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1983-2015
tearing the rag off the bush again
Everette Maddox: A Montparnassian in New Orleans PDF E-mail

Poet Everette Maddox (1944 – 1989) is an anomaly. Everything about him seems to belong to another century.


 

                                                                         No, you haven't left my eyes;

                                                                         And when my solitary gaze

                                                                         Ceased to see you on the earth,

                                                                         Suddenly I saw you in the sky.

 

                                                                         Alphonse de Lamartine

 

 

Whether it’s the past or the future, or some mishmash there of, I leave for you to decide. Whatever the case, like everything else that’s wonderful about his adoptive hometown, Nouvelle Orléans, this modern day troubadour appears oddly out of step with the rest of the known universe:  Once upon a time / about the time / the beautiful storybook / of the 19th century / was blowing shut … they had harebells, blue bells / bar bells / foxglove & eglantine … sheep gnawed the knot-grass / the room shone like a shilling … then all hell broke down / like a cheap car … and my mother died of / the late 20th century / where heaven was a hospital … sleep well sweetheart … in that long dress— / you ain’t missin nothin’ (from “Heaven” p. 152)

But what did Everette find when he arrived to the Crescent City in 1975? Well, he discovered that same incalculable verity which any writer worth his or her salt would die forthe unmistakable grandeur and decay of a community so confident in its existence as a cultural paradigm, if you captured one-tenth of the immeasurable truths of its peoples, their customs, their habitations, their heartaches, their wonderments, their joys, you’d have a masterpiece:  From the air it’s all puddles: / a blue-green frog town / on lily pads. More canals / than Amsterdam. You don’t / land—you sink. When / we met, you, the Native, shook / your head. Sweat dropped / on the bar … I’m in it up to my eyebrows, / stalled like a streetcar. / My life is under the bed / with the beer bottles. / I’ll never write another line / for anything but love / in this city where steam / rises off the street after / a rain like bosoms heaving. (from “New Orleans” p. 68)

Everette also hit upon one of the chief inspirations he’d draw from all of his writerly life: the Mississippi—a source of immense reverie for the poet—to stand alongside its banks, to give account of its enduring presence, to match its depths in feeling, to assemble a narrative from the infinite variance of time lost in the whorls of its undulations, murky-bronzed nuances, and doughty southward push:  I don’t care what they say about our River, Darling, / the wise guys: that it’s full of spills and swills, / and everybody knows about the mud, that tells / us nothing. Look at it this Autumn morning: / silver in the sun, a handful of doubloons slung, gleaming. / It looks like the floor of Heaven. It fills / me with yearning. If I had the requisite skills / we could dance on the son-of a-bitch, careening / around like Fred and Ginger. But when I remember / I can’t dance, oh my heart sinks and a bell / rings in Lloyd’s of London and all Hell / suddenly breaks loose in the streets of November / because the thought of you and the attendant rage / at your loss is passing like a golden carriage. (“The Mississippi Sonnet” p.108)

Of course the largesse of Everette’s poetic sensibilities went beyond Ol’ Man River and the irreverent soulfulness often associated with the Big Easy. There’s also a blend of Thoreauean-Whitmanesque Self that sings in his veins. Though Everette’s Self tends more closely to the musicality of quietude than anything else. Even the brutal elegance of a single phrase oftentimes reveals the severely troubled universe moving beneath his skin:  On a hill high above / the mild October day / I stand, heroic, hands / clasped behind my back, / as the last musket’s / crack fades /and the smoke drifts away / from the place where the famous / Battle of my Youth was fought / Who won? Who lost? / Who knows? My speech, / which I seem to have misplaced, ... in the decaying mansion / of my body: post cards / stuffed possums, and, out back, / whiskey to be sold / such emissaries / from the glacial future / as have coin to spend. (from “Lines on His Thirtieth Birthday” p. 30)

