Maddox was raised outside Montgomery, Ala., and he was a student and teacher at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He moved to New Orleans in 1975 to write and teach at Xavier University. Throughout his time in New Orleans, he worked odd jobs and taught poetry in the schools while starting and running the Maple Leaf reading series. He was a constant presence in the Carrollton neighborhood, where he made several bars his home, proselytizing to all who would hear about the beauty and joy of the art of poetry. Maddox had trouble using that inspiration to elevate his own life, and he died of cancer in 1989 at the relatively young age of 44. The epitaph on his gravestone in the patio of his beloved Maple Leaf Bar reads simply, "He Was A Mess."
Although Maddox's time in this world was brief, his influence touched many poets including Rodney Jones, Ralph Adamo, Julie Kane, Nancy Harris, Dan Fulse and Dennis Formento. Thousands of poets have read at the Maple Leaf series, which now is the longest running continuous reading series in the South. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Paris Review, Poetry Now, Oxford American and other magazines of more modest repute.
Maddox's poetry covers several themes, most notably how everyday actions fulfill our lives and help us get through the day. In the poem "Poise," the subject watches the postman coming from next door and wonders, "What will happen? Will my/check come? Will I get/the job? Will they buy/my lousy poem? Will I see/you tonight? Will you/marry me, ever? Answers/are forthcoming." But the answers never come, and the vagaries of life continue. In another piece, "Carrying On," the poem starts, "My attempt to get a job/a week ago/was interrupted by/my attempt to get/another job, which/consisted in waiting/a week to hear/from it." As the poem continues, Maddox affirms that one must carry on, but then says, "when I lost you,/for instance, I just lay down/on the railroad track and let/an entire train bump over me." The subjects in Maddox's poems often bear the weight of the world, and part of the charm is how Maddox fills his put-upon characters with both whimsy and tragedy.
"Carrying On" also speaks to one of Maddox's other favorite themes: romantic love. Sometimes in Maddox's poems, the object of his love is unattainable. In his previous books, Maddox wrote poems pining after a bartender known only as Suzy. In Rette's Last Stand, the works include Suzy but also expand to several other women. The poems invariably maintain a sense of humor, such as the list of fanciful names in "Gatsby" that is followed by these lines: "and the whole/New Orleans/telephone book/came to the poem/I threw, hoping/you'd drop by./Where were you?" But then several others are leaden with sadness and desperation. There are many poems where the subject is lamenting his loss, such as "Joint Account," in which after seeing "both our names" on a check in a bank, the room starts spinning and he realizes that he stands "in the Paying and Receiving line,/trying to get my balance."
Maddox's poetry is filled with direct and simple thoughts, yet they never lose their depth and complexity. So much modern poetry is oblique and difficult, which is all well and good, but there is always the risk of alienating the reader in the process. Maddox's work is rarely so. The reader almost always knows what is happening inside a Maddox poem. Maddox poems make leaps in their logic and progressions that are surprising yet rarely lose the audience. Some of the sonnets in this collection follow a whimsical path, but not one that confuses his readers. Rette's Last Stand conveys the breadth of his work, from his early poems (which are more involved) to his writing in the several years before his death where simplicity stands out. This book is a good introduction to Maddox's oeuvre, but as a whole does not have much of the lucid candor of his previous books. Regardless, this is still a highly recommended work by one of the best poets ever to reside in New Orleans.