Maryann Corbett: “When I earned a doctorate in English in 1981, I expected to end up teaching. I didn’t expect to spend almost 35 years working for the Minnesota Legislature. It was a privileged place to work, in more than one sense of the word. There was the frisson supplied by the constant presence of the media, the satisfaction of believing one’s work served the public, the thrill of working with smart, motivated people, the pleasure of being surrounded by the striking buildings and gardens of the capitol grounds, the sense of history. There was also the uncomfortable awareness that with every legislative session there are winners and losers, and that the same battles for justice are fought, and often lost, by the same people, year after year. More painful still was the knowledge that laws enacted with the best intentions do much less than what is hoped for. I’ve retired now. I miss the pleasures. The uncomfortable knowledge has not gone away.” (website)
Maryann Corbett: “I’ve been involved with Catholic liturgical music in one way or another for some 50 years. Mostly that has meant singing in choirs or ensembles—church choirs, or the choirs of church-affiliated schools. Performing this way can have a Zen quality: it demands such total attention that it removes the singer from self-awareness. To sing the Allegri ‘Miserere Mei’ or the Duruflé Requiem can be a way of disappearing into the divine. But it also demands one’s presence in churches. That means being constantly immersed in religious art, steeped in Scripture and homily, and forced to grapple not only with the divine presence but also with the Church itself, its official and sometimes discomforting doctrines, its history, and its misdeeds. Those are the problems I often juggle in the poems—those, and the problems everyone juggles, like the persistence of evil and the apparent absence of God in the world. And then there’s also my long education in religious schools, which predisposes me to see religious metaphor all around and to gravitate toward poets in the canon who see it too.”
First, the confession: I’m a timid traveler, the most stubbornly stuck of sticks-in-the-mud. That timidity might underlie my distrust of grant-funded travel for the purpose of writing poems. It’s a prickly resistance I feel even while I admit that gorgeous poems can result. All this should be laid out honestly.
I didn’t know, though, when I undertook to review Matthew Thorburn’s This Time Tomorrow, that I would be fighting past those prejudices—that I’d be reviewing a book of travel poems conceived during grant-funded travels to three countries. The knowledge I did have was the sort one gains gradually by noticing where, and how often, a poet’s name keeps showing up. I first became aware of it when Thorburn’s second book, Every Possible Blue, and my first were both brought out under the auspices of WordTech in 2012. And I remembered where I had already seen both the poet’s name and the book’s. In 2010, not one but two Thorburn manuscripts had been included in the longlist for the Anthony Hecht Prize awarded by The Waywiser Press. Every Possible Blue was one; This Time Tomorrow, now brought out by Waywiser, was the other. After a wait of eight years since the publication of his first full-length book Subject toChange, Thorburn now has two new books published within a year of each other, which is, as problems go, a pleasant one to have. There were some other tidbits I gathered: for example, that Thorburn is published widely and with distinction, and that he sometimes uses form and even rhyme, my great loves, as in this sonnet at the Poetry Foundation website. Oh, and that his day-job writing is related to the law, like mine.
But I’ll be looking in Thorburn’s earlier books for those matches to my personal taste in style and subject. This Time Tomorrow is all about the journey, in both the physical and the spiritual senses. Its summary notion is right there in the book’s epigraph, from Bashō: “Even in Kyoto—/ hearing the cuckoo’s cry—/ I long for Kyoto.” And it’s in a phrase embedded in one of the book’s long poems and attributed to the late poet Liam Rector: “… every poem says the same thing:/ My heart aches.”
The book is structured in three sections: the first focuses on Iceland, the second on Japan, and the third on a kind of head trip traversing China, Japan, the poet’s native New York, and the country of memory and history. The travelers are the book’s narrator (who seems to be the poet) and Lily, who is—we assume and deduce—the narrator’s wife, and whose background is Chinese.
