Maddox Zeroes in on Microcosms

Family, Faith and the Intimacy of the Human Body fill Marjorie Maddox’s Collection

Bittersweet, complex energies wrestle through the verses of Marjorie Maddox‘s Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation. Published in 2004 through Wipf and Stock Publishers, this set of poetry is markedly different from her work in Local News from Somewhere Else. In the latter collection, Maddox’s tone is more distraught and full of sympathy for its subjects, the happenings of the wider world, whereas in the aforementioned work Maddox focuses in a more factual matter on microcosms: the immediate family, personal faith, and the functions of the human body.

Maddox begins intriguing her readers immediately with the book’s dedication, which could be easily categorized as a poem. It certainly looks like one with its three stanzas compiled of two lines each. The initial stanza hooks the imagination at a glance: “for the donor / of my father’s heart”. Readers will feel their curiosities piqued and will wish to open up the book so they may discover more about this mysterious character.

They learn of him almost instantly. “Treacherous Driving,” the introductory poem, not only introduces the donor, “that stranger…” who “…inched into Ohio”, but sets the stage for the rest of the collection as well. A collection which reminds its readers of the absolute nature of death with such lines as, “His heart is buried / in my father, / who is buried”, and yet still tries to cling to “hope piling into hope” even though life’s only other constant is unknowable change.

Maddox achieves something very interesting in this first poem. Nothing is known of the donor except that he drove into Ohio, died and his heart was given to another man. She bottles the intense fear of dying in a strange land where no one knows you. The piece drives the mind wonder.

Is this why humans travel peppered with photographs of themselves, their loved ones, all their licenses and trappings of having existed? So if they find themselves dying as an unknown entity to those around them, they can have at least one last defense against dissolving utterly into oblivion? Perhaps it is not so much a defense but a rather a desperate plea, “Look into my wallet and remember me so I may live forever.”

Personal faith is another major component of Maddox’s poetry. She employs her speaker to glower deep into the realities of a marriage constructed upon the patriarchal ideologies of Catholicism throughout the seven movements of her piece “The Sacrament of Marriage.” Although it begins with a fervent joy, calling out, “O, Solomon sing louder! / Aria of rivers, curved limbs, shores of skin, / mellifluent unction…,” and confirms a love with “yes and yes and yes / chosen and spoken”, a dark cloud settles down in movement four.

Any semblance of joy is drained with each repetition of the speaker’s mantra of “obeyobeyobeyobeyobeyobeyobeyobey”. The religion which had once blessed this marriage with such happiness comes quickly for its pound of flesh through its demands for ultimate submission. And yet, throughout much of the collection the speaker seeks and finds solace in this religion, creating a fascinating push and pull of faith and dogma.

In “Years Later: His Funeral,” Maddox once again plays with cognitive dissonance to create an interesting scene. The speaker and her children are at the funeral of someone who would once cause them to cower “from the shadow of your arm raised.” There is no sense of loss here as the speaker states, “I’ve cried this day before in wishes, / fear, too long ago to matter. It is morning.” Appearing at the event at the behest of social niceties, but with no sense of love and still wishing “…not to forget…” creates palpable tension.

Maddox is a poet worth reading. She does not hem herself in with one particular poetry format but her style is consistent. Her work is at once light on its feet while carrying weighty materials as if it were a “…robin leaving / with wings full of weather.” This ability is most likely why Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation won the 2004 Yellowglen Prize.

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*Update: The poet contacted me with the correct up to date publishing information. The collection was originally published by WordTech and was re-published in 2018 by Wipf and Stock.

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