During National Poetry Month, we at TTC had the privilege of previewing and presenting some of Marjorie Maddox’s poetry. In that post, Christine highlighted poems that reveal “the connection of the mundane with the spiritual,” two of which, can be found in Maddox’s newest book True, False, None of the Above.
Much of Maddox’s collection of poems in True, False, None of the Above reads like a dinner party of literature, theology, and creative writing professors sitting around a large table surrounded by leather-bound books and old vinyls, sipping wine or whiskey, swapping stories that both bemoan and boast about students and the task of teaching and un-teaching.
One member at the party takes a leaf out of Shakespeare’s portfolio, tells a familiar tale in a fresh way, and each guest at the table recognizes his or her own students:
Frailty, thy name is Freshman….
Screw your courage to the sticking place.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
is not the time to cram three-hundred pages.
You do protest too much
of dead hard drives and grandmothers….
Ah, forsooth and fair speed;
get thee to a dictionary! (“My Classroom for a Reader”)
While humor commiserates with readers of True, False, None of the Above with young pupils of their own, hope both anchors and buoys the souls of those who teach (whether professionally, parentally, or otherwise). When “Teaching Frost,” we relish in those fresh, young faces
rocky with knowledge,
even that semi-secret sometimes-I-write-poetry glint
while looking at the book, at me, at their bro reading,
looking anywhere but out the window
back to those I-don’t-give-a-damn days,
telling me it’s all going to be OK,
and we can start,
and we gand go
wherever the poem takes us.
And “wherever the poem takes us” — both in Maddox’s collection and in the works and authors gathered together by True, False, None of the Above — is often to the question, like Pilate’s to Jesus, “What is truth?”
At times spiritedly and at times soberly, Maddox both indicts the ills and celebrates the joys of higher education in America (and the country itself). In “Lower Higher Ed,” for instance, Maddox explores the nuances and challenges of teaching in a politically correct classroom, where curse words are kosher but God and Truth are not:
gums up in the mouth,
won’t spit itself out
with every easy expletive….
to digest than politically correct
sex, shit, or Shades of Grey….
believe quasher, eyes as wide as
some size-ten foot in a mouth
trying to chew through
the ultimate classroom
while you wonder why
the syllable turns
rancid, whosoever shall
deny me frantically churning
bile in a belly of half-
Boom! Mic drop. Read it again. Read it out loud. Hear the way words move at the speed of sound on the comet tail of alliteration: “God gums,” “every easy expletive.” Read it out loud. Hear the spoken word rhythm and rhyme reach into your ears and rock your brain with their energy: “Show-stopper, / thought-lasher, can’t-believe-you- / believe quasher, eyes as wide as /some size…” Form follows function as Maddox addresses her students in the rap-like spoken word poetry that most easily engages them.
Best of all (though my own literary profession makes me highly biased) are the poems that invite the authors and poets in both those leather-bound books and in paperbacks alike to the table to share both their wisdom and cynicism about the world in all its comedy, tragedy, and fairy tale; to share in our human seeking after the question of truth; and to demonstrate engaging those questions and truths through writing — and in turn, teaching and reading, and in turn (hopefully!), everyday living.
In these poems, Maddox provides forms that follow fellowship. Hopkinsian hyphenations relate and celebrate Hopkins’s “19th-century / sound-packed syllables” that are “suddenly connected to [our] lives” when we slow down enough to really read them (“And the Topic for Today is Environmentalism”). A rock-blues rhythm and beat of straight-shooting repetition of sounds and phrases honor Gwendolyn Brooks and her “large-as-life words” that remain “too cool for the schooled in poetry,” unless they become “wide-eared” again, “simple folk / who are / who we / are” (“Gwendolyn,”).
A sonnet “Parable” engages with truth lies about human nature and purpose propogated by that devil, Iago, in Shakespeare’s Othello:
“Virtue! A fig!” We grasp the hoe and dig.
The dirt we turn is taken from ourselves.
We chop the trunk and bough; then clip the twig,
and this way prune the molecule and cell.
The slender stalk, the brown and drooping blooms
obey the will within our working hands.
But evening falls and weariness consumes.
Both self and garden disobey commands.
O faithless workers, wake! The Gardener prays
while you sleep sound as seeds inside this wall.
The weeds take root; the best earth turns to clay.
What dirt-clad Adam sowed becomes our Fall.
We’re the compost, fools; we’re “the fig.”
The time is short. Come grasp the hoe and dig.
What is truth? And what is the source of truth? And where can we find it? The answer is: in Christ — “His face is the greater flame / but doesn’t flicker. No furnace / fuels his glory” (“The Fourth Man”). And Christ in all things. Literary and ordinary. A “Laundry List,” a glass “Globe,” a “Rocking Chair Hymn”:
And praise be this chair
with its walz of the heart
that dips with the breeze
and the lilt of the lark.
And praise the pulse there
in the stretch of the limbs
in both person and tree
as we two-step with Him
in the motion of nature,
the beat we breathe in,
the rhythm of earth,
the dance and the hymn.
Marjorie Maddox is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Lock Haven University. She is the author of numerous prize-winning books and chapbooks and the forthcoming short story collection What She Was Saying, as well as over 450 poems, stories, and essays in journals and anthologies. Marjorie studied with A. R. Ammons, Robert Morgan, Phyllis Janowitz, and Ken McClane at Cornell, where she received her MFA in poetry in 1989. Maddox received an MA in English at the University of Louisville and a BA in Literature at Wheaton College. She lives with her husband and two children in Williamsport, PA, birthplace of Little League and home of the Little League World Series. She is the great grandniece of baseball legend Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who helped break the color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson.