Review by Carmen Germain
by Maryann Corbett
David Robert Books
P. O. Box 541106
Cincinnati, OH 45254-1106
2012, 112 pp., $19.00
What a pleasure to read a book of poems that gives … pleasure. I was attracted to Maryann Corbett’s Breath Control (the title a nod to vocal music) by the encomia on the back cover, specifically Marilyn L. Taylor’s, where the former Wisconsin Poet Laureate stated that almost every poem “catapulted me to the next, and I didn’t quit reading until four in the morning.” Quite something for a book of poetry to live up to, but the poems in Breath Control are up to the challenge. The poems illuminate “small, closely observed moments” and never abandon readers.
The collection is a mix of the narrative and lyrical, the voice lucid and clear. Each of the six sections takes its title from a line in a poem, titles that hovered, such as “waiting for the even breathing that would release me.” In “Tattoo and Piercing Parlor,” the speaker accompanies her adolescent daughter to the “Shrine-like dimness” of a “retail walk-up.” The mother questions whether self-punishment has usurped the role of the god-universe: “All this piercing. Who is the god who asks it?/ Whose young purgatorio might be shortened,/ lightened by these penances? Can one buy here/ something redeeming?” The poem says, yes—what is redeeming is the trust inherent in the mother and daughter, how the speaker says, “I get my bearings/ slowly here: a second-floor retail walk-up,/ not in my safe zone.” The mother wonders and questions, does not judge.
In “A Song for Departures” we are in another moment familiar to us, the post-9/11 airport: “Once, it was kinder,” and “love is not listed” in what we are allowed or forbidden to carry aboard, how we must leave “Grandparents, camera shots, mugging” at the drop-off point with taxis and shuttles. Such a departure also reminds us how we are all “Leaving, alone” someday, loved ones left behind at a gate where no one can follow.
“Rereading the Aeneid, Book IV” captures a moment brought to life and “roused from its coils in the roots of the Latin” where the speaker recalls a memory from her adolescence where she confronted her literature teacher, a nun, outside of the classroom, “incensed at her hint that not all of the weeping was Dido’s.” The poem does what all powerful poems should do: reveals a many-layered world in a few lines. Aeneas feels pain, too, the teacher implies. The nun understands this because she has forsaken the world for piety, something larger than herself, taking vows as a “bride of Christ,” just as Aeneas is compelled by the gods to leave the world he has come to know with Dido. And like Aeneas, the sister has also renounced the world. The poem turns when the true target of the speaker’s anger is revealed, “a certain young perfidus carefully star[ing] at his loafers” who has overheard the argument, a faithless one who has betrayed the speaker in some way. “Rereading the Aeneid” illustrates how one moment (in this case, re-experiencing literature from a personal past) can hold up to the light that past and this present.
“Sacred Harp Convention” describes how the beautiful music of singers in a “primly white-walled church in its Baptist plainness” sabotages the speaker. She feels the power of the sound: “and now the teeth of its meaning close on your throat/ and drag you to earth: you’re choked, you’re stupidly sobbing,/ remembering your dead …” In this moment, compassion is a gift from one person to another, the gift of a stranger, as “the alto beside you,/ whose voice has already rasped away your defenses,/ goes quiet and settles an arm around your shoulder.” How alone we are in our moments of grief, and how grief can overturn us. And if the best poetry changes us in some way, I want to keep “Sacred Harp Convention” and be the person holding the one weeping, be the one held.
Thus the poems in Breath Control raise common experience to uncommon heights. None of the moments in these poems create or crumble nations or send a lost world home, but they are human moments, and because of this, we claim them.
Ranging from narrative to lyric, and employing free verse as well as metrical, Corbett skillfully manages a double abecedarian, Sapphic stanzas, ekphrasis, pantoum, and Anglo-Saxon prosody, among other forms. Reading this verse—the wordplay, contemporary idiom, and 21st century concerns, all seamlessly presented—makes me appreciate the variety available to poets who wish to explore and experiment. Sonic devices and tropes make Corbett’s free verse sing as well. Many-colored fish swim in her sea.
