“The Christ of New Orleans”: Everette Maddox, A Reminiscence

Essay by Louis Gallo

What if I just caved in,
gave out, pulled over
to the side of
the road of life,
& expired like an old
driver’s license?
You might say He didn’t
get far in 31 years.
But I’d say That’s
all right, it was
the world’s longest trip
on an empty tank.
—Everette Maddox, “Hypothetical Self-Epitaph”

No doubt it would have amused Everette to witness his posthumous status as the “Christ” of New Orleans, the shibboleth from a book blurb by Andrie Codrescu. Everette had quite a reputation before his death as well, but, as usual, the demise of a poet, especially when premature and tragic, usually lifts his or her ratings overnight. And the legend industry of Everette Maddox churns on with the relatively recent publication of I hope it’s not over, and good-by (2009) by the University of New Orleans Press.

Numerous accounts of Everette’s work and life abound both in print and online, and I assume all of us who knew him still try to piece him together in some fashion. My contribution here will be scanty perhaps, but every little shard adds heft. I speak of a few intense years between, roughly, 1973 and 1978, for in the latter year I left New Orleans for teaching jobs, first in South Carolina, then in Virginia. So I knew Everette for maybe four short years, but as anyone will tell you, knowing him for even one solitary day amounted to a lifetime experience. He was that intense, compelling, eloquent and passionate. I will not even read other accounts of his life and work here in order to avoid duplication and echolalia. This is my slice of Everette, the way I knew him, and I alone—even if I mention other players on the stage as we proceed. I do not believe it possible to have known the man and not loved him. And surely we so privileged feel permanently haunted by both his life and his death. But I repeat—this reminiscence recounts only my personal recollection of the man. Others may assess him quite differently. We deal with the stuff of myth and legend now. Moreover, I regard this account as an exorcism of sorts, an unloading of unfinished business on my mind for decades.

Most people called Everette “Rette,” but I never did. It was always by his full name that I addressed him. I still wonder about this, why I refused to capitulate to the popular mandate. Probably because when I first met him on the telephone he introduced himself as “Everette Maddox.” Ok, it stuck, and that’s about all I can say. Not that it matters a whit. It was sometime in 1973 that I returned to my hometown of New Orleans from a doctoral stint at a massive Midwestern university. Upon completing my course work I was offered an assistant professorship at what is now Truman University in Kirksville, Missouri. I took this job, wrote my dissertation on Walker Percy, and taught full time. My dissertation may have been the first on Percy, though a wretched piece of work it proved, I racing at top speed to get the thing out of my life.

I found life in Kirksville stultifying. My first marriage had dissolved; we lived in a dumpy apartment; I could no longer bear endless corn fields, soybean fields, the entire rustic way of life. Born and raised in New Orleans curses you for life. You crave the lascivious, amoral, intoxicated splurge, especially when young. So when my former chairman at the University of New Orleans called me one night in my dimly lit office and offered me a mere five-year instructorship at the University of New Orleans, I leapt at the chance. A big career mistake, of course. But I longed to get back to New Orleans; I had no choice.

I had edited a little poetry magazine in the Midwest called The Blue Guitar (one issue) and the mission whetted my appetite. So I promptly created a new literary magazine while at UNO, though UNO wanted nothing to do with it. I sent out flyers and placed calls for submissions in the normal advertising channels. Within a month, my co-editors and I found ourselves flooded with manuscripts. A serious enterprise indeed. I knew few people on the literary scene in New Orleans though I had written regular book reviews for a Quarter paper called The Courier published first by Jim Derbes and then, subsequently, Philip Carter. After a year of dissolute living in the Vieux Carre I sought a more productive environment and moved into one side of a dumpy shotgun on South Robertson directly adjacent to Tulane’s campus. A massive Quaid fence separated my apartment from campus, but lucky for me someone had ripped a hole in that fence and I had easy access to the student union and endless cups of coffee.

It is in this squalid apartment that my literary life in New Orleans catapulted into round-the-clock staff meetings and social gatherings. I got phone calls from poets and artists throughout the city, all wanting to connect with this new literary magazine that I named The Barataria Review. At the same time David Hershkovits (later publisher of The Paper in New York City) and I published a supplement to The Courier called Books: A New Orleans Review. The latter publication gained us access to just about any literary event going on in the city, and we interviewed many local and visiting writers, including William Burroughs, Walker Percy, Shirley Ann Grau, Susan Sontag, Rollo May, Bill Corrington. I mention these preliminaries in order to re-create a milieu that brought together a cast of misfits who for no profit whatever wanted to publish and disseminate literature.

