A Heavy Heart: Marjorie Maddox’s Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation
Janet McCann

This collection is a powerful struggle with the question of how a person of faith can live in this world, with its inevitable losses and pain. What gives us the ability to survive? It is hard to imagine how to assimilate into faith such an event as a father’s death after a failed heart transplant. But Marjorie Maddox does it. These poems do not avoid questions or flee into conventional responses. They use powerful, complex metaphors and symbols to show us a world where despite all, God is love, and love gives us the courage to endure and even to triumph.

Maddox, a professor of English and creative writing at Lock Haven University, is the author of eleven collections of poetry and a short story collection. Her poems have appeared in most of the best-known journals and have received numerous awards. Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation was a runner-up for the Brittingham and Felix Pollak Prizes, and a finalist or semifinalist in thirty national competitions.

Good Catholic poetry shares the sacramental vision—that place where the earthly and the spiritual intersect, where some small observation suddenly wrenches the vision and presents the world from a spiritual perspective. Such epiphanies are frequent in Maddox’s poems. Even the title carries such associations: Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation. I have not seen spiritual poetry that is so definitely physical, or poetry that verges on scientific observation that is so deeply religious. Her physical metaphysics recalls that of the seventeenth-century masters, John Donne, Henry Vaughan, George Herbert, even Richard Crashaw. Sometimes the body and soul are so deeply embedded in each other that they cannot be divided.

Maddox writes mostly in free verse, with a few excursions. Its main subject is the father’s heart transplant operation and subsequent death, but the poems ask in various ways, “What is the body? What are its parts? What does the body mean, especially to those who do not think of the body as all there is?”

The book is divided into five numbered segments, each having its own unity. Part I is about the heart transplant and subsequent death. The poems are image-rich and flowing, taking the reader into the poet’s loss. All the details of hospital, donor, doctors, machines, mingle with the interior life of the speaker. An especially memorable poem is “Burying Our Heart,” in which nuances are piled on each other in a lament that nevertheless stops short of despair. It comments, “The soul is the land/ liquid in the lines of veins. that stripe the inner atlas.” The poem concludes:

O homeland of sadness,
these dusty bones that could not save.
I have held in my clay hands,
the fine grains of this blood,
bold in my muddy palms;
I have held in my earthen arms
the jagged pot of his pain,
brimming and bitter.
I have waited
for that open mouth
of the world
to lay him down.

Part II provides an original slant on marriage with a sequence of poems looking at marriage through the lens of each sacrament, making every sacrament (including ordination) a comment on the elements of marriage. Other poems in this section provide glimpses of relationship and life as a part of family. Part III is a startling series of body parts, very physical poems that are nonetheless not limited to the physical. Lots of wry humor appears in this section, which is filled with images that astonish the reader by their merging of the body and the world:

The Epiglottis
is stuck in autumn,
alone, yellowed leaf almost lifting
into wind, hovering
on the larynx ledge,
in the throat’s draft, ever in the shade
of your talking tongue.

The next section, IV, holds some of the most deeply religious work, grounded in faith and renewing the vitality of the church’s structure and practices. “The Sacrament of Penance” describes the stages of Penance: the first part, “Absolution,” describing the sacrament, and the second part, “Repentance,” describing the stages of contrition, confession, and amendment. Other poems in this section are equally powerful and uncompromising. “The Sacred Heart of Jesus” is a George Herbert-like concrete poem which fits the content perfectly into the heart shape.

Part V pulls all the thoughts and themes together. It begins by returning to the tragedy of the failed heart transplant, and then turns to all we know of faith, love, and loss. However physical we are, we are not completely physical. There is always a transcendence, which exists in our inheritance and in our own spiritual dimension.

One of the last works of the collection, a simple, direct poem, expresses this realization:

My Mother Gives Me a Tape of My Father’s Dance Band

My dead father plays boogie-woogie
throughout the house. Even in the back
yard, emptying the garbage, I hear his hands,
sixteen and agile, thumping, plinking, and
along the thin tape that whirrs in its recorder. 
         What years
wind up in that casing, in the canal of my ear,
         in the curving aorta
pumping out his beat in my veins, in this
         aging staff of a body.
At sixty he still loved
his songs and stretched a broken pinkie to hit
         the notes.
My hands only snap and tap,
the bones bumping up against age. Still, underneath flesh I know
something’s jumping. Joy cracks
his rhythm in notes too strong to stay
in the grave, to staccato to listen
to sounds of good-daying
in the bass of a previous page,
two-stepping still, though long
long since played.

There are not many elegies so haunting and yet joyous. This poetry is powerful. It is one of the few collections that will trail lines and images across future readings and even life experiences.


Janet McCann has published poetry in Kansas Quarterly, Parnassus, Nimrod, Sou’wester, New York Quarterly, Tendril, and other journals. She is the author of The Celestial Possible: Wallace Stevens Revisited  and The Crone at the Casino (2013, Lamar University Press). She has taught at Texas A&M University since 1969.

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