From T.S. Eliot to Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson to Flannery O’Connor, faith and poetry have long been companions. Each is a guide, in its own way, to grace. In True, False, None of the Above, poet Marjorie Maddox tracks her own relationship with faith and doubt, and the repeated ways in which literature, faith, and students challenge and resurrect her beliefs.
Maddox, a professor of English at Lock Haven University, is prolific. She’s the author of ten collections of poetry, four children’s books, a short story collection, and much more published work. She is also a mother and a devout Christian. These various identities create the daily world in which Maddox confronts the questions that test and restore her.
As a teacher, she faces the apathetic student, the student for whom both soul and poet are words that come with ironic italics, but there are also the enthusiastic students:
The freshmen, eager now,
blurt out dilemma, paradox, instress—
and all those other new-sounding ideas
suddenly connected to their lives,
their parents, the sonnet
they think was written last week,
even with its 19th century,
sound-packed syllables they don’t get
until slowing down, thinking.
In the poem, “And the Topic for Today is Environmentalism…Teaching ‘God’s Grandeur’”, the classroom suddenly gathers and settles to one united mind. Students recognize the experience of their parents, their literary kin, the guidance of their teacher. This moment stills the body and starts the mind. Students and teacher alike “are surprised to discover-- / we all most want: the eloquent octet, the bright wings, / the ah! that opens the mind to talk, / at long last, about the holy.”
This desire for connection and continuity arises again when Maddox writes about her children. In ‘Things’, she and her son sort through the detritus of his young life, all the school projects and mementoes she painstakingly saved for him that he no longer wants. Though grieving this loss, she agrees to let them go. She says: “because I love my son—I no longer keep, / the things that in losing give more room / to remember what we have now in this world of want.”
Just as motherhood and teaching are a part of her daily life, so is her faith, so much so that she likens it to the wash in “Laundry List.” Maddox finds herself separating, washing, folding, refolding her Christianity, engaging with it as we do laundry.
To finish the book, she writes in “Belief and Blackboards,”
And this is all we need:
the real, the spiritual, the Real:
the thin laughter in the background;
the crescendo of the poem rising, covering each desk,
each tile: floor and ceiling.
This volume reminds us that poetry and religion were once fireside conversations, as daily as dishes, as sacred as children—and as necessary and unexpected as grace.
Reviewer Camille-Yvette Welsch is a poet and senior lecturer in English at Penn State University Park.