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Holding On
Marjorie Maddox's Local News from Someplace Else
Philip C. Kolin

Longtime speaker of the US House of Representatives, Tip O’Neil staunchly believed that “all politics is local.” In her ninth collection of poetry, Local News from Someplace Else, Marjorie Maddox maintains that joys and tragedies, national and global, are local as well. A courageous collection of sixty-five poems divided into three untitled sections, Local News charts some of the most soul-wrenching traumas in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Taking titles and epigraphs from newspaper headlines, Maddox offers poems on 9/11; school shootings at Columbine, Santana High, West Nickel Mines, and Central, Pennsylvania; floods; Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina; the Oklahoma tornadoes; kidnappings; gang executions; airplane crashes. But Local News from Someplace Else does more than bemoan apocalypse now. It issues a brave wakeup call to stop seeking “relief in reliability” and to pull ourselves “away from [our] picket-fence memory” (5) to look beyond an “overly optimistic horizon” (48). What dooms us is resting in the quotidian, not examining our “fabricated lives” (46).

Maddox challenges the unexamined ordinary life using a keen theological pun on the constant hours of the Mass. In her poem on “June 1st Liturgy,” she relates a story about a retired priest who “stretches truth/across a congregation chewing the Ordinary” (25). By the poem’s hopeful end, the narrator affirms, “We believe everything/in all its extraordinary rhythms,/hum a liturgy between Buds/composed from your leftover Bach.” In another poem, “Minersville Diner,” she expostulates: “we pass into the life we pretend is safe/from explosion, from unexpected/and total collapse” (40), our delusions engineered and aided by television, that “three channel, living room imagination” (8), and by  “YouTube depictions of history” (22). Fittingly, a picture of a television set, circa 1960s, with rabbit ears and twist knobs, adorns the cover of Maddox’s book, the fuzziness on the screen an iconic reflection of our static lives. There is a “price we pay for turbulence” (44), Maddox proclaims.

news No one pays a higher price than families, and especially children, in Maddox’s poems. In Maddox’s America, faith and children are our central hope, and yet the young also are kidnapped, hunted down, their lives not unlike the holy innocents under Herod’s wrathful knife (Matthew 2:16). For Maddox, a comfortable America is a fiction. As Gertrude Stein said over three quarters of a century ago, “There is no there anymore.” The land of domestic peace and harmony has vanished. In another poem, “Later,” Maddox alludes to how America has changed: “At fourteen, my daughter/can’t recall Harris and Klebold,/cafeterias mangled by massacre” (21), and yet the dangers continue to mount. In “Fifth-Grader Imagined Taking Over School,” the poet punctures the myth that residents of Newtown doubtless lived by: “All the safe, small towns—/gas streetlights silly in retrospect—/­proclaim surprise. What else/when their children’s open/veins stain the school tiles?” (13). Schools have ceased being sanctuaries.

Maddox’s style is conversational, confessional, and reads like a diary of the soul’s wounds: “My baby and I stay home/from the funeral for the murdered child,/unrecognizably battered and stabbed/in last week’s news photos” (12). Nearly sixty years after his martyrdom, shades of Emmett Till still haunt America. In “Seven-Year-Old Girl Escapes from Kidnappers,” Maddox conjoins us to the victim: “And we climb with her/out of that abandoned basement/through the now-broken window,/her mouth and wrists a raw witness/of what she clawed through,/a temper tantrum to reclaim her life” (27). In another poem she subverts media imagery to make her point: “All week they’ve [the media] stolen [a missing] daughter’s face,/rolled it up, delivered it in late editions/to each waiting neighbor, all of whom/are quoted passionately as saying,/‘She comes from a good family./We don’t understand’” (14). Maddox’s grim irony catches and indicts us. No wonder that she confesses in one poem, “I had a life disappear once.” In an unexpected line of pure lyrical beauty, she asks, “How can the wrens sing?” (20).

Paradoxically, though, Maddox excoriates yet redeems us from the violence and terror of this world through the domestic lens of a mother, a wife, a caregiver. Bombings, shootings, crashes, cancer, the unleashed fury of fanaticism erupt in Local News, that also—just as importantly—includes poems about what happens while “At the Gynecologist’s,” and while “Swimming Pregnant at the YWCA,” showing a daughter the Mona Lisa, and relishing extra thick towels at a hotel. With the skill of a poet versed in both pain and promise, Maddox creates memorable vignettes in “Twin Infants at the Olan Mills Portrait Studio” (76), “Woman, 91, Frozen to Floor” (53), and “Goldfish” (85).

In many ways, Maddox belongs to a feminist tradition of American poetics stretching back to Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson and then on to Gwendolyn Brooks, Anne Sexton, Jeanne Murray Walker, and Luci Shaw, a tradition of using domestic settings, situations, and tropes to explore political and moral issues. Miraculously, Maddox asserts that women “are hungry for spirit” (23) and “the blue of possibility” (55) with a continued capacity for empathy and forgiveness (24). One of her most allusive poems about hope, “Backwards Barn Raising,” was occasioned by an October 2006 Amish schoolhouse shooting:

 

Can what is lost be leveled?

You hold each other’s hands,

 

huddle in an unending circle,

“....as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

 

Even out of this,

you build forgiveness.

 

According to Maddox, our strength comes in part from the fact that “what we hold/is ourselves holding on” (80). The ultimate question in Maddox’s poetic theodicy for the third millennium of Christianity is this: “And those of us, the survivors of ‘bad things,’/of storms blindingly fierce and electric,/ even on clear, bright days, will we continue, with hope/or fear, to look up straight/into whatever warms us?” (62). Like Maddox, I believe that while we may flicker, the Lux Mundi never does.

 

Philip C. Kolin is University Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Southern Mississippi.

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