age, we expect the process, live it, even anticipate it as Maddox mentions in “Meteorology”: “All day the skies pour, then threaten, then pour again,/making good their promise of gloom.” The antidote is, of course, love, what we find in each other, in “Anniversary Coffee”:
On this side of plate glass,
the Pennsylvania sky threatens
no one, calms us with what we aren’t,
such perfect summer squall the calm
we love in morning
coffee and split croissant.
What’s wonderful about all these poems, besides the craftsmanship, is the courage. Maddox sees clearly, but does not flinch, not really. It’s a quality her poetry has always had, though the verse is not Yeats’ “stony face” either. Maddox can get downright giddy, for example, when she foregrounds a necessary leisure.
are what we want,
* * * * *
sprawled provocatively across clean sheets.
Give us beer
for the can opener in the bathroom. . .
The sane orderliness or her perspective comes across most clearly when she finishes, taking us toward hope, our children.
A mature mom wants that small joy, that baby, in spades––and she wants it healthy (“Plea to an Embryo”).
Wait till the apron strings are cut
for you, We’ll give
you the car keys,
when you’re ready;
let you vroom-vroom across the country
in a properly-inspected, reputable car.
Maddox’s view of life, despite its sorrows, if finally comic. So, joyfully, like hope, humor is never very far away. The girl child can have pierced ears when she grows up, okay, but “your nose and navel” are “nonnegotiable.” As our kids grow, we experience all the doubts, sorrow, mortality all over again, but deeper. It’s called growing up. And we are thankful for it. Our kids shape us, even as we mold them; they teach us how to see hope, how to play again. They teach us what matters––life, the very thing itself.
In a late poem “After Having Children, We Reintroduce Ourselves to Bicycles,” we get the lyricism of that play, all of us made better for it.
almost sniffing asphalt,
we’ll let your spinning fins propel us;
push to pursue
what’s just beyond
sight and folly.
Behind us, our children’s tandem
laughter pedals smoothly,
speeding us so easily