I know no better way to read a poem than as a traveler, the poem being a one-way ticket out of my home-place, my comfort zone. There is no return, for that comfort zone disappears behind me. Instead, I have the poem and the ability to journey with it into a reality that is vaguely similar to the world I have relinquished. This new world is accessible only through poetry’s unique sensory acuity, a clarity born out of the poet’s distillation of experience. Through a poem we recognize things for what they truly are, which may seem paradoxical, given the figurative character of its language. Yet, poetry is not about linguistic somersaults; it is about a journey into the heart of reality: people, things, life, the intersection of time and space where humans abide. And so, whenever I read poetry—especially a new collection—I do so with the hope of being handed this singular ticket for a journey into reality. In Maddox’s compelling work about place, with her voice securely in place, I was not to be disappointed.
The “someplace else” in Marjorie Maddox’s new collection would be inaccessible without poetry, without the lucidity that results from watching the “ordinariness of a day,” equally attentive to its “extraordinary rhythms” (“June 1st Liturgy”). We would never arrive at that “someplace” weighted down by linguistic baggage or verbal excess. Maddox knows that we travel farthest and most genuinely when we travel unencumbered, and to this end she unencumbers her poems. Their conciseness allows the reader to reach, without distraction, meta-geographic realms beyond cities noted on a map. We sense this will be the case already from the early pages of the book: “I’m waiting to hear from Madrid, / from Tokyo, and Madagascar, / where loss, I’ve read, flies fastest / in the smallest of words” (“The Postcard”).
The itinerary that binds the poems in Maddox’s latest book is the itinerary of daily newscasts: poems about place punctuated by others with journalistic headings, each one becoming a necessary stopover in our journey. We cannot escape the news they bring, as we cannot escape our daily papers and shows, blogs and media alerts. It is a world that first arrived in our living rooms, not so distantly, through the rabbit-eared television sets of the ‘60s. Maddox tells us how it was, in “Seventeen-Inch Black-And-White:” “…we’re there, each of us, two-stepping between / craters, bouncing into wild blue possibility far beyond / 1969 and our three-channel, living-room imagination, / desperately dreaming of soaring beyond what we / already know of beyond.” Yet what began, almost innocently in those early days of television, as access to an exciting “beyond” led, all too soon, to the near-impossibility of our internalizing that “beyond,” those myriad worlds. Ruefully and in half-jest, we might echo the remark of the weary traveler in Mel Stuart’s movie, If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. But humor aside, the loss is a serious one. If we cannot internalize, if we do not have the time or the energy to assume those myriad worlds to which we also belong, we will lose our own personal sense of place. In the absence of context, we live adrift. This is the reason a collection such as Maddox’s is so vital. The poet—like Dante’s Virgil—is uniquely positioned to take the outward journey, into ports of tragedy if need be, because she remains tethered to the essential word, the word that is common to all of us, the one that keeps us from losing sight of who we are and how we connect.
But how might such a journey be fulfilled? How does the author of Local News from Someplace Else achieve this redeeming journey? First, Maddox accepts the loss; she ventures as far as she needs to, apparently willing to relinquish her home-place, her own comfort zone, as she reveals in these lines: “No matter / what channel we pay, / there is still no news from home” (“Local News from Someplace Else”). Or these, from “Pennsylvania September: The Witnesses,” “Beyond the woods, the scorched crater / swallowing who I was.” And these from “Fatal Shock Mystery” (based on a horrific news story about an electrocution): “Not even the scientific / explanation to fall back on or crawl through / just the body after the jolt / with no hope of knowing where / it came from. The unknown why…” Anything less than an embrace of tragedy, wherever tragedy might occur, would lead only to a facile and illusory hope.
The second part of the equation—the salvific one, which parallels this dare-the-loss approach—is a sense of permanence, a durability of spirit that infuses Maddox’s ultimately liberating book. It is latent in such verses as: “…the tap-tap-tapping / of what is left of our breath / hungry for spirit—that canary not yet dead / in our damp labyrinth” (“Nine Alive”). Here, as elsewhere, poetry surpasses its own narrative to point toward the urgent hunger of our spiritual pulse. Listen to the sounds of these lines from “Cancer Diagnosis:” “O / that this too too sullied flesh / would melt, thaw / and resolve itself into dew.” How caringly the poet leads us to the poem’s closing affirmation: “in the heat of forgiveness / this strange healing that peels / skin from soul, sanctifying what rots / and is rotten in the state / of who we are.” Maddox is a poet of faith, and her personal voice, present throughout the book, rings true: “And so I crave even the low rumbling / of our longest-forming sorrows” (“Meteorology”). Belief in redemption assumes a trust that all “predictions [move] past / updraft to downburst to calm.” It allows Maddox to express her hospitality to grief.
Perhaps the best way to describe the feeling that settled in me, at last, after reading Local News from Someplace Else was that of a holy, uncanny calm. I had travelled to a host of places, but I had not lost home. The journey had taken me to the “someplace else” of grief and loss, of bizarre tragedy and daily salvation. Through her entire book, Maddox kept telling me: if it is human, it is yours; embrace it. For it is only through our embrace of humanity that we can finally save what is profoundly ours, what gives meaning to both individual and communal truth: “all of our lives / … planted deep” (“Settled”).