I could go into many details but the focus here is Everette Maddox. Suffice it to say that in the earliest days I recall groups of us—mainly Hershkovits and Richard LeMon—reading manuscripts, discarding most, accepting what we believed were the best (many disagreements here), a room cloudy with smoke, ashtrays heaped with cigarette butts, liquor, weed—oh, we were a disreputable lot. In 1976 my new girlfriend moved into the apartment and started to spruce it up into a splendid, sparkling half-cottage. She was drawn to the artist/bohemian crowd but not of it, so much of the decadence ceased, at least on the home front.

Polaroid, circa 1977—Ralph Adamo, left; Michael Presti, middle, Everette Maddox, right—at my house in New Orleans on North Miro Street

Polaroid, circa 1977—Ralph Adamo, left; Michael Presti, middle, Everette Maddox, right—at my house in New Orleans on North Miro Street

One afternoon I received a phone call (old rotary phone) from a gurgling, fluidy voice that I instantly dismissed as some old bum. The voice said he had just moved to New Orleans from Tuscaloosa and wanted to know more about The Barataria Review. On guard, I made my spiel and then listened, and as I listened the voice became more clarified and extremely eloquent. He had introduced himself as Everette Maddox but at first I failed to catch it and asked him to repeat the name. He did not say Rette. We spoke for quite some time, mostly about poetry, and the man alluded to varied poets from all ages in practically every second sentence. He knew his stuff. (He had studied for a Ph.D. at the University of Alabama but did not complete the work.) I invited him over and thus it all came to pass. (On that same telephone around the same time I received another call, this one from internationally recognized photographer Clarence Laughlin, who also wanted to participate in the venture in some way. Clarence lived in one of the Pontalba Buildings on the Square and hosted preposterous Friday night soirees—but that’s another story. We would publish his article “The Personal Eye: Manifesto” and a number of his photographs in the first issue of Barataria.)

Mardi Gras Day, probably 1975. Things happened so fast back then that in hindsight it’s all a blur, and from my current vantage I find it difficult to report accurately on the varied dates involved. The first issue of Barataria was published in 1974. The names of neither Everette nor Ralph Adamo grace the masthead, though Ralph would become the prime mover of later issues. I must have distributed that first Barataria coincidentally with my meeting the two. Exact sequences may be lost to history; I must resort to broad swatches.

It so happens that I hosted the first Mardi Gras Poetry Reading on Mardi Gras Day (I assume 1975) at photographer David Richmond’s gallery in an old warehouse on Exposition Alley, a block off Canal as I recall. The event proved spectacularly successful. Crowds packed the massive second-floor gallery. Poets and writers, anybody off the street, read poems, stories, hour after hour, drunk or sober, in succession. I know Everette was there for the occasion and Ralph too (I had published some in the first issue, manuscripts sent by snail mail).

First issue Barataria Review, 1974

First issue Barataria Review, 1974

The three of us became fast friends rather instantly. I had already fallen out with my previous staff of the magazine and needed new editors to keep it alive. The masthead of the second issue lists Ralph as a co-editor and Everette an associate editor. (Ellen Gilchrist, who would later become more famous than any of us and win the National Book Award as well, was also listed as an associate editor. According to Ralph, she invited herself into the hodgepodge and thank the stars she did.)

Subsequent to that initial phone call I hung out with Everette several times at the Maple Leaf Bar, the Napoleon House, wherever fate took us. I found it difficult to juggle my time between my girlfriend and the literary crowd for the usual reasons. Yet Everette, Ralph, Ellen and I gathered often in our editorial capacities, mostly choosing manuscripts to publish. These meetings took place first at my South Robertson apartment, then on North Miro Street near Bayou Road when I moved into my grandmother’s house after she became incapacitated. Sometimes at Ellen’s house uptown. But I came to know Everette best during our off-hours conversations at the also now legendary Maple Leaf Bar, where Everette would found a Sunday reading series that thrives to this day. The Maple Leaf scenes blend together now in my mind since each resembled the other. Everette would become slowly intoxicated on Scotch as we sat at the bar talking about politics, friends, poetry, whatever came to mind. The man was so dazzlingly articulate that mostly I just listened to what amounted to a verbal feast. He had memorized entire sections of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and countless poems, many of which he would begin to recite before passing out. I particularly recall his recitation of George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” after which he started to cry. “It’s so beautiful,” he sobbed, “so beautiful.” His rhetorical flair reminded me of what has been said of Coleridge, that he could fly from one subject to another without transition and yet somehow it all made sense. And most importantly, any conversation with Everette proved hilarious; he was one of the funniest and yet saddest men I have ever known. When I read Samuel Beckett’s Molloy I always think of Everette. That same hilarity veneering the blackest of nihilism.