These are details readers have to work out gradually, plunked down as we are at first, in “The Falcon House,” in mid-trip in Iceland—yet also somehow in the aftermath of the trip:
… This was before talk
of joining the euro. Before
Icelanders started blowing up
Land Rovers—don’t worry, I mean
their own Land Rovers—
for the insurance payday. One afternoon
in The Three Overcoats, we sat under
Gogol’s boyish portrait. Of course
everything’s different now. Years
gone by. That painting’s probably
been sold. No, that’s not right either—
The temporal backing-and-forthing are typical of conversational storytelling, but they also set us firmly in the book’s mood of uncertainty. The plain-spoken diction is characteristic of the Iceland section, as if the traveler were trying to keep a low profile. An inventive verb, as when seagulls “hitchcock/ around Lake Tjörnin,” stands out from the usual level. Characteristic, too, is the use of couplets and tercets not based on rhyme pattern or syntax, placed simply to slow and aerate the telling. Idea rather than sound is foremost here: one demonstration of how page-based the poems are is “The Trick with the Stick,” which uses almost concrete-poetic features of page and print to illustrate the motion and confusion of an arctic tern assault—features that would be challenging if not impossible to get across with just the spoken word.
Throughout the book, place names, geographical features, human foibles, and local food are the exotica that grab us and keep us reading, rather than striking uses of sonics or prosody:
Hard to imagine Bashō
died here in a rented room above a flower shop
in 1694, as I pause today
on Dotonbori Street, shoppers brushing past
on either side, to gaze
at the giant red mechanical crab
stretching its legs over the door
of the Kani Doraku seafood
restaurant, its eye stalks rotating in a breeze
too high for me to feel.
—“A Field of Dry Grass”
It’s a poetry of narration, sudden incongruities, and games of association, rather than of music or technical flash. An occasional internal rhyme appears; the roughly similar line lengths and numbers of stresses in poems like “Little Thieves” and “A Year in Kyoto” are as close as we get to meter. More often, there are interesting games played with line breaks and interstanzaic enjambments, and with repetitions in which meaning is made to shift, as it does here in “A Year in Kyoto”:
Gloria again, back at
the bar, somewhere
between past and present.
Or here in “The Falcon House”:
… So it’s the cold tap you turn
and wait on to get cold
not the hot to get hot. Got it? He had it
Or here in “Something to Declare”:
… But the young monk can’t let go.
He follows her into the world, gives up everything
he has to have her. He has to have her.
The jump-cut is the book’s most dependable device. The habit of moving in and out of the present narrative, to some associated thought or some earlier event, is a good tool for insinuating the traveler’s permanent sense of unease. The long poem “Something to Declare” is especially virtuosic in its jumps from an actual Chinese tourist destination, to an imagined tale of an old and a young monk, to conversations with poets and restaurants in Matanwan, to Count Basie playing in a bar, to the poet finally crossing Hudson Street in New York “to get on with the rest of my life.” Particularly in the book’s first and third sections, this is a poetry that does much of its work by ambush, the point of which is to keep a reader feeling like an outsider, a foreigner, a nonnative even of his own thoughts. No first impression is really to be trusted here:
Ash fell all night on the houses like snow, I wrote, but with too fine a brush, like a cook
who turns away from the stove to wipe
his hands and catches some stray thought
(Mmm, paprika?) drifting across his clear mind.
Not ash, but tephra—soot, cinders, and grit …
—“Facts About Islands”
Thorburn especially likes to bring the reader up short with a shift of view from the exotic to the mundane, as in the ending of “How We Found Our Way,” or as he does here:
my last chance to see it
I see it—
Mount Fuji in the rain
no, that’s a billboard of Fuji
it disappears in the rain
That unaccomplished vision of Fuji, and the melancholy of knowing that nothing turns out quite as expected, are at the book’s emotional core, the spot where “my heart aches.”
The excerpt just above also demonstrates the one deep, decorous bow that the book makes in the direction of form: its middle section, “Disappears in the Rain” is constructed of short-lined couplets and tercets that suggest Japanese haiku and renga. They focus on single, tight images and are minimalist about such Western concerns as caps and punctuation. Their concentration and concision make this section the strongest one, for my money, and produce delightful metaphors like “the shikansen’s silver streak/ zips the sky to the ground.”
