Jan/Feb 2021  •   Reviews & Interviews

In Code: Poems (Truth, Wisdom and Restraint)

Review by Christine Potter

In Code: Poems.
Maryann Corbett.
Able Muse Press. 2020. 92 pp.
ISBN 978-1773490533.

In Code is a wise book for scary times, a subtle, skillfully-honed look at what it means to be whip-smart and American in the midst of our current struggles. Maryann Corbett for years worked in the Office of the Revisor of the Minnesota Legislature, so the word "code" in this book's title has many definitions: a law, a principle—or a kind of secret language for telling the truth without exposing oneself. Since civil servants must be discreet, the poems in this collection sometimes encompass all three meanings. They are by turns horrified, horrifying, bemused—and even cautiously hopeful.

Corbett's verse can be lovely, but the loveliness is always there for a reason. The imagery in this book is carefully drawn: statues of Minnesota heroes (the Lindbergs, Hubert Humphrey) in verdigris and the "slick black granite" of the war memorials conceal a truth visiting tourists probably don't want to know. Government employees, in the book's opening poem, evacuate their workplace in a false-alarm bomb scare, remembering the years-ago horror at the Murrah building. But the poem closes with them...

laughing here among pink roses
and petals drifting from the flowering crab trees.

Again: a beautiful surface and a darker interior.

Corbett's formal verse is almost sneaky. The last couplet of a sonnet clicks into place before you expect it to appear. Even the villanelles don't give themselves away too quickly. You're swept into a poem about the fire that destroyed thousands of classic jazz and pop recordings before you realize that what you're reading is indeed a ghazal. These poems wear their forms gracefully, a neat trick indeed.

One poem, "The Forgery," is in the form of a multiple choice exam. It's a timely piece of work examining why someone might knowingly cherish a fraud. It links the disturbing sexuality in some images of Christ's Passion to "the Allegri Miserere, the little glass voices of the sopranos broken in pain." The owner of this forged painting "has stepped, years ago, into its frame and can never return." So much for true believers. It's a devastating piece of writing.

I'm also taken with a trio of poems about voting, "Judgements." Corbett notes the banality of the contemporary polling place...

...the blandeur of a beige community room
fitted in haste
with flimsy booths

...and how her narrator's "hopes flicker, these days, like dodgy lightbulbs." "Blandeur," possibly a nod to the Kay Ryan poem of the same name, is just right here. Yet the poem's speaker votes anyway, despite the tackiness. As the last poem in the series notes, "Maybe it makes a difference," even though the morning after the election begins with "weeping in silence into my scrambled eggs." Few poems I've read lately get it right more exactly than that: the everyday carrying-on despite it all. "Blandeur." It's all we have.

There's a similar mood in "A Room At The Student Union." The narrator here is at a college, about to give a poetry reading which she believes will "mend nothing/merely piecing the breakage into beauty." She almost (but doesn't!) pray for the students she sees trudging under "the dead weight of the sky" to remain innocent to their plight, when the campus' carillon begins "clanging 'Imagine' as a vespers hymn." The verb does the work here: "clanging." There's nothing soothing about this rendition of John Lennon's hopeful tune. And yet, this is not a hopeless piece of writing. Deeply sad, yes, but not hopeless. The narrator's "Spartan" room is at least warm. The reading will go on.

Much darker is Corbett's villanelle about mass shootings, "Song For The Shooters," with its epigraph from President Obama, "Somehow this has become routine." The subject matter here is almost unbearable because of its horror. And yet this poem gets it right, too, especially in its final quatrain.

What love ringing its changes on the knell
of cell phones from the pockets of the dead
must hear, routine, routine? No one can tell
how human ears unhear the song of hell.

Such music here, and such tragedy! There are indeed bells ringing in these words. No, we can't "unhear" or unsee any of the ghastliness we as a nation and a world have witnessed in the past decade or so. Maryanne Corbett's ability to write precisely about such wrenching things without being conquered by them—a sort of emotional remove but not a denial—is perhaps the greatest strength of this book.

In Code, however, it not without humor. There's a sly sonnet personifying invested money out on the town "draped on the arm of an oily, fat-ass banker." And the final poem in the collection is about enrolling in a class in first-year Greek at the age of sixty-five. It's a poem with a sad, knowing smile in it.

we are, poor dreamers, laboring at the lore
of tongues that have seen the world collapse before
and that will know, when it comes crashing down, when dire
becomes most dire
old stories, good to chant around a fire.

The elegant, restrained poems in this book might provide similar fireside comfort if we are truly faced with such calamity. They are more than equipped for the task.


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