Reviewed by Dan Vera
Ed Madden teaches English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina. He’s also a hell of a poet. The publication of a book like Signals heralds great things for lovers of honest poetry that captures the lyrical beauty of life. I spent a few hours reading this book, contempling the words and images. I found them populating my mind. I found a deep resonance to the questions I hold in my heart as a Gay man in the world and one deeply in love and partnered.
Along with his academic bona fides Madden serves as writer in residence at the Riverbanks Botanical Gardens in Columbia, South Carolina. One sees evidence of this connection to the natural world in Madden’s work. In poems like “Cabin Near Caesar’s Head” there is a gorgeous attention to the botanical splendor of the countryside. Again and again one is — I don’t know what other word to use but — blessed by a precise litany of names — the luscious names of trees and flowers. There is such great attention here and such care taken in creating miniature pictures in the mind. I have to add that this collection is of importance for those grown thirsty for poems about the love of men, for Madden breaks the drought throughout this book. What’s most refreshing is the exercise doesn’t seem forced or premeditated. Madden is writing plainly but with intention.
Signals has a number of poems that speak to the peculiar nature of the South’s ever-present racial history. Others have done this. But Madden is writing from his perspective as a gay man partnered with another. This happens best in the poem “Confederates,” a poetic account of a day marching against South Carolina’s confederate-laced flag. When a woman asks what the two white Gay men are doing at the march, the question has an immediate percussive ring that lays bare the joint allegiances Gay men and people of color should hold at this point in history. It’s startling and affirming at the same time. I can’t recall another poet writing of these things so effectively and convincingly.
Last October, after many years of being an admirer of his work, I had the good fortune to read with him at the Atlanta Queer Literary Festival. Hearing him read from these poems is a memory I will long treasure.
Signals is the resulting book from Madden’s winning the 2008 South Carolina Poetry Book Prize. It is the greatest gift South Carolina has given me. The gift is yours for the taking.
Dan Vera is White Crane’s managing editor and a poet living in Washington, DC.
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