But Everette was no nihilist; he was a supreme romantic in both affairs of the heart and aesthetic values. He reserved his venom for the right things—corporate greed, the inequities of capitalism, political corruption, banality of the spirit, cultural mindlessness, et al. I sensed also a genteel generosity of temperament, his innate compassion, politeness and courtesy, an intuition about when social context required deference rather than acrimony. If I had to summarize in one word Everette’s bearing and speech, I’d choose “aristocratic.” He might have made a superb actor—for he knew exactly what to say and when to say it as if on cue. An observer would note his intent gaze, a thumbing of the bowl of his pipe, his head nodding subtly in anticipation of a ripe riposte or reply to whomever was speaking. The regal flair and his impassioned romanticism reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe, though Poe was by all accounts more querulous and hostile.

The evenings always ended when Everette lay his head on the counter and passed out. A common scene—Everette unconscious as the band rocked on, as patrons danced and hooted, as the liquor flowed. He needed people; he loved being surrounded by people even at his embarrassing worst. A gregarious soul definitely, but perhaps also a safety valve. Could anonymous crowds have sufficed as vicarious substitutes for the parents he lost to cancer while still a teen? His willingness to become prostate among crowds in a bar room bespeaks enormous trust in this Blanche Duboisish reliance upon random strangers. (It is only too ironic ? or maybe not ironic at all but certainly apropos ? that Everette’s ashes are buried somewhere on or under the patio of the Maple Street Bar.)

Once a group of us walked from the Napoleon House back to my car since I had transported us all. Parking in the Quarter always involves a lot of walking and trying to remember where you parked. My girlfriend had become quite “frustrated” (her favorite word) and so I picked up the pace—I had always been a fast walker. At one point I noticed that Everette and his then wife, Celia, lagged way behind. I stopped so they could catch up. Everette could hardly breathe, the stride too much for him; and he probably had enough alcohol in him to kill all of us put together. So I slowed down, a bit perturbed, which I now regret immensely, the perturbation that is. Another evening we spent at his and Celia’s apartment and he proceeded to nod out after so much drink. Celia would shortly leave him and I suspect that this is when Everette’s life seriously started to unravel. After the divorce he would often, in exchange for sweeping up the bar after hours, sleep at the Maple Leaf. The sympathetic owner also provided him with free booze. I have heard reports also that Everette, usually unemployed and penniless, wound up lodging on park benches or at some friend’s house. I had secured him a lowly teaching job at UNO but he often showed up in class drunk or with a ferocious hangover. So he did not last long there. No doubt one of the most brilliant teachers ever to grace the halls of that Liberal Arts Building. Administrators rarely have such insight. A drunken Everette could still convey more to students, or to anyone, than the most prudent, sober, cautious and modest academic. Still another reason why he has acquired legendary status.

Everette’s physical appearance left a lot to be desired from the GQ fashion angle, but then who among us could or would want to adorn such glossy pages? Talk about skinny! Seemed only a thin layer of epidermis wrapped around his bones. And the flaring black beard might have scared off many a child. Yet he was in fact a strikingly handsome man apparently born in the wrong century. He remained somewhat of a dandy even when unconscious in public. Always that smoking pipe in his hand, often enough a necktie. He would take a drag from it, lean back, reflect upon the topic at hand and with subtle flourish either demolish the current speaker or enhance him or her with ever more subtle insights. Here lies much of the tragedy of Everette Maddox—so utterly brilliant yet ravaged by alcohol and poverty, he himself more aware of his condition than anyone else. How could someone like Charles Bukowski in the end strike it rich on identical handicaps while Everette succumbed? Maybe because, unlike the pugilistic Bukowski, he was an utterly gentle man, however scathingly he could rip apart a stupid idea. I don’t believe any mean blood flowed in his body. And thus Codrescu’s “the Christ of New Orleans.” He was the sacrifice. There but for the grace of God go we all. Everette lived for literature and poetry in particular. Ralph told me once that he published one poem in The New Yorker but the editors rejected everything he sent subsequently. Ditto The Paris Review. “Rejection killed him,” Ralph said. “He never got over it.” Surely hyperbolic but many a grain of truth in hyperbole. Rejection, the death of his parents from which he never recovered, poverty, alcoholism, the horrors of the world . . . everything killed Everette Maddox, who died in 1989 at Charity Hospital, officially of esophageal cancer. His friends (I was already gone at the time) arranged a jazz funeral through the streets of New Orleans.

