University of Evansville Press. 2014. 86 pp.
In the first poem of Maryann Corbett's Richard Wilbur Award-winning volume Mid Evil, the poet is in one or another rare book repository reading a manuscript handwritten by a copyist. She provides just enough detail to give the reader a feel for the experience. This medieval book is characteristically rich with small detail. She sits in a "captain's chair" as she reads it, physically in the modern world. Mentally she is just barely able to be glimpsed among the distant stacks of our cultural origins.
Just as the concept of the paper book is in the process of becoming itself an anachronism, she lingers over the texture of medieval paper, the watermarking, the hand of the copyist. Then she pauses over the colophon. Being at the time portrayed in the poem a doctoral student, already long a practicing Catholic, all of this is rich with meaning for her.
For the average reader, even of slender paper-and-ink books, the word "colophon" presents no difficulty. It is a vocabulary word long ago mastered, a synonym with "publisher's logo." For the less average reader, he or she lingers over an example from a Bodley Head edition, perhaps. Those volumes of lovely simplicity, also slender, can be a cherished part of the kind of personal library now coming toward its end.
But Corbett is reading a bulky hand-written 15th century book. The colophon comes at the end of the book (such as the Greek original of the word would imply):
I don't know how long
I've worked like this when I come to the colophon.
The words are, Pray for him that made this book.
It would not be much longer before a printer and moveable type would replace the scribe, the publisher replace the monastery. Not much longer, after that, the colophon would generally be moved to the front of the book to serve as a trademark.
So much changes so quickly now that it is necessary to drop an anchor when writing a book of poems, to create a point of reference. And the word "create" begins also to be more and more to the point. While this book was coming together, Corbett was dutifully authoring a blog, maintaining a Facebook page, workshopping with an online poetry group. She was doing the occasional interview for online journals with puckish titles such as The Shit Creek Review.
While the juxtaposition of these widely varying cultural markers has become a commonplace, like all commonplaces it is already passing away. Their quirky combination is already impossibly quaint. Any definition of poetry, whatsoever, even the result of a collective workshop, is elitist. Consensus must be brief, the choices as eccentric as all choices in a world without a center. Every concept—or rejection of concept—is of equal value or a value equal to its earning potential. The beginning of poetry, then, is the creation of that point of reference, whether it be the lore of vampire porn, instantly sprung up from a popular group of movies, or even a medieval manuscript. For the nonce we are dedicated to a world without a shared cultural history.
Now pornography has become the dominant cultural product of the day. Almighty Google, itself, has attempted the unthinkable reactionary act of forbidding the product on its own proprietary blogging platform and been harshly rebuked for its presumption. The prospect of plunging advertising revenues has made porno a protected form of free expression.
In the first two poems of Mid Evil, then, Corbett provides us that fixed point, her point of reference. In the third a contemporary student, just trying to get a passing grade, in a class he finds boring, and get on with life, attaches the volume to the present. In the next, "Fantasy Life", a midnight screening of the highly profitable movie The Return of the King brings the illusions of both worlds together.
The University of Evansville Press's Richard Wilbur Award is one of the few harbors that offer the anchorage Maryann Corbett has chosen. In the instance of her volume Mid Evil, even its resources are tried. Surely the poet wondered if her book would find a place there. The Wilbur Award competition accepts translations. Most volumes include them, generally from French or Latin but Old English might be considered a fine addition. But the rest of the poetry tends to strive to connect those translations to notably contemporary original formalist poems.
Maryann Corbett, for all she brings us resoundingly into the present in a number of the poems from this volume, is something of a genuinely misplaced person. While she is a modern woman, expecting equal rights with men, it is as much with the rights of medieval as with modern men. I have avoided the adjective "contemporary" here advisedly.
While it barely peeps out in these poems, she has long worked for the Minnesota State Legislature as the Language Specialist in the office that handles the indexing of the many legislative texts. She is—this is to say—a clerk (the word nothing more, of course, than a pronunciation of "cleric") of 30 years seniority and special title, much like the senior librarian at the monastery where the scribe copied out his assigned text. Like that librarian, she is quietly confident of her role and competence. During her evenings she sings alto in her parish church choir.
