Book Review

Out of the Welter by Arthur Madson. Madison, WI: Fireweed Press, 2009. Order from Jeri McCormick, 638 Gately Terrace, Madison, WI 53711 or Marianne Madson,
419 South Pleasant Street, Whitewater, WI 53190.  $13.00 plus $2 shipping.

Reviewed by Lou Roach

Art Madson’s fifth book of poetry, Out of the Welter, was published posthumously in 2009. It was assembled by fellow poets Robin Chapman, Jeri McCormick and Richard Roe, with the help of Marianne Madson, Art’s wife. She is the beloved “Clemmie” in many of his poems. Members of a Madison writing group also assisted with the manuscript.

Madson offers readers information from his youth, glimpses of an adventurous, wry-humored and romantic young man, who, early on, found challenges and excitement in whatever he did. He had a knack for finding amusement in many situations, possibly one of the reasons for his apparent delight in day-to-day happenings.

Arthur Madson was a teacher, scholar and poet in his public life. In private life, he was a husband, father, grandfather, brother and uncle. It seems certain that his duties and interests were intertwined and each enriched the other, as he immersed himself in a welter of involvement, knowledge and accomplishment.

The poems in this collection reveal a clear-eyed appreciation for the individuals who peopled his surroundings, as well as his wisdom and certainty about what he valued most. Madson was a Shakespeare scholar. He taught English for 36 years, the majority of those as a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.  His work was published in many magazines and in four volumes of poetry—Good Manure, Blue-Eyed Boy, Plastering the Cracks and Coming Up Sequined. He edited the 1990 edition of the Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar.

Madson writes of growing up with “three dozens of cousins” in a set of poems, entitled simply “Cousins” that reflect treasured images of family events and traditions, where he made so many connections as a child. Those times of sharing became fodder for a vast assortment of memories: “times lost, times over/ sauce for reverie.” In “Elevator,” he describes the boy he was, racing with friends along the tops of box cars, parked on a siding near an Iowa grain elevator. He tells of climbing “the sheet metal mountain,” where grain was stored and recalls pretending to be  “robbers boarding the swaying train” who then “hid the horses, scaling the drainpipes, foxing the posse.”

The poet shares his early grasp of individuality and tenacity in “Purple Cow.” Another of Madson’s recollections, “Because It’s There,” appears to illustrate his early realization that he could and would set his own parameters for living.  He describes daring, solitary play on his family’s 60-foot windmill, where he became a sailor, Tarzan, self-declared King of the Air and a spy. He was certain that "I was a spy/ a roving eye, seeing what was denied/ earthbound mortals. I was loose and free." The title of the poem and the sense of freedom he discovered in performing such a feat seem to have set the tone for his independent, candid view of himself and his role in the world as he knew it.

In a sequence of five serious and poignant works, Madson tells of the impact of losing both parents within hours of one another—his mother to cancer, then his father in an accident on his way to make funeral arrangements for his wife.  He speaks with careful delicacy in “Last Words”:

What was my father thinking
in the last seconds
of his life?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .      
grief, not caring
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  
confusion, dying at fifty,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
regret, guilt
leaving six futures
upset, unsettled?                                                          

 relief, that he had refused
my offer to go along
on this trip to the funeral parlor?

The second part of the book deals largely with significant moments and circumstances from the writer’s later years. The most revealing and touching poems are those that address Madson’s deep caring for “Clemmie.”

The intimacy they shared is richly described in “Elbows and Onions,” “Snow,”  “Monet’s Haystacks,” “Witching the Night” and “Evening at Home.” One other, “White Wine,” recounts his contentment at being home with Clemmie—reading, talking, going separately to tasks they enjoyed, preparing and sharing meals, then appreciating “a graceful day/ a solstice present, a day that unfolded/ like a lacquered fan.”

As his illness progressed, Madson examined his sense of mortality in pieces like “Intensive Care,” where he defines surgery as “A foretaste of eternity.” In a poem for his children, “Bypass,” he reassures them:

Children, here for your eyes,
for your arms and hearts—
I’ve seen the words you wish we’d spoken,
burning in the sky.
See how they warm, move,

As readers near the end of the book, they will find several poems in which the writer looked to his future. One of these is “The Next Degree:”

Each alumni news another classmate
has slipped over the page’s edge, undertaken        
the last assignment.

Winter’s snows pile higher, longer,
too many beds are newly single,                                                                        and thaws are briefer.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
We study books,
sit up nights,
all-night sessions, cramming for
the last exam.

“Evening at Home,” a poem about autumn, bears a sense of resignation, a sense of loss regarding what was to come:

we are the flowers stained petals blooming
toward a frost we cannot predict, cannot stay.

Art Madson’s work reminds readers to seek out the best of the time given to each of us, to be keenly aware of those people, events, and principles most meaningful to us as we live. His words speak to all of us.   

Lou Roach, former social worker and psychotherapist, lives in Poynette. Her poems have appeared in a number of small press publications, including Main St. Rag, Free Verse and others. She has written two books of poetry, A Different Muse and For Now. She continues to do free-lance writing, although poetry is her favorite thing to do.