It’s an approach that feels very true to the pointillist nature of memory, to the way it records—unpredictably, unreliably—the merest crumbs of experience.
And the crumbs of beauty simply float past, never dwelt upon. “This is,” says Thorburn, “the built-in sadness of travel: you can’t stay here” no matter how you love it, and no matter how clearly you realize that your first understanding was flawed. From the book’s beginning, in the knowledge that the travelers’ ideas of Iceland were “all wrong,” to its end atop Mount Misen, where the promised view is “lost to us” and the travelers ask “Are we even here?” Thorburn’s poems ask basic questions about the encounter with the world and what it means. For me, the stick-in-the-mud distruster of travel, these travel poems have the right idea.
Maryann Corbett’s first full-length collection of poems, Breath Control, was published in 2012 by David Robert Books and was featured on the First Books Panel that year at the West Chester Poetry Conference. Her second book, Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter, was a finalist for the Able Muse Book Prize and was released in 2013. Her poetry has received the Lyric Memorial Award and the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, PN Review (UK), and Modern Poetry in Translation (UK) and is forthcoming in Barrow Street and Southwest Review, among others. Maryann lives in Saint Paul and works for the Minnesota Legislature.
David Robert Books
P. O. Box 541106
Cincinnati, OH 45254-1106
2012, 112 pp., $19.00 www.davidrobertbooks.com
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.
THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR: A NEW VERSE TRANSLATION by Simon ArmitagePosted by Rattle
Review by Maryann Corbett
THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR: A NEW VERSE TRANSLATION by Simon Armitage
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110
2012, 295 pp. $15.95 www.wwnorton.com
The Norton edition of The Death of Arthur: A New Verse Translation is the North American publication of Simon Armitage’s new book, and it came out just this past December. But the work was released in the United Kingdom, by Faber and Faber, a full year ago. Widely reviewed and widely praised, it was until very recently an equal among several finalists for the T. S. Eliot Prize. So it might seem a bit late to be offering an opinion on it now. But I have been Arthur-mad, and mad for poems in the old alliterative meter, for more than 40 years, and it’s impossible for me to resist.
American audiences may need an introduction to this poem more than British readers do. The title certainly needs clarifying: The work being translated is not Sir Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century prose work, the forerunner of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, not to mention uncounted other genre fantasies. Here Armitage is re-presenting the poem known as the Alliterative Morte Arthure, a 4346-line poem in Middle English, written in the fourteenth century by an anonymous author, and preserved in a single fifteenth-century copy by Robert Thornton, an enthusiastic amateur copyist who didn’t entirely understand the scribal conventions he was imitating, but who was so hungry for books that we are in his debt for the preservation of quite a few poems that survive only in his copies. (For a glimpse—not very clear, but at least a glimpse—at a page of the original, look here.)
The Alliterative Morte Arthure was certainly one of Malory’s sources, but the magical fantasy and the courtly romance in Malory have their roots elsewhere. The Alliterative Morte Arthure is mainly a poem about war. One love scene, two dream visions, and various parleys and exchanges of boasts also appear, as well as a miraculous healing, some court splendor, and a war-monster worthy of the Orc scenes in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. But the bulk of the poem is battle, recounted in epic style. Armitage is said to have described the poem, at the Eliot Prize reading, as Britain’s Iliad. (Credit goes to Katy Evans-Bush for reporting on that event.)
And Armitage’s approach to the translation is faithful to the vivid, energetic, sweepingly physical force of the original poem. As in his 2007 translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Armitage uses the original poem’s meter, which is the four-stress alliterative line that was characteristic of Old English poetry and that was brought back (as we think) into use in Middle English—brought back splendidly in works like Gawain and Pearl and Piers Plowman, but briefly, before pentameter and rhyme swept all before them in the rush of the Renaissance. The critic Paul Deane has argued that modern readers no longer know how to hear the old accentual, alliterating meter, and I’ve written at greater length elsewhere about the challenges of translating the alliterative long line. But the critical and popular success of Armitage’s translations pretty effectively quashes the notion that readers can’t hear and feel that older music.
