Ed Madden, Signals

Publisher: The University of South Carolina Press
2008, 69 pages, paperback, $13.45

ed madden’s poetry collection, Signals, is a unique, lively documentation of personal experience given through lyrical descriptions of nature and narrative revelations of American and personal history. Using lyrical descriptions of nature and place, Madden reaches to connect a personal experience to a universal understanding of the complexities of life, and prompts an emotional response from the reader; but the imagery in such poems as “Trough” and “Silver” is too closely tied to the subjective experience, limiting readers’ abilities to engage with the moment offered. However, one redeeming quality of the poems listed above is Madden’s choice to cite where, when, and what the poems are describing, which provides a context, minimal as it may be, for the occasion. Madden is most successful in connecting human experience when he relates contemporary people to accounts of history and when he is overtly willing to comment on the presence of greed, materialism, and the realities of family life. Madden is also successful in connecting human experience in poems such as “Confederates” and “Roots: An Essay on Race,” which unveil the cultural and racial issues that continue to pervade the American South. 

The couplets and tercets that comprise the majority of the poems in Signals are appropriate formal elements that coincide with the content of the poems. The forms mirror Madden’s voice, which is fragmented yet consistent in its shifting glance from one place to another, establishing order and reason in the things it receives and recalls. In the collection’s more lyrical moments, Madden’s fragmentation and willingness to directly catalogue natural items that provide stability to the narrator, as they unfold one after another, asserts an urgency toward tranquility in a time and place of chaos. The poem, “Variations on a Postcard, Achill Island, 1960s,” embodies this theme directly, as Madden includes three poems in one, offering different descriptions of the postcard while sharing some of the same objects. This shifting perspective, which implies that a wholeness of the world can only be known through its separate parts and different viewpoints, is also reflected in the narrative, historical, and socially relevant poems as well, providing the collection with a coherent theme that is versatile yet explicit.

Signals unfolds in three sections. The first two sections, which are comprised of the more lyrical poems, establish the anxious tone that is later reformulated into anxious realizations about a society’s failure to progress. The poems “Inventory” and “Auction” are exceptions in the second section that help lay a groundwork for the book’s finale of socially charged commentary. Though the tonal and emotional precedents are well formulated by the first two sections, the imagery and subjective impulse disengage the reader as he or she proceeds through the collection. However, the compilation of poems regains its energy in the final section, and is summed up best by lines from “Dialects,” the collection’s penultimate poem:

Just as history is never over
or complete, some conflicts can’t be
reconciled, transcended, folded

into some higher, nobler thing.
The dry yard darkens with rain,
with all you wish you’d said

to the one inside, still sleeping.
Pollen scums the porch, sticks
to your bare feet. Nothing moves.

Madden’s ambition to provide socially aware statements, coupled with his ability to search through nature, history, and personal experience, offers a collection of poetry that is at times subjectively convoluted but is bold and exciting in its commentary and vulnerability.

-Jason Coates