By: Grace Bauer and Julie Kane, eds.
Reviewed by: Dwight Eddins
Xavier Review Press, 2006
Yeats asks, in a question that is really a lyric lament, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” In the case of the uniquely-gifted poet Rette Maddox, it is impossible to separate the two. His dance was the dance of death in the embrace of the Scotch, malnutrition, and tobacco that ultimately killed him (he was 44) in the form of esophageal cancer, but it was out of this embrace—organically and inevitably—that his poetry bloomed.
I was Rette’s teacher (and occasional bar companion) back in his formative years at the University of Alabama, so I have a special concern with the decline and fall that was also an aesthetic ascension. That he was talented we knew, that he was probably doomed we suspected, but who could have guessed that he would go on to become inseparable from the New Orleans poetry scene and win a group of fervent admirers—a number of them writers of consequence themselves—who would not let him go obscurely into that good night.
It is they who have produced this distinctively eclectic and elegiac miscellany, 318 pages of essays, poems, fiction, and journalism focused on the Laureate of the Maple Leaf Bar. After a chronology that includes the poignant entries “Dec. 1982 Evicted from his apartment on Green Street for nonpayment of rent” and “Mid 1980s Homelessness and unemployment become permanent conditions,” we are treated to Rette’s brilliant parody of Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Being Looked at by a Possum” (originally published in The Paris Review, no less). The last stanza seems drolly prescient:
Drunk, crawling across a country road tonight,
I hear a shriek, look up, and am paralyzed
by fierce headlights and a grinning grill.
I am as good as gone!
Among the essays, Rodney Jones’ modestly-titled “Some Notes on Rette Maddox” stands out as a strikingly eloquent and nuanced study of Rette’s poetic development from Tuscaloosa days (Rodney was his close friend) to the end, when the homeless, shockingly-emaciated poet was scribbling his last lyrics on bar napkins and sundry scraps from his surroundings—all collected and edited by friends into his final volume, American Waste.
At the end, Maddox spoke from the authenticity of absolute reduction, dramatically embodying what it means, in Yeats’ phrase, to “wither into the truth.”
Dwight Eddins has just retired after teaching literature for forty years at the University of Alabama.