Here’s a passage that offers a sampling, both of the poem’s visceral quality and of its sonic oomph:
The King brought Excalibur crashing down,
shearing off cleanly the corner piece of his shield
and slashing a six-inch wound to his shoulder,
spattering his chain mail with shimmering scarlet blood.
He shuddered and shook, shrank back just a little,
but then shockingly and sharply in his shining armor
the felon struck forcefully with his fine sword,
slicing through the rib plates to our Sovereign’s side;
through hauberk and heavy armor he opened him up
with a wound to his flesh half a foot wide.
The few critics who have had negative things to say about the book have said them about the unrelenting and graphic battle descriptions. The contemporary reader might have moments of cognitive dissonance: A passage about knights fighting on and on, blood running from their fatal wounds, might trigger unfortunate flashbacks to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the ceaselessness of the fighting sometimes feels a bit like an online war game. Another, more sober element that made me pause is the lingering shadow of the Crusades: the fact that the armies singled out as Arthur’s implacable enemies in the battles are so often Islamic, or “Saracens.”
Of course that content is a feature of the original, which Armitage presents as accurately as possible while sticking with the sound patterns. Once in a while, he reaches for a startlingly slangy word to complete an alliteration (“Austria and Germany and umpteen others”) but this happens less often than it did in his Gawain, and he generally keeps to very accessible middle, modern diction. Other aspects of the poem that he renders honestly are the stock phrases that are typical of oral epic composition, but that repeat rather too often for contemporary taste. “So help me Christ” seems to appear with every occasion that calls for an alliterating K-sound.
Armitage’s one departure from the original is a concession to smooth storytelling: He uses a consistent past tense, while the original ping-pongs between present and past. And smooth storytelling is a benefit, because the poem has narrative strengths enough to be worth reading as more than a historical curiosity. The basic plot is that Lucius Iberius, the Roman emperor, demands homage and tribute from Arthur, claiming to be rightful sovereign of lands in Europe that Arthur occupies. To repel the challenge, Arthur fights his way toward Rome, eventually besting all opposing armies, and then decides to take Rome itself. At that moment, he learns that Mordred, whom he has left in charge in his absence, has usurped the throne of Britain, and he returns with his armies for the final battle in which both Arthur and Mordred are killed. Arthur’s psychological states come through in the opening dream vision, the hubristic turn to conquest when the original challenger has been fought off, and the final dream of the fall from Fortune’s wheel. Armitage presents the story clearly, adding a few textual breaks to support the structure.
He also gives us the original text on the facing pages, and he maintains a line-for-line equivalence of the translation with the original. Both of those choices mean that this translation works equally well as a course textbook and as a curious newcomer’s introduction to medieval poetry. The original spelling has been regularized in the facing-page text, which is Larry D. Benson’s edition, and punctuation has been added to ease reading; both of these are normal and useful choices for students. I do wish that the book’s introduction contained some explanation of the diacritical marks that have apparently been added to Benson’s text. The marks are clearly editorial, and clearly there to aid pronunciation in reading the Middle English aloud, but they don’t help much without an indication of what sounds they mean.
Textbook use may be, in the end, the most important role this book will have, however strong the author’s and the publisher’s hopes for a general audience. When the popular hullaballoo subsides and the book retreats to the backlist, it will continue to be important in a context that gives readers more guidance than the book itself can contain, with a teacher and the wealth of available online helps. There are so many questions the poem raises: How did the original poet see his work—how much is history, how much entertainment? Who made up the audience who probably first heard his poem, read aloud to some assembled company? What does the poem say about how its hearers saw England’s relationship to Europe? What did all this mean a hundred years later to Robert Thornton, who copied the poem as we have it? The poem deserves answers. It deserves to be understood in all its aspects, and Simon Armitage’s translation will help a fresh generation of readers to begin to understand it.