The second section of Mid Evil is entitled "The Nature of Things", the title of one of the most popular works of the Renaissance here pressed into service for contrast with rather humbler things. The first poem of the section—"Insubstantial Pageant" (again, "substantial" pageants are resoundingly medieval in their origin)—one of the better in a fine volume, sports kitchen curtains, a dishwasher, a simple abab rhyme scheme and irregular line lengths. The mention of the Grimm brothers and court dress informs us that the poet lives simultaneously in both worlds even in such homely moments. The next poem—"Teacup"—displays a decidedly contemporary sense of the brutality to earth and laborer involved in producing even the simplest item of traditional beauty, but still the beauty and the history of chinaware survive in it as well.
Next come the first two of five translations from the Old English of the Exeter Book. Each of the five brings the reader a "new" poetry experience. All things new, of course, having to be mined from the past, these can only be said to be very new. Corbett's translations from the Old English are written in the alliterative two stress half-line with heavy medial caesura present in the originals. In the riddle-poem "Hurricane":
Above, standing • staunchly, the steep
stone walls wait, • wait for the water,
for high, hard waves • in hammering swells
to crush them.
In the fantasy world of Tolkien's Middle Earth, these lines would be recited to the delight of an awe struck audience hands poised over their popcorn boxes in rapt attention. How appropriate, as alliterative verse was designed to be recited rather than read in a private moment from the page.
From the Exeter Book matters turn back toward a daily life given order by its location within a rich stream flowing from past, through present, to future. A poem in a verse form created by John Ciardi that would easily pass for an early Italian form, mixes a bit of historical perspective, modern vernacular, creative rhymes and irregular (mostly iambic) meter, into a daily scene. A "left hook to the jaw" and "hunkering down" reside together in "the marrowbone of song." This, too, is trademark Corbett. It is fair to say that it is her specialty, her unique personal voice.
Throughout this volume, Teacup and Depression Glass will repose among medieval manuscripts, Riddles from the Exeter Book, automatic dishwashers and the Terrible Twos. More humbly still will come a poem in irregularly rhymed dimeter about tinnitus. In the section "Ad Feminam" (the most impressive section in an overall impressive volume) will come two delightful translations from the Old French of Christine de Pizan, arguably the most contemporary poems between these beautifully produced covers graced with a deceptively simple 15th century Flemish painting of a young woman by way of illustration. They will follow a nicely turned original sonnet in which the poet knows that "usually" counts for two stressed syllables (/x/) when followed by an unstressed syllable, that a natural caesura can serve as an initial unstressed syllable at the beginning of the next line and much more that would be tiresome to go into at length here.
Throughout the poems that follow the reader is treated to a banquet of the finest kind. Blank verse, sonnets, irregular meter with regular rhyme, irregular rhyme with regular meter: each poem is provided the structure that precisely fits the need. Few poets can manage such rhymes as...
The real song for the shadow-valley;
Eli, lama sabachthani?
Even this poet comes dangerously close to glaring misstep with the bathos of "with your puny pipes" in the midst of a swelling choir scene, a sign that she is willing to take chances in order to reach the higher note. During "A Mozart Mass with Orchestra in the Cathedral", this willingness to risk it all arrives not at an intriguing borderline attempt for us to linger over but at a deeply insightful moment:
and the little clown self
stops and is still...
Here the tiny lines almost squeak with a realization that seems simply bathic at first then suddenly fills the entire cathedral. The poet has risked all and has succeeded.
At the same time, the props are as practical as the dishwasher mentioned previously or an "Oxyacetylene Torch and Tank." More striking still, the outlooks of the women from Pizan to the author herself portray hearts almost without a romantic fiber. Abelard and Eloise do not fare well from such a practical perspective. A panhandler, "the warm fragrance of alcohol on his breath," invariably appears, "to test my charity," as she waits for a bus. Just as invariably he has a story he wishes to tell.
His car that died. His check that never came.
Strands of invention straight from the Decameron...
Just as invariably he receives spare change. She gives not because her heart is stricken to its depths with the man's plight, because she is under the least illusion or expects to have helped him, but because her Lord tells her to do so. The rest is in her poems. In them we find a rich life of slightly irregular measure.
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