Book review by Candice Louisa Daquin
Title: Begin with a Question
Author: Marjorie Maddox
Publisher: Paraclete Press
There are people who write poetry, and there are great poets. By great, we speak of those few capable of transcending above the multitudes with their mastery of the word, imagination and homage to the interior and exterior worlds. An academic and writer, Marjorie Maddox, is such a poet. When you read her, you feel almost angry at her unbridled ability to speak to things you couldn’t begin to evoke yourself. She’s fleet of tongue in her assessment of the world, and does so without a shred of arrogance.
Begin with a Question is a clever collection of spiritual, religious and lived in moments. Whether you believe in a higher power or not, you may find yourself falling for Maddox’s quick wit, keen eye and erasable wordplay. Maddox explores existence from a multitude of directions. These are real moments, most of us have lived in some form. Who hasn’t sunk to their knees and asked;
“affirmation its own negation of belief— ‘no, I do believe your unbelief’ —the tangles already tugged and tied into a complicated Yes.” -- Begin with a Question
It’s such an honest reflection, painfully so — querying the very reasons we could wish to believe in a God juxtaposed against the real reasons we may not — ending in the all-abiding faith we want to, even if to do so is searingly hard at times. As much here is unsaid as said. There is a sensibility to the journey from first line to last that echoes a refrain, a favourite choral song, something holy and human being implored from a deep place.
This first poem sets the compass for the rest of the journey, this books intention is attuned to the whole with each poem. Structured collections don’t lose something by their intentionality, they often hone the message to greater clarity and this is the case with the poem ‘Begin with a Question’.
“by your own single note of joy: You stop moving. And that is when you begin.”
This deliberation comes from experience, knowledge and the craft of writing. Maddox’s years spent teaching and writing are evidenced in the flow of her message. That said, she’s not sterile in her precision, there is an abundance of passion, intensity and emotion throughout, it’s just placed rather than flung. For some, the adherence to a spiritual theme, may be off-putting, though this would be a mistake, given one’s personal faith doesn’t have to alienate the worth of a story. We can all read about someone who has a different life and gain from it. Whether atheist, agnostic or spiritual, Maddox asks you to consider the story within the story, a story we all share. A search for the meaning of our existence and what matters along the way as found in the poem ‘Your Godmother, almost blind’:
“no promises, but it gets easier. If you are left- handed, reverse everything.”
This poem has many layers. The same is true of the poem ‘During My Daily Phone Call to Her Assisted Living Facility, My Mother Explains That She Is Slowing Fading Away …’. The title itself is searing, liminal and the subsequent poem equal in measure. Maddox knows how to open a poem like nobody else with unforgettable lines like:
“And it is not the light but the dust in the light that rises, plunges, plateaus on the short hhhhh of my exhale, less final than a sigh that dies from hopelessness but, still there…”
It’s devastating in its rendering, there are no unnecessary words. This poem is emotions in a capsule that reaches inside and rips out stifled feelings. The power it possesses is otherworldly, magnificent, terrifying:
“And it is not the distance between words, between parent/child, not the desert under the plane, or the plane cursing above and past the jagged mountains, the wholesome prairies, the vast expanse of flat nothing I’ve come to expect from questions…”
This poem cuts in half any pretence. You just hang your jaw and drink it in. It’s only once in a lifetime someone can write a poem with this kind of truth.
Maddox knows her history of literature and many will feature in this collection, with the ease of a well-versed lover of stories. Few read like this anymore and even if you are not familiar with all the characters, you may appreciate this nod to them. She does this without a hint of pretension, naturally as if they represent in metaphor, our own lives. From her poem ‘Gardens and Farms’:
“Which we, weary Anno Domini gardeners, expatriates of Eden”
Whether you believe Eden on a metaphysical plane, you can appreciate the idea of having fallen to Earth and the subsequent toil, versus the dream of an ideal. Each observation is achieved with the fluidity of a natural observer. Maddox reminds of the pastoral poets of the 18th century who transcended their descriptions with the heraldry of their spiritual quest. When Maddox writes:
“Fear tangles every root of prayer; all I can mutter is Why? How?” -- Without Ceasing
I heard the universal howl into the abyss, the raw cry of pain, unassuaged, lost and wandering. It felt both Biblical, as in Christ in the Wilderness, and also deeply human, the purpose of Christ being among humanity. Without obviating the religious undertones, Maddox piques the question we all have, when suffering, ‘Why? How?’ – echoing the universal refrain when faced with terror, pain, suffering. Paraclete Press who published this collection, is the publishing arm of the Cape Cod Benedictine community. Given that much published poetry today is based upon ‘trending’ themes, I am glad such publishers exist to ensure we are not blinkered in whom we publish:
“No longer partitioned off by sin, by regret, by self-righteousness...” -- Voices Raised
It could be argued, Maddox achieves the impossible, a meshing of past and present, in appreciating both. Paring a Leonard Cohen song with the story of Joseph and Mary. The poignant story of Mary finding ‘no room at the inn,’ is one that struck me as a small child (even as I was Jewish) because it spoke to me of human cruelty. It is that great story of overcoming, endurance, love, and something more than humanity. When Maddox writes:
“and still convinced of the predestined roll of dice chrismated with Miracle— keeps walking with his-not-his woman forever strangers in this hometown that will not welcome them, will not lay them down to sleep.” -- Traveling Man
It’s truly clever to juxtapose Leonard Cohen’s prescient lyrics against a story we know relatively well. The bittersweet, the ideas of not being welcomed, nowhere to sleep. A powerful parallel between that and other acts of selfishness committed by humanity, how often we close doors and bar entry can be seen. There are universal themes here that haunt and force thought beyond comfort zone, which is exactly what poetry at its most powerful, can do. Saying so much in so little, is both reflective, achingly transposing and deft in its precision. Often, I am struck by how closely Maddox’s work feels like a prayer, incantation, yearning for … betterment. And I take solace in this because I share its intention.
“What does the world weight slit this way; infused with sorrow? The bones of betrayal are wood nailed with pain.” -- The Five Sorrowful Mysteries
Maddox ends with her poem And All Shall Be well. The title alone moved me. It soothes that entombment that haunts our peace, when we have been hurting and believe it will never end. We seek the solace of hope, and kindness. In many ways, whether we acknowledge it or not, this is a step Jesus would have taken, because all who live in the West are influenced by the teachings of Christianity even if we’re unawares. The infiltration of those simple morals and codes to live by, are often a solace without our knowing.
“Begin where there is no beginning, where refrain neither breaks nor mends what you once knew as discipline. The middle is where we start from—” -- And All Shall Be Well
Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com
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