Maryann Corbett holds a doctorate in English Language and Literature from the University of Minnesota. Her translations from Old English have won the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, and new work is forthcoming in Modern Poetry in Translation. Her poems, essays, and translations have appeared widely in print and online. She is the author of two full-length collections of poems, Breath Control (David Robert Books, 2012) and Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter, forthcoming from Able Muse Press. She lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and works for the Minnesota Legislature.
GRASSHOPPER: THE POETRY OF MA GRIFFITHSPosted by Rattle
Review by Maryann Corbett
GRASSHOPPER: THE POETRY OF MA GRIFFITHS
70 Clifton Road, Darlington
Co. Durham. DLI 5DX
2011, 352 pp., £12.00 www.arrowheadpress.co.uk
The first big thing to get out of the way is this: Yes, Margaret Griffiths published three of my poems in her journal Worm. They were early ones, and the encouragement was important to me. But by the time I began to be a “web-active poet” as the term now goes, her own online activity was slowing, and I met her on poetry boards rarely. My dealings with her were businesslike. My involvement with the publication of her poems was limited to a few e-mails about solicitors, next of kin, and copyright ownership. I claim the ability to review this book dispassionately.
The poets who were her long-time online correspondents called her Maz, and on many online forums her user name was “grasshopper,” which explains the book’s title. And this is the second big thing to understand about Margaret Griffiths: that her online work with other poets established the stellar reputation of her poems. The rarefied world of reviewing might prefer to ignore the world of poetry boards, but as places where poets talk with one another, they have significant influence. Although Maz edited an online poetry journal, she rarely submitted for publication. Yet because of her online activity, the force of her work was widely acknowledged, and her contributions to poetry forums both as a poet and as a critic were valued. Her work was so little published in traditional venues—and so esteemed, by so many poets—that, when she died suddenly in 2009, people on several continents realized that only an intensive effort to recover the poems would prevent them from disappearing. Grasshopper is the fruit of those people’s hard work. For accounts of their process, take a look at issue 13 of The Shit Creek Review.
If Maz had been interested in organizing her work into collections, the poems in this book would probably have come out in three or four of the usual slim volumes. Perhaps she would have grouped the dark, cynical poems on current events with the poems about the chronic stomach ailment that (as her friends suspect) killed her. Or would the political poems go with the brilliantly detailed historical fictions? Or with the magical, myth-derived fantasias? Or the poems that converse with literature in the canon? Perhaps the poems that address the foibles of the online poetry world would have been dropped as bagatelles not worthy of preservation. That would have been a shame; all the wild variety here tells us what an interesting person Maz was, how inventive, how persistently curious about all sorts of subjects.
But how she would have organized the poems we simply don’t know. Grasshopper preserves everything that was found, in a attractive binding and with a preface and introduction by Alan Wickes. This is more than three hundred fifty pages of poetry, in alphabetical order by poem title. That scheme is probably most helpful to the poets who worked with her, who tended to remember specific poems (often saving copies of them), and who are already an eager audience for the book. Still, it neglects many matters that they, and the rest of us, might like to know. How are the poems related chronologically? Which ones did Maz see as being in relationship to one another? How did she develop as a poet, from the time she began posting work in 2001? Were the metrical and free-verse poems always mixed? I can’t help hoping for a second edition that might have such aids as a chronology and an index of first lines. I could also hope for less haste and more attention in the copyediting. But what we have now is the poems, and only the poems, and they deserve the full accounting that will let a wider audience know what they’re like.
A good number are metrical; many of those use full end rhyme. A few use it ironically (“On Philip Larkin” and “Christopher Robin Muses on Religion”) and a few in the spirit of parody of new-poet-faux-antique style (“Casting Pearls”). There are many sonnets, carefully and correctly and variously formed. Quite a few employ tight form and specific timing to spring a killer ending, often including some X-rated element (“The Other Woman”) or to pierce some social armor, in the manner of R. S. Gwynn or Wendy Cope (“Naming of Parties”).
