If you attended the TEDx Conference here in January and were lucky enough to see Ed Madden’s presentation, you already know the power of his poetry. And it might have surprised you. In conversation, Madden seems unassuming, reserved, a man without torment.
But there is a force to this man and a dark undercurrent to the seemingly placid stream of poems he writes. You could sense it in “Blue” and “After” and “Osage Orange” from his earlier “Signals” and “Prodigal: Variations.” It is here tugging at you in “Nest,” his third book-length poetry collection, particularly in the second of the three poems that Madden has titled “Nest,” a work that falls about midway through.
In this poem, he takes the pastoral and brings from within it the dark and threatening:
Green pecans litter the street, crushed
and pungent on the hot walk. A hatchling,
just a puff of grey down, shrieks
in the grass, somewhere a nest, and in the west
a promise of storm, the sky gone black.
A shrike eyes the tiny bird, its song
monotonous, it won’t shut up, little dollop
of feather, all beak and eyes. The shrike
is quiet. The pasture fence is twisted wire,
here and there barbs beaded with impaled things.
The juxtaposition of “crushed” and “pungent” evoking the decay of death, the nest off somewhere, the twisted-wire fence, its “barbs beaded with impaled things.” Shrikes, also known as butcher birds, like to impale their small prey, and they are nasty about guarding their territory: there’s no doubt what will happen to that fledgling. You can appreciate the danger lurking in the poem without knowing anything about shrikes – Madden includes enough hints. But clearly he knows about them and is making the most of that knowledge.
Madden has a subtle voice. His poetry invites, almost demands, contemplation. It asks to be read out loud, to have each word pronounced so that you hear how the sounds play off one another, feel the rhythms and rhymes, the flow and break of the meter. Most of all, his use of narrative and description in many of his poems also makes them accessible to the casual reader. He seems to savor the visual. The images that Madden paints stick in the mind long after you finish reading. You can see that bird, that walk, that pasture: don’t let the calm cadence of those “green pecans” lull you.
It is similar to what he did in the seemingly benign “Osage Orange.” An Osage orange only smells like an orange. In fact, it is a prickly autumn fruit whose innards are tough and stringy, more seeds than pulp. Before barbed wire, farmers planted them to contain pastured livestock – hence the alternate name “hedge apple.” Something that is the opposite of what it appears to be.
There is in “Nest,” as in much of Madden’s work, the threat underlying the everyday, the sense that at any moment everything could go wrong. It is easy to forget the pleasure of reading a well-wrought poem. In Madden’s work, you find tension and resolution – the stuff, really, of a fine novel but compressed and in short lines. “Genealogy: unidentified man in a photograph” is an example. At 32 lines, it is one of the book’s longer poems, but hardly long. It tells a complex and touching story, that of being closeted at a time when there wasn’t much that was gay about being homosexual.
Madden himself is a roiling enigma: a proper Southern scholar who grew up in want on an Arkansas farm and whose parents didn’t speak to him for 10 years after he came out; a former seminarian whose academic focus at the University of South Carolina is gender studies but who, like Jacob, wrestles with the dichotomy between God’s image of us and our image of ourselves. None of this is necessary to the understanding and enjoyment of a Madden poem, but it is information that deepens appreciation of his work.
You can find (or order) “Nest” at your local bookstore. Madden will do a solo reading for the Jasper Salon series April 10 at 7 p.m. at The Arcade. He also will be part of the USC MFA program’s Shark’s Parlor reading on May 2 at 5:30 p.m. at Delaney’s.