Lines Like Poems unto Themselves: Anthony Madrid’s Try Never

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The poems that comprise Anthony Madrid’s second full-length collection, Try Never (Canarium, 2017), know what they are. They are meticulously superficial, and they span centuries and civilizations on the strength of their surfaces.

The first poem in the book, “Brake Light Out,” calls attention to its own brilliant surface.

In a turn-only lane, you don’t have to signal:
Being in the lane is the signal.

Being in the lane is the signal! I had never thought of it that way before. The way these two lines are constructed proves how true they are: there is the rhyme between signal and signal, the same word, the same thing; and that first line breaks at the word signal, as if changing lanes; and it changes into the signal / lane of the final line. The more closely I read it, the more ways the poem enacts its message. And reading those expressions about the lane change might not tell me anything about the human condition, but that’s not the goal of Madrid’s poems. Close readings of his poems reveal new surfaces, rather than new depths.

Madrid’s first collection, I Am Your Slave, Now Do What I Say, consists of entirely of ghazals, a Persian form of distinct couplets that appear alongside each other not because of shared syntax or theme, but because they share a refrain. Try Never uses a somewhat similar form, from medieval Welsh. I think the switch in form between these two books indicates that form is less important to Madrid’s work than style. That is, despite the switch in form, the poems in Try Never possess the same Madridian style as those in I Am Your Slave, Now Do What I Say: both collections are quippy, epigrammatic, philologically inclined, and lexically promiscuous.

Let’s return to that Welsh form for a minute. The poems in Try Never generally are arranged in quatrains, with a rhyme scheme that works like this: ABBC CDDE EFFG, etc., so the reader gets the sense of tumbling forward. Not progression, exactly, but something like it. In the ghazals of I Am Your Slave, Now Do What I Say, a repeated phrase, or some version of it, ends each stanza as a sort of linguistic punctuation mark. The same repetition is at play in Try Never, but this time it occurs at the beginning of the stanza. Instead of moving according to emotional shifts or plot, these poems often move forward by “rhyme” in that other sense of the word: as in association, or even, more directly, repetition. Across poems, too, the poems remix and reuse some of their own lines. “Only divest, no need to announce it,” goes a line in two subsequent poems. The notion that when one chooses to believe it doesn’t count as belief is repeated as well.

My favorite poems in this book aren’t my favorites because of what they say or do as poems, but because they have the best individual lines. This makes me think that an interest in line-making over poem-making is another feature of Madrid’s style. Here are some standout lines from the poem “Stepping Crow”:

I don’t like thinking, I like already knowing.

But bad’s not the Devil. Bad can be good.

This pleasure’s a lie, unless it’s permanent.

The place where the Wall tunnels into the sea.

A bubble, sluggish, in a carpenter’s level.

These lines work like poems unto themselves. It’s almost too much to encounter them within a longer poem, among lines that look and sound like them but aren’t as brutal or bold. They present a speaker who looks at the world in an alluringly weird way—often morally weird but, nearly as often, aesthetically weird; they are funny, usually because of their use of rhyme and repetition; and they use metrical ingenuity to pack more sound and surprise into a few syllables than seems possible.

There are two series of “maxims” in Try Never, as well. These are presented as bits of prose, but they are as scrupulous and well-pruned as the formal poetry they appear alongside. One of my favorite of these maxims is, “The friend who comes apologizing and promising must be received. He is sorry and not sorry and sorry.” This reminded me of Gertrude Stein’s line “a rose is a rose is a rose,” which Stein later said, with characteristic modesty, made the rose red again for the first time in a century. It’s almost impossible to imagine a time when “sorry not sorry” sounded fresh or funny. By adding another “sorry” to that now too-familiar phrase, Madrid makes it sound human again—he yanks it away from being another ghost-sound in the machine.

In the poem “Flying Ants,” Madrid writes, “Personal salvation means nothing to me. / I prefer to take the long view.” Madrid’s poems make me think of the work of the Yale scholar Wai Chee Dimock, who argues for a reading of American literature that acknowledges how regularly writers work across broad boundaries of time, space, and nation. In other words, she takes the long view: as the subtitle of a recent book she edited puts it, “American Literature as World Literature.”

Here’s one of many examples of Madrid’s long view, a stanza in the poem “Injured Bones”:

Injured Bone. Whither the knot?
Akhenaten, John Cotton, Odysseus.
Kid, when you break the set of your shoelaces
The knot escapes into air.

Characteristically, there’s not a lot in this stanza in terms of emotion or plot—it’s tied together instead by a much more extraordinary bow: that rhyme between Odysseus and shoelaces, which we are delivered to by the progression of sounds in “knot,” “Akhenaten,” and  “John Cotton.” From Akhenaten to John Cotton. Dimock calls such long stretches of history “deep time.” I like traveling through it with Madrid.

Lucy Biederman is a lecturer in English at Case Western Reserve University, and holds a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana. Her creative essays have recently appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, Ploughshares, and Pleiades, and her scholarly work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Henry James Review, Women's Studies, and Studies in the Literary Imagination. More from this author →