Many, though, are completely straight. “Opening a Jar of Dead Sea Mud” is one of the best examples, and it earned praise from Richard Wilbur, probably the foremost American practitioner of form. It feels artless and candid in spite of its strictures. Where the sonnets fall short for me, they do so by being too “canned,” too much on the pattern of the historical anecdote packaged in sonnet shape (“Livia’s Eagle” and “Costanza Carved”). This is a pattern I mistrust as superficial, even while I grant that nothing here is ever less than technically fine. There is no sense in these poems that traditional forms, used in contemporary ways, are anything but perfectly current. I suspect Maz’s internal template for such poems is Larkin: cynical, forthright, and dark.
But besides formal poems, the book also contains every other sort: loose meter, free verse, prose poetry. Or at least it contains every other sort of poetry that uses the ordinary coherence of language to do what poems do. There is no crypticism, no Language poetry. In fact, “Manifesto” makes ironically clear her dim view of cryptic poetry. These are accessible poems, but not at all in the bland, plainspoken, real-life-only way one might associate with Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry. They’re both clear and imagination-drenched. They believe in vibrant detail and arresting word choice. Take as an example the opening of “The Alchemist’s Omelette”—
If he traces three more arcs, he will make a cat—
not a common striped creature like Arnolfini’s
ginger tom—but an incandescent beast
with onyx eyes. Nim pauses, his horn-nib suspended
over the page, then inscribes two arcs
at the propert declension. The third curve tries
to draw itself….
The poem piles detail on detail, but what it draws us toward is the sharpness of Idea:
….Once you are, he whispers,
you will die. Time has stronger magic than mine.
Without the last stroke, you have Forever.
Other poems on this magic-making pattern are “The Civet Instructs Her Kits,” “The Mushroom Effect,” and “Shedding a Little Light on Light.”
What simplicity there is in these poems is often an adopted simplicity, a voice put on for its desired effect, a character. “Fer Blossom” puts on a homespun, nonstandard, rural British dialect. “five fingers” is a child’s prayer. “Snakehead” is written in American Outlaw, “Death Abroad” in short-sentence phonecallese. Maz created innumerable characters, and I suspect this contributed much to her popularity on poetry boards. No fellow poet ever said, as one often comes to say of longtime po-board colleagues, “Oh no, not another poem about [this or that personal obsession]!” She wrote through the minds and mouths of so many other people that one can’t be sure of knowing the real Maz through the poems at all. (The critiques are another matter, but they are not in this book.) The often-used reviewer’s tactic of judging the poet to be a bad person because of some stance in the poems would be risky here.
Yet the adopted voices feel authentic. Rarely, a persona feels forced or off: a prose poem in the voice of a girl who has undergone forced female genital cutting strikes me as issue driven. It’s the sort of poem I back away from writing, feeling that it’s exploitative of other people’s suffering. (Would it have been included in a Maz-compiled book? We can’t say.) But the character of the oppressed girl or woman appears over and over, and the abiding need of that character to mask emotion is a recurring ache that seems to reflect Maz’s real thinking: “The Concubine’s Charm,” “Curves,” “Spanish Fleas,” and the prose poem “Before,” about an unwanted pregnancy. Deep resistance to conventional religion is another constant. So are illness and death and the love of animals, sometimes all at once, as in “Listening to the Dog,” sometimes separately:
Red in the bowl again, bright shocking spots,
beads strung with spittle, ruby mixed with jet.
Say it’s tomato, peppers—there are lots
of explanations for those blobs. Don’t sweat.
Just wipe your mouth and fill a steady glass.
The cold tap foams. The water chills your tongue
and shocks your teeth. Grip this new day. Hold fast.
Remember how you felt once, fit and young
before this aged you, greyed your face and bowed
you down, an acolyte of pain, to retch
and spew. For now, no grumbling is allowed.
Stiff upper lip. Don’t wimp or whinge. Don’t kvetch.