Consider lines from “Double Abecedarian: The Sorceress Plots Her Comeback,” a hymn to that “scruffy/ crew we used to shepherd to school down six/ dutiful blocks. The things we dreamed for them! Raw/ enchantment.” We have such hopes for the young, the poem says (and with humor, too—Corbett is not a black-draped poet), and look: their lives turn out like ours, neither better nor worse. And many parents wish for continuity, for the next scruffy DNA crew: “Watch now. Inside, the magic/ yearns for the next round, aches for new lamps to rub,/ zeroes in on the ancient abracadabra.” This poet makes the double abecedarian look effortless, nothing forced, the sweat of each line concealed.
And consider the terminal alliteration of “The Sensitive Guy”—fond, daughter, sweeter, mind—or the sonnet “Waiting Up” with its identical rhyme mixed with alliteration and a voice honest in confronting the fear of a waiting-up parent:
Not home. Not home yet. Four A.m. Unknot me,
God whom I less than half believe my help.
Damp down the pounding underneath my scalp.
Unhook the gut-tight line of fear that’s caught me
listening for cars, oh me of little faith.
They’ve seized their own lives, laughing, “Go to bed!”
And God, I hate her—hate the hag in my head
who mutters, praying through her gritted teeth,
make them come home, come home. God, shut her up.
Let me believe the thousand times they’ve come
home safe will make the door click one more time
and lock behind them. Free me from the trap
of thinking your ideas of safe and home
might not (My God!) be anything like mine.
A skilled poet working in closed form can make a poem veer on the road less traveled, and that makes all the difference.
Some of the strongest work in the collection includes “Suburban Samsara,” “Maskil,” and “Last Dance,” as well as the poems in the section “the whole landscape of memory” that show a father’s journey into dementia. And if you’re still raw in some life of your own loss, don’t read these poems listening to Ralph Vaughn Williams’ A London Symphony. Or maybe you should. The plainspoken emotion contained in these poems is a gift, as in “Long-Term Memory”:
Did one of us speak?
I don’t remember. Or did he catch a glimpse
of his own hands, knotted, ropy with veins,
or feel the uneven thinness of his hair
in his nervous fingering through it? Something shifted.
Some raveled nerve end touched, and in its spark
he saw: the parents who needed him were dead,
long dead; his promised bride was the shrunken woman
whose eyes clutched at him now; and every job
he’d built a self with, over seventy years,
was ash and air …
The power, significance, and beauty of so many poems in this fine collection make the few weaker poems salient. “Composed Somewhere Higher than Westminster Bridge” adhered too tightly to form, for example, where the poem would have been stronger if truncated at the penultimate stanza, allowing sound to bow out to sense. The poem recalls Wordsworth, as the speaker, a passenger on a flight, looks down on “These churned electric energies” of civilization:
A little thing could wink them out
to blackness. And his other trope?
The place doth like a garment wear
a mail-shirt made of wire and flame,
consuming what it decorates—
in jewel tones, some warm, some cool.
A net of gemstones, on a heart.
Utilities turned beautiful,
too briefly, by the thought of art.
The banked turn ends. We level, climb.
I set my watch to Central Time,
impatient for the beverage cart.
That beverage cart cancels out the strong imagery of the earlier lines in the poem, and I wish it had been kept in the galley. Another poem, “Variorum on a photograph of Berryman editing Shakespeare,” has syntax that jarred my reading experience, whether I read silently or aloud: “You know how much was hedged/ of the words they wrote, the bards/ that behind the wind-lift phrase/ is a stilled soul at a desk / with patience and index cards.”
Regarding how the book is organized, the index of titles and first lines and the Notes page is appreciated, especially the information that helped illuminate various poems. Not well-versed in opera beyond Puccini, how would I know that “In Antonin Dvorák’s opera Rusalka, the title-role soprano sings a famous ‘Song to the Moon’”?
While I didn’t stay up until four in the morning reading Breath Control, Corbett’s clear-eyed, generous poems breathed new life into old forms. They made me think, feel, and appreciate whom I live with in this world, and why. And a pleasure it was, reading poems that speak the common language of humanity.
Carmen Germain has had work in Dos Passos Review, The Madison Review, Natural Bridge, and New Poets of the American West. Cherry Grove published These Things I Will Take with Me.