(Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2018)
Growing up, my younger brother had a unique plush toy. Some kids have teddy bears. Many have plush dogs. My brother, however, had a stingray. Because that’s how we grew up, and that’s what we knew, I tended not to think much of it, at least not in a meaningful way. Majorie Maddox’s Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation recalled this memory through a two-part combination: the mention of a stingray but, more so, Maddox’s ability to authentically explore what could have, under a less-skilled poet’s purview, become overly sentimental or even cliché.
I am one of those ill-behaved readers who opens a collection of poems to a random page before going back to the beginning. The first time I picked up this collection, I happened upon a poem titled “The Lungs,” which begins:
A miniature stingray, it glides
only inside its bone cage,
slate-gray and shiny,
sliding about its domain, inhaling
anything within breath
Comparing the lungs to a stingray is strange enough to be surreal, yet the way Maddox’s description unfolds allows the reader to believe, almost, that the two could be literally interchanged, creating one of those rare and real moments during which the adult reader might discover something new.
Although this particular moment holds an extra layer of meaning for me because of my childhood, I do not believe some sort of fate led me to begin on that page. Rather, Maddox is one of those truly exceptional poets who is able to, through her own experiences and imagination, dip sincerely into a variety of readers’ messy heart brains, authentically exploring and animating even the most platitude-prone topics.
The poet writes similarly on the membrane that encloses the heart, “The Pericardium,” which “hangs entwined in the branches of vessels— / a wasps’ nest buzzing with breath,” another image which brims from the page. Paired with the humor that this section offers, such as “The Pancreas” as “a half-foot of dog’s tongue licking the spleen clear, / slobbering over the stomach and jejunum,” it quickly becomes clear why this section, on its own, was previously published as a chapbook with Anamnesis Press as Body Parts.
“Body Parts,” the third section of this five-part collection, might be the most magnificent, but the pieces of this 110-page book undoubtedly belong together. Maddox reaches beyond the body and the self. She reminds us of the importance of connecting with others, of getting out of our own heads and loving, even when the odds are against us. In “Badminton Net,” for example, a family leaves their net up, even in poor weather, and despite rarely playing the game. Maddox explains that the net’s “sagging lines” are “reminders of what / in us divides and unifies.” As suggested by a squirrel who “chatters / prayer, or, perhaps new rules,” we are offered hope for even the hopeless in a moment that is somehow both tender and funny. We witness this backyard woodland creature as both a medium for the divine and an uninterested badminton coach. Meanwhile, the neighbors believe the net:
could catch our prayers and games,
pull itself up, and toss them into sky
like all our plastic birdies gone awry,
and there would be no difference in our lives.
The sing-song, slant-rhyme nature of these lines echoes the jeers of childhood bullies, I think, which brings the moment alive and also gives us further reason to ignore the neighbors’ ridicule. In a more sonically gravid moment of the poem, the family members “pound the stakes in / deeper.” We have reason to persevere.
This collection is resonant yet accessible, and I would readily gift it to even the non-poetry readers in my life. However, it also offers opportunities for those more attuned to the craft of poetry an excellent study. In addition to being an expert in metaphor, for example, Maddox’s line breaks are superb. The closing of “Badminton Net” is as follows:
On this we’re unified: we pound the stakes in
deeper, talk about retrying
the net, about playing.
The break before “deeper” gives us, the readers, that extra moment, a quick breath, to feel the impact of the stake moving deeper into the earth. Also, by breaking the line after “retrying,” we are allowed the full impact of the connotation of the work, as this poem is not, at its heart, about badminton. Like so many of the pieces in Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation, the title of the poem offers us a tangible image but is also the conduit to something more.
Maddox’s poems are also impressive in their pacing. In “After Learning of Our Own Deaths,” the poet begins with monarchs who “tango / right-left, tiger / wings dipping” and there is “nothing / to see but light and stripe.” Through this creature, which Maddox is too astute to label something trifling like butterfly, we learn of “beauty, fear; fragile and flippant” and how:
Even now, the sky tilts with it,
opens up its jaw.
The air is flapping
color and us
Boldly, Maddox leaves the second-to-final section of this poem completely blank, a move which under almost any other circumstances would have come across as gimmicky; this poet, however, executes the moment with precision. This section, which holds only whitespace, immediately follows a single-line section, unpunctuated and understated, “a flat night and a thin town,” after which we shift to nothingness, and then belief, and this arrangement takes my breath away. However, this is not a rarity. Throughout the collection, Maddox embraces our human emotions and astutely translates them into palpable moments. Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation is performed with absolute eloquence.
| | |
Heather Lang Cassera serves as World Literature Editor for The Literary Review. She holds an MFA in Poetry with a Certificate in Literary Translation from Fairleigh Dickinson University. In 2017 she was named Las Vegas’ Best Local Writer or Poet by the readers of KNPR’s Desert Companion. Her poems have been published by or are forthcoming with The Normal School, North American Review, Pleiades, South Dakota Review, and other literary journals, and have been on exhibit in the Nevada Humanities Program Gallery. Heather curated Legs of Tumbleweeds, Wings of Lace, an anthology of literature by Nevada women, funded by the Nevada Arts Council and National Endowment for the Arts. At Nevada State College, Heather teaches Composition, Professional Writing, World Literature, and more, where she serves as Faculty Advisor for 300 Days of Sun. www.heatherlang.cassera.net