Keeping What Matters

When my wife and I leave on our travels, we plan to sell our things: the furniture, the clothes, and all the other stuff. No point really in paying to store it, and the extra money could come in handy. Some decisions are easy; after all I have no real emotional attachment to my couch, and I recognize that while little tchotchkes on the mantle all summon memories, ultimately those memories live in my head and not in shells and Mardi Gras throws gathering dust above the fireplace. Other things are harder to let go: the silk rug I bought in Kashmir, the wool one I bought in Morocco, the library of fiction I’ve curated over the past decade. These things are closer to me, they are more an expression of who I am than the dishes in the kitchen. The things we curate are closest to us. Which brings me to our art. We’re not getting rid of it. We’re going to lend it out, so it finds love and care on other walls, so it inspires other people and illuminates other lives. Maybe one day we’ll recover it, maybe not. It doesn’t matter: art is meant to be appreciated. But we have art that isn’t displayed on walls, art that doesn’t add character to a room but instead adds character to people. With this in mind, I have decided that I am not parting with my Everette Maddox books.

A little background: Everette Maddox was a poet of moderate acclaim from Alabama who eventually settled in New Orleans, teaching poetry at Loyola University. His life was a series of misadventures and lost opportunities. He was man perhaps more talented than his circumstances allowed for. He became homeless. He often slept on the benches in the (legendary) Maple Leaf Bar where he hosted a poetry open mic. He died living on the street in the surrounding neighborhood. A tragic figure really, a figure befitting a poet. There’s a plaque in the courtyard of the Maple Leaf that lists his name, his birth, his death, and his epitaph, which reads simply, “he was a mess”. But he was also a hell of a poet.

Few people know about Maddox. I didn’t until I leaned a rickety wire chair off the concrete into the soft landscaping of the Maple Leaf courtyard and found myself face down on his epitaph. “What an epitaph!” I thought, so, like any modern man, I looked him up on my phone and learned about his life. And I read a couple of poems. He had been published in the Paris Review, among other places, so he was not just some local hero. I found a list of his books. There were four publications in all: a pamphlet, “Thirteen poems”, and three books, “The Everette Maddox Song Book” “Bar Scotch” and “American Waste.” I found “American Waste” easily, and ordered it in the courtyard, another drunken impulse buy.

When it came in the mail I was floored. It was a slim volume like most poetry volumes are, but every page spoke so clearly. Maddox ignores the vagaries and pretension of many poets. To put it bluntly, he says it like it is. He tells a little story, full of snapshots and sentiments then lets it hang there, hopeless, for you to fret over, and, eventually, fall in love with. Simple expression can have so much impact when measured out just right. I quickly tracked down “Bar Scotch” and ordered it. When it came I loved it just as much, so I set about looking for the Song Book. This was his first book, rarer, only one edition ever printed. But I found it, a signed copy, with personal inscription for a prohibitive amount of money. I bought it immediately and ate ramen for a while.

Now I have all three volumes, first editions, of Everette Maddox’s poetry. I’m missing the pamphlet, but I’m not sure many still exist. I read these books all the time. Maddox has become my favorite poet. His simple verse, his honest voice cuts to the heart of experiences I too, in my own way, have danced among, but never framed so eloquently. He is also under-appreciated, under-recognized, and mostly unknown. Which is why I can’t get rid of these books. Sure, there might be someone else who appreciates him like me but what if they don’t? What if I sold these books to molder on a shelf unread, relegated to collectors’ trophies? Maddox’s poetry needs to be read, it needs to be mulled over and it needs to be loved. His poetry, like his life, is a part of history, a forgotten part, but that omission keeps the story pure. It keeps it about his words. He is a poet untainted by renown, driven only by an impulse that led him to scrawl words on bar napkins. Everette Maddox was a great artist, and, despite his inauspicious end, he died a great artist. The most I can do to honor his life and his work is to preserve it myself, to flee to it when I need its council, to hold it in high regard and pass it on in the same way. And I’m not ready to pass it on. I haven’t found the right person, the right time. I’m just not ready, these words still mean too much to me, they still speak to a way I wish I saw things. I still need them around. And that’s why I’m not parting with my Everette Maddox books. Yet.