Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter by Maryann Corbett. Able Muse Press, 2013.
Review by Judy Swann
Sometimes you find yourself leafing through a book of poetry as if it were a rose catalogue in January. Does the color of this verse seem right? Does it have a scent? Will it grow in your soul’s soil? In her sonnet “Rose Catalogue in January,” Maryann Corbett shifts our attention away from the roses she could buy – “long-stemmed, high-centered, pointed, budded tight” – backward in time to the roses she has already had. “Fantin-Latour, those foldings, sinuous,” her memory of them is French and sumptuous. She’s in it for the memory, “their breathings stir the past,” she says, and “[t]hink how you loved them once.” Her memory of them includes a fog of pesticide, another kind of perfume, commercial chemistry’s thorn. For her, the scent – not available in catalogues – is the transient glory of the rose, “…nothing’s left but …complexities still fragrant on the air.” It is a satisfying poem, intensely cerebral and serene.
Too often, in a book of verse and perhaps elsewhere in life, we hand over our innate judgment to an Interpreter, so says Roland Barthes in his Fragments d’un discours amoureux. In the Christian West, Barthes says, the Interpreter is either a priest or a lover. Corbett’s Interpreter is a priest. Not just because of the numerous Catholic motifs (Good Friday, ordinary time, Rorati coeli) but yes, or the easy references to an academic canon (phlogiston, Ptolemy, prostrate with grief) again yes; but also because Corbett’s I-Thou dynamic, which is a lover’s dynamic, is always subordinated to an externality, always measured, sometimes even isolated – it is a garden, not the wild moor. There is always a structure, the sure sign of a priest.
Corbett herself knows this, I think, and addresses it in her poem “Finding the Lego.” “You find it when you’re tearing up your life,” she writes. What, the reader asks. Nothing as momentous as religion, is it? This would be the perfect time for religion, the time when you’re asking yourself: What do I do with the pain? But no, it’s not religion, indeed it’s anti-religion; it’s a “tidy little solid,” it’s the lego of the title, “plastic.” Corbett, with some bitterness, turns this lego into an icon of the “foursquare” family – Mom, Dad, and a couple of kids – something the lyrical “I” – although not admitting anything — was once a part of. But wait, there is no “I.” There is only “you,” who leaves the lego where it lies. “It makes no allowances, concedes no failures,” she says of the lego. Indifferent? Or just an empty echo, like an idol from Hosea, “They consult a wooden idol and are answered by a stick of wood.”
Corbett’s mastery of craft is well known and cited by all her reviewers, myself included. Let me just say, though, that the poem I love the best in this volume is in some kind of form I do not know the name of. Its measured beats and short lines really resonate with me, so short that the title itself measures out to two lines:
“Epistle to the Pumpkin Field”
This is the truth:
They knife your face,
Killer second line, isn’t it? After she sets you up with the Epistle (which is a short reading after the collect and before the gospel, as well as, you know, an epistle), a homey-folksy field reference, she trots out the truth – unbelievably smooth – then, they knife you in the face.
Drag out your entrails
to feed to the crows,
And set the flame
in what remains.
It’s all true. It’s a ritual. We don’t hang guys on crosses anymore, but we have to do something while the year dies around us, and it’s come to this. It isn’t a complete waste:
One night: you shine.
These are good, well-crafted poems. It would have been a pleasure for me to write about any of the 46 of them, but I have chosen the ones that most spoke to me. I hope you will acquire this volume and luxuriate in the ones that speak to you.
Judy Swann is a poet, essayist, editor, translator, analyst, blogger, and bicycle commuter, whose work has been published in many venues both in print and online. Her book, We Are All Well: The Letters of Nora Hall, appeared in 2014.