Wait till the angels lift you up, then yell,
“Please drop my bloody stomach off in hell.”
The plain, colloquial, undazzling poems are among the ones I find most moving. “Party Piece” is one; it recites conversation at a New Year’s Eve party, using its ordinary aimlessness to show how moments almost become meaningful but can’t be seized, so that “our tears were lost in the opening year.” Others, like “Holes in the News” turn their very plainness surreal:
They put me in a hole and left me
there. You know the hole I mean.
You scour it out each day until
your armpits leak and blood smears
plum across your nose. When I try
to sleep, they megaphone me, pelt
me with pellets of news. You know
the news I mean.
The variety here, the huge inventiveness, the range from the staid to the fantastic, is a frustration only to the reviewer. The reviewer keeps looking for patterns in order to create the individual books that Maz never did, but to the reader, what looks like disorder will pose no problem. The reader, after all, would probably have marked those shorter books, noting his or her own favorites, returning to them with pleasure and without regard for the imposed scheme. That’s generally how we read and return to the poems we love. And that will still be true for Grasshopper.
Maryann Corbett is the author of two chapbooks, Dissonance (Scienter Press, 2009) and Gardening in a Time of War (Pudding House, 2007). She is a past winner of the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize and a past finalist for the Morton Marr prize. Her poems, essays, and translations have appeared in many journals in print and online, including River Styx, Atlanta Review, The Evansville Review, Literary Imagination, Subtropics, and The Dark Horse, as well as The Able Muse Anthology and the forthcoming Hot Sonnets. She lives in St. Paul and works for the Minnesota Legislature. She can be contacted at Maryann.Corbett@revisor.mn.gov.
Red Hen Press
P.O. BOX 3537
Granada Hills, CA 91394
2009, 93 pp., $18.95
One look at the cover of Sixty Sonnets lets you know you’re dealing with a poet who’s got both slyness and chutzpah—at least if poet Ernest Hilbert and cover designer Jennifer Mercer worked closely together, and the acknowledgments suggest that they did. The cover design parodies the staid, pale dignity of a classical music score like the ones published by G. Schirmer and Boosey & Hawkes—the color, the placement of the graphics and rules, the typefaces, even the fake opus numbers. To that pattern the designer adds a splat of tea stain, a trompe-l’oeil ripped corner, and what looks like the print of a drippy wineglass. The seriousness of real art, and the grit and mess of real living. It’s a fair, and clever, representation of the book, and it was a smart move to turn it into the publicity stickers that the Baroque in Hackney blog tells us about. While we’re considering the looks of the book—something we should do while we still have the privilege of reading real books—we should also applaud page designer Sydney Nichols and note that 6-by-8 inch pages consisting of fourteen lines of Bembo set 10 on 18 are lovely to behold.
But you are reading this to learn about the poetry, and the first bit of poetry to be assessed is the title itself. The plain words Sixty Sonnets are a complicated sort of claim. One can’t ignore the likeness in sound to the TV program title “Sixty Minutes,” and the suggestion of an assortment of news stories. The word Sonnets by itself tells us that Hilbert means to engage with the tradition. “Engage” means both to gather in, as a speaker does to listeners, and to square off against, as an army does to enemy forces. The tradition with which he means to engage goes back to the Italian “little song” and comes in assorted classical forms, and is shaped (usually) in fourteen lines, most often iambic, and has a very definite sort of argument and structure, right down to the placement of its prescribed change of direction. Sixty Sonnets, with no other embellishment or limitation, tells us that this will not be a thematically unified collection like Mark Jarman’s Unholy Sonnets, or Tony Barnstone’s Sad Jazz: Sonnets, or Kim Bridgford’s To the Extreme (about world records), or Philip Dacey’s New York Postcard Sonnets, or Moira Egan’s Bar Napkin Sonnets. We know we’re going to get a unity of form but also a variety of theme and subject matter. What we’ll want to see is how inventive, how various, how insightful, and how wise the poet can be within those limits.