Finally, I’d like to come back to the fundament of time with regards to Everette’s work as a whole. I’m looking at a photograph of Everette sitting at a table with friends inside his favorite New Orleans’ haunt, the Maple Leaf Bar. It’s a place where he hosted weekly poetry gatherings to the delight of many. Everette has his left elbow on the table with his hand positioned to support the tilt of his chin. His legs are casually crossed. His attire includes the customary long-sleeved white shirt, thin tie, and dark slacks. His attention is divided between offering wisdom to a younger writer and falling asleep. Everette looks like a southern gentleman’s version of  Rodin’s Le Penseur (The Thinker) if there ever was one. Actually, considering Everette’s coinage of Oak Street (where the Maple leaf Bar is located) as the Montparnasse of New Orleans, maybe he’s just a Montparnassian in New Orleans! Either way it’s a glimpse of Everette amidst his two favorite passions: people and poetry. The only problem is so much else is missing. The edge where his knowledge of incontestable beauty encounters profound despair is invisible. Time is falsely still. Or is it? Consider the line that inspired the title for Everette’s posthumous collection: I hope it’s not over, and good-by. It’s a fragment from a poem titled “Moon Fragment” (p.28). It alludes to an intimate, fateful exchange between the poet and his reader, you. The voice is speaking in the familiar key of friendship. The tone is conversational. The speaker wants to drag the moon “down and hand it to you” so you can have a closer look. That very same accessibility and openness is what greets the reader in scores of Everette’s poems. But just this once, a space of perfect timelessness occurs. Both Everette and you, though separated by real-time, are virtually eyeball to eyeball. This shifting locus of real-time with its heartfelt adieu are as seamless a moment of coming and going as you’ll find in all of poetry. Take this book of poems to heart dear reader. They mean every word they say. By the same token, that same mysterious voice might also be rearranging the jewels inside your grandfather’s pocket watch this very second—so that the hours and minutes move in both directions.

Oh yes, one more thing, in so far as the bigger picture—whether or not America chooses to recognize poet Everette Maddox as a major voice in contemporary letters is irrelevant. As the great poets and thinkers of this century begin to pick through the wreckage of the twentieth century to see what made it tick, they’ll undoubtedly find their way to him.

 

 

Moon Fragment

by Everette Maddox

 

A man squats by the railroad tracks tonight

eating a moon fragment: not cheese

at all, but a honeydew melon. His hands

are fuzzy. A train roars past. In the

lighted windows men and women stand

with pewter cups raised. Tea slops out.

Then it is dark again. Moon-eaters have

no time for such foolishness. The silence

is not absolute, though, because the world’s

longest accordion, the world’s longest

musical expansion bridge, is playing

somewhere. I am up in my office

watching the glitter of my last cigar sail

out the window, over the shrubbery, down

into the darkness where summer is

ending. I keep office hours at night so

nobody comes around to bother me. Not even

you. The moon comes around, though. I want to

drag it down and hand it to you and say, “Here,

this is lovely and useless and it cost me

a lot of trouble. You can tie it up on

the river behind your house, and go down to

look at it whenever you like.” The trouble is,

you don’t want it tied up, and you are

right. There is no new problem. Eight hundred

years ago a man heads home from the

Fair, pushing a wheelbarrow full of real

moon pies. For ten years he has been

stealing wheelbarrows, and nobody even

suspects. Well, what is all this? you

want to know. Right again. I could

say I don’t know myself because the evidence

is not all in, never will be. I could say it’s

the unfinished moon poem I’ve always wanted

to almost write. Well, what is it all about? you

ask. What does it mean? You have me

there. It means, whatever this is between

you and me, I hope it’s not over, and good-by.

 

[I hope it’s not over, and good-by: Selected Poems of Everette Maddox, edited by Ralph Adamo; University of New Orleans Press 2009; 166pgs; ISBN 13: 978-1-60801-000-4; $16.95]

 

 

 
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