By Anthony Madrid
Canarium Books – 2017
I first saw Anthony Madrid read alongside Michael Robbins and Paige Ackerson-Kiely in Brooklyn one summer afternoon, in a bookstore by a church undergoing repairs, scaffolding wreathing the brown steeple. I only knew of Robbins, whose book, Alien Vs. Predator (Penguin, 2012), I had come across and liked while doing research for my undergraduate thesis on John Berryman. At the time, I hadn’t read much poetry—a few books for workshops and some of Berryman’s Dream Songs—though I cautiously thought of myself as a poet. I sat in a gray fold-out chair in the packed, un-air-conditioned bookstore, stealing some of the breeze from Paige’s hand fan. When his turn came to read, Madrid, as he orated his ghazals, swayed, snapped his fingers, stamped, and grinned. It was unlike anything I’d seen before. I was hooked.
Madrid was born in Bethesda, Maryland in 1968 and raised in the suburb of Rockville by working class parents: Dixie, a coal miner’s daughter from the Virginia/West Virginia border who dropped out of 10th grade to marry her first husband, and Nestor, her second husband, a “Mexican schemer, charming and irresponsible” (Madrid’s words). Madrid began writing poetry to “impress people,” he says, to get “his portion under the sun.” As a boy, he’d wanted to be a lawyer, like the ones on TV whose speeches hypnotize the jury, but when, in 11th grade, he realized what being a lawyer is actually like, he decided to keep the appealing parts and throw out the rest. “Poetry,” he says, “was what was left over”—and it shows, particularly in the bewitching quality of his readings.
But Madrid isn’t merely a compelling performer. He is an exemplary poet, too. In the wake of Victorian excess, Modernist poets called for brevity with maximum voltage, producing masters of linguistic compression like Basil Bunting, George Oppen, and HD. Try Never can be placed in this lineage, as it embodies Ezra Pound’s dictum, “dichten = condensare,” that is, writing poems is condensing language. To that end, very few words or pages in Try Never go to waste. The book is only 50 pages long, and the lines are no less economical; the first one reads, “Brake light out. Kid with a stick” (1), and the rest follow suit. Occasionally, this leads to moments in which syntax produces an elegantly compacted phrase, and grammar becomes poetry: “All my life I’ve been a fool for women: / Got off on so being” (19). The grace of the phrase, “Got off on so being,” teaches us that Pound was right: poetry may quite simply be the act of compressing language.
By employing a disused form, Try Never continues in the same vein as Madrid’s first book, I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say (Canarium, 2012). Whereas Slave was all ghazals, Try Never is mostly in a Medieval Welsh form, aside from two “Maxims.” This, too, places Madrid in the Modernist lineage. Ezra Pound borrowed from China, and T.S. Eliot from India, both looking to other cultures and historical eras for novel ideas. In this case, the Welsh form provides Madrid with a structure well-suited to his strengths: juxtaposition, repetition, and acerbic wisdom. Natural imagery, however, is crucial to the form as well, which has induced Madrid to demonstrate his mastery of the pictorial phrase. “Cold Spring,” for example, stands out because it is packed with lovely, photographic lines (all on page 4): “Flowering pear full of tiny white blossoms”; “Redbud puts out a violet petal”; “A gull’s cry like a screen door in motion”; “Green ash still clustered in last year’s pods.” The detail, the color, the names of flowers and plants, and the aptness of the simile all create a space in which the imagination can bloom.
Sound, however, may be more important than image in Try Never. As the 5 train came to a halt one morning on my way to work, I closed the book after an hour of reading, put it in my backpack, and got off at 42nd Street with the rhythm of the poems still thrumming in my brain. For example:
Quinceañera. It’s not up to me.
Digeridoo if it’s sadder and wiser.
Seventeen saturnine stanzas neither
About nor intended for teenagers. (18)
A succession of stanzas like that inevitably results in the rhythm lodging itself in one’s head, a pleasure compounded by Madrid’s use of rhyme. Though probably not the first example of this, Try Never’s rhymes are not just end-line rhymes or internal rhymes but also rhymes in different parts of lines: an end-word rhyming with a beginning word in the following line, for example:
Books stacked up, and nowhere to store ‘em.
Decorum is spontaneous order. (7)
This isn’t mere ingenuity for ingenuity’s sake. There is pleasure in hearing a precise rhyme where one wasn’t expecting it, and Madrid is nothing if not attuned to the pleasures of sound. Indeed, some lines in the book have little purpose aside from sound, but it is sufficient purpose for me:
Kiskindhakanda. I’ll never not know.
I’ll never not need you to teach me to read.
This poem’s for daffadowndilly and weed,
Either other sweetly gracing. (21)
The final line here, made solely of trochees, (“Either other sweetly gracing”) is a sonic delight.
Try Never, too, has a refreshing dose of unsentimental, clear-eyed pessimism. Take, for example, “Cold Spring.” Successively, the final lines of three stanzas are, “Rare is regret. More usual, bitterness,” “Inconvenient, the needs of the soul,” and, “Both are degenerate: felon and cop.” No one is special in Madrid’s cosmology—not even himself: “And why / Must I sit through my own performance? // …I shall forever be lapped by the orange flames / Of my self inflicted glory” (49), he writes in the concluding poem, “Try Never.” It comes as no surprise: Madrid is well-read in Buddhism, Taoism, and 18th Century British literature—all of which hold contempt for delusion. It is particularly restorative if one reads contemporary writing, much of which is buoyed by an optimism that merely satisfies our collective vanity. Or, as Madrid puts it, “Three quarters of modern memoir is just / Saying things in the wrong tone of voice” (35). Try Never has many tones of voice—direct, witty, opinionated—but almost none of them is the wrong one.