Sunday, April 17, 2011
On Ed Madden's "Prodigal: Variations"
Poet Charles Jensen has always impressed me with the way in which his own work invests in different sorts of beauty. If you should read his work in magazines or his debut, First Risk, you can’t help but feel an aesthetic restlessness that serves him well: from narrative to lyric; domestic to meta-fictional; or even drawing upon Stein to destabilize the definitions of commonplace words.
It’s no surprise that we should be excited with what he will bring to Lethe Press as their new poetry editor. Lethe Press’ book designs are always stunning, their content always charged and necessary. I can't think of an author who wouldn't be happy with their product.
I love that Jensen chose, as a first book under his tenure, one that is completely different than his own style(s) and content. For me, this is always the true mark of a superior editor, and one Jensen should be commended for. I think he’s doing a great job already.
Jensen's first choice is Ed Madden’s Prodigal: Variations.
It is a very respectable, polished collection with more than reasonable aims: trusting incredible line breaks and wonderful sound to re-energize commonplace tropes of a gay man’s attachment to an abusive father, the rural life, and the Bible with, of course, a tortured ambivalence. It upsets me that it will receive much less attention than Michael Walsh’s weirdly anorexic The Dirt Riddles, which deals with many similar themes. Will Walsh's book stay more in the public eye than Madden's because it is distributed by a university press over a smaller, predominantly gay one?
You can feel the steadfast sincerity that Madden brings to his poems. It’s a hard thing to fake. At the same time, his words never fall into the pitfall of sounding merely earnest. Here’s a fairly emblematic selection of openings. From “Rock collection”:
His uncle taught him how to find them—
after light rain, best time to walk
the rows, find the flaked flint
in dark dirt, cream or pink stone,
a scrape or point in the wet furrow....
From “The secret gospel”:
The sound of rolling stone pushed back the darkness:
a grinding, as of grain and grit inside a mill.
The room filled with light; a man
stretched his hand toward another,
causing him to stand, the shroud unwinding.
I sing old hymns while you drive.
Neither of us believes them anymore.
What do you make from a piece
of driftwood found at dry lake?
The wind whistles through bare limbs,
a song of renunciations.
There’s nothing wrong with these lines. A lot of the poems in Prodigal appeared in great national magazines, as they should have. Madden is setting himself up to be a master stylist, which he succeeds in doing. He pushes the material as far as it can go in terms of craft. There's no denying the enviable style, a content of its own. Here is the end of “Rock collection”:
He left a cigar box of rocks in the closest—
arrowheads, fossils, an agate he’d found
in a mound of wet gravel, before
it was dozered into the dirt road,
glitter driven in the ruts, the ditches
lined that spring with bundles of pink phlox.
The passage is amazing--the fun of the word "dozered," for instance. Without any qualifications, Madden has an excellent ear for the combination of sounds and letters. I happen to own Ed Madden’s debut, Signals, and there seems to deliberately be nothing here, in terms of content, as tricky as “Roots: An Essay on Race” or fun set pieces like "The Mutter Museum." This smaller scope allows Madden to focus on sound, and this decision is a bold choice. It seems that with this book, he’s trying to master his rhetorical skills, struggling and succeeding with music, through material as rich as the soil he describes with careful, repetitive precision.
Meticulous yet never fastidious, Madden's second book of poems Prodigal: Variations takes the familiar trope of rural gay son-father relationship and turns it into something we can't live without. Madden writes: "The crow is a bruise/on the green hedge, it shines." That's how I felt about this book: painful, illuminating, necessary spectacle.
Ed Madden's Prodigal: Variations is available through Lethe Press.