After everything quits,
happening. The phone
rings. A knock comes
at the door. Lightning
flashes across the bed
where you bend, looking
at the dictionary.
Asleep, you keep waking
from dreams. The surface
of your life keeps
being broken, less and less
frequently, at random.
Raindrops after a storm:
surprise: the ghost of awe.
He’s been called the unofficial poet laureate of the French Quarter. Everette Maddox (1944-89) was a native Alabamian (Montgomery-born), who, like so many complicated literary souls, made his way to New Orleans to better commune with his muse. While there he taught for a few years at Xavier University and the University of New Orleans, hung out at Uptown’s Maple Leaf Bar (where he founded a reading series that is still going strong) and gradually descended into homelessness and alcoholism, all the while churning out verse on scraps of paper. He published two books of poetry during his lifetime, as well as dozens of individual poems in newspapers (including Mobile’s old Azalea City News) and magazines, which helped secure him a devoted regional readership.
Now, a wonderful new volume collects a nice range of Maddox’s verse and presents it for a new generation of readers. “I hope it’s not over, and good-by” (UNO Press, paper, $16.95) edited by Ralph Adamo is as good a one-volume introduction to this compelling poet as one could wish for, and every lover of Gulf Coast literature will want a copy on his or her shelf.
In his brief introduction, Adamo, a Crescent City poet and journalist, explains that this volume “is intended as a showcase of his [Maddox’s] styles, concerns, his wit, and sometimes dazzling sensibility.” Clearly, Maddox’s devotion to his art, to the detriment of his health and, in the end, his very survival, will be difficult for most readers to fully fathom. But the intensity of his experience and his gift for communicating it come through very strongly in this book.
Several of the poems reference locales around the South — Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile among them — but New Orleans is by far the dominant presence, and it is beautifully evoked time and again. In “2900 Prytania,” named for Maddox’s first New Orleans address (pictured on the cover), he wrote: “These top few/ lines sagging/ with words/ like ennui/ lagniappe/ crème de menthe/ constitute/ the wrought-iron/ balcony/ of a poem/ shaped just like/ my new 120-/ year-old house/ in New Orleans:/ a wooden lime/ peel hanging/ out of a lightning-/ murdered tree/ 2 stories/ down to knock/ against/ a honeysuckle-/ scented neighborhood/ of weird readers.”
In “New Orleans,” the city’s watery nature is to the fore: “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.” It concludes, “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.” And in “Front Street, New Orleans,” place and history intermingle: “… Only Governor/ Bernardo de Galvez who played/ ‘so decisive a role’ in the War/ for American Independence/ just off the ferry from Spain/ on his horse looks indecisively/ over my head up Canal Street/ as if to say Where can a man get/ a drink in this part of History”.
Getting a drink was certainly a significant concern for Maddox. In the introduction, Adamo writes that the poet was frequently “under the influence (from drink served in places that would not be mistaken for glamorous),” and poem after poem references alcohol and drunkenness. In “Urban Maudlin,” Maddox wrote: “Is it the accumulated/ effect of the screwdriver,/ bourbon on the rocks,/ Dixie beer and three brandies/ I’ve had today that/ has caused the first/ g to be torn from the/ Pi gly Wiggly sign across/ the street from this bar?” And in “Drinking Glass,” he composed a poem in praise of an empty glass: “Pick it up and hold it/ to the light — / a repository of dust,/ hair and lipstick.//” But, he continues, “Dump it out/ (salvaging the butt),/ rinse it, twirl it/ once on a cloth,/ and look! how Clarity/ Rides Again.// Raise it now in a toast/ to Friendship,/ and observe,/ deep in the amber booze,/ the old bright planets/ winking.”
If ultimately careless of his health and worldly prospects, Everette Maddox was fortunate indeed in the devotion of friends like Ralph Adamo, whose determination to share his extraordinary poetic voice will keep his memory and his work evergreen.