So how finally to assess this phenomenal poet who graced the lives of so many people? I think of the Stephen Dobyns’s poem “Tenderly,” about the reactions of a crowd of diners who witness a man leaping onto one of the tables and attempting to mutilate his privates with a butter knife. The crowd will forever remember that scene, each now implicated forever. “At least life has spared us this,” they both individually and collectively sigh. Everette has similarly haunted me all these decades, a haunting that began the day I met him. He haunted me while still alive! His woeful circumstance and obvious downward spiral terrified me—to think anyone could be so reduced. Which is not to say that Everette did not enjoy life; he probably enjoyed it with more gusto than we can imagine. His insights were original and revelatory; he laughed a lot, mostly at himself and wrote many a humorous self-deprecatory poem; he savored the pleasures possibly because he realized they were so ephemeral. But he was extraordinarily needy and when in his presence I felt that need as a voracious field force which might subsume me. I could not possibly help him enough beyond spending some time with him and occasionally sliding money I could rarely spare into his pocket. No one could ever help Everette enough, and yet he relied upon such help if only to survive another day. I know there were some “saints” out there who gave him shelter, provided food and money, nurtured him . . . but I did not possess such fortitude. And thus I have felt guilty all of my life for not doing more for him, not contributing enough, not loving him enough. Yet I did love him—as we all did. I proved a bad Samaritan and in the end simply left town to pursue a respectable living.

Again, why “Christ”? Not in the usual liturgical manner, but in the Jungian, archetypal sense. The sacrificial lamb and tragic scapegoat. And my role in the pantheon, Peter, who betrayed Christ by denying him. Everette was a test case—here I am, do with me what you will and I will in turn give you everything I have, which is not much except this new manuscript. A wasted, ravaged, older Billy Budd who in final moments blessed the man who would hang him. He reminded us all of how profoundly and precipitously we could sink   One drink too many, one false step, one stroke of bad luck . . . Everette as Everyman.

To close I want to quote from an e-mail I received from Ralph Adamo as we went back and forth on Everette. This, a deathbed scene so horrific I can hardly type the words without anesthetizing my mind. . . .

                The diagnosis was esophageal cancer, too advanced for surgery or other treatment, but “too advanced” in part because of the disastrously poor state of his general health. I saw him a couple of times in the hospital—I think he lasted maybe three days, maybe less once the doctor at that afternoon’s reading [at the Maple Leaf] got him taken to Charity. I wasn’t there, but I think he just kind of collapsed. Partly, he’d been having trouble eating for a while (duh) and was weak from that . . . When I visited the first time, taking Susan with me, he was already not responsive. I talked to him, touched his arm or hand, his eyes opened and rolled back … He grunted some, in fact made a bit of a groaning noise (thus in my poem in Waterblind, “Notes Toward an Elegy”). When I asked where he was in the ward, the nurse said he’s the one making the racket. The next time I brought Ulysses with me and read to him from the beginning for a while. I hope he heard it, it would’ve made him feel better, I think. About a half hour after I got home from that, sometime around 11 or 12 at night, I got a call from the hospital saying he had died.

from a recent email from poet Ralph Adamo

Charity. The public New Orleans hospital for indigents. It no longer exists but I well recall threats exasperated parents made to ill-behaved children. “I’m going to send you to Charity.” The place became a kind of joke. You could always insult someone by telling him or her that they would wind up in Charity Hospital.

I was eight hundred miles away at the time. Ralph conveyed the news to me, if I recall correctly, by telephone, this time push-button. I wish I had been there; I would have read “Easter Wings” to him. I’m so glad I wasn’t there.

* * * * *

“The Great Man’s Death: An Anecdote”

The famous Poet Everette
Maddox had been advised
by a team of wrong-headed
specialists that one more
snort of the Devil’s Brew
would turn his light and
livers puce. Nonetheless,
he awoke one night in a
borrowed flat with
a surging boredom on—
his only love at a permanent
and he got up
and strode the 20 or 30
blocks to Tyler’s Bar,
where he had “Four hundred
and seventy-two Margaritas,
straight up, on Bank
Americard. I think that’s
the record,” he said, and
dropped dead, into a biography.
?Everette Maddox

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