Christopher Isherwood once paid tribute to the technical facility of his friend W.H. Auden, a facility evident even when Auden was at university: “You could say to him: ‘Please write me a double ballade on the virtues of a certain brand of toothpaste, which also contains at least ten anagrams on the names of well-known politicians, and of which the refrain is to be as follows . . .’ Within twenty-four hours, your ballade would be ready – and it would be good.”
I don’t know that Maryann Corbett has ever been issued a similar challenge, but I have no doubt she could pull it off. Street View, Corbett’s fourth book of poetry, contains well-turned examples of enough forms – sonnets, triolets, heroic couplets, bout-rimés, and Old English alliterative verse, among others – that it could easily stand as a textbook of style for budding poets.
A resident of St. Paul, Minnesota, Corbett has spent most of her adult life living in the Twin Cities. Though she was trained as a medievalist and linguist, Corbett spent 35 years working as an in-house writing teacher, editor, and indexer for the Minnesota state legislature. That insistence on clarity that she attempted to inculcate into the framers of bills is evident in her poetry.
Corbett’s strengths are intelligence, a good ear, and the ability to make imaginative leaps that leave most poets behind. Who else has compared a defibrillator in its glass case to a roadside shrine [“Heart Event”] or can swerve from a quotation from Juvenal asking the gods for long life to “the head of Ted Williams, in tin-canned cryonic suspension” [“Dreams of My Teeth”]? A billboard advertising the chicken wings served by an Asian-American restauranteur named Art Song leads Corbett to a consideration of other “art songs,” specifically Schubert’s song “The Trout,” and then to the multitude of little-noticed artists who slave at low-paying day jobs to fund a passion that will never make them famous [“Stream”]. A bit of a stretch? Yes, but she makes it work.
Corbett’s speakers have the virtues commonly associated with the educated middle class: level-headedness, good will, a sense of civic duty, and an awareness that not everyone has had the same advantages while growing up. In one poem, she looks at the middle-aged Laotian refugee greeting guests in broken English at the restaurant the family has managed to establish after many years in a foreign land and wonders, “What compensates for losing everything?” [The Restaurants of Frogtown]. The speaker goes on an annual walking tour of historic houses and gardens and, while admiring the beauty of the architecture and grounds, cannot forget the robber barons who built them.
As for a feast day, every year we come
to hear the engines of our envy hum,
sighing for beauties, knowing what they meant.
Not quite complicit. Not quite innocent.
[“Historic District, Walking Garden Tour”]
For Corbett’s speaker(s), liberal guilt is never far away. “Alternate Routes” is a poem composed of two sonnets. In the first, the suburban professionals ride an express bus to their jobs downtown, enjoying “their meditation on the book, / the screen, the earbud.” In the second sonnet, night shift nurses, underground band members, and the homeless-shelter dwellers climb groggily aboard an early-morning local bus to take them to an often-tenuous rest. The speaker sympathizes with their lot, yet there’s a part of her that wonders about what she might have missed in her well-ordered life as she ponders “these wilder riches.”
Similarly, in “Stoplight, with Wingèd Chariot,” the speaker finds her car next to a car with a formidable sound system cranked up to the max and spewing rap. The misogynistic lyrics of the song hit like a gut punch, yet there’s also an attraction, a sort of nostalgie pour la boue.
Yes, you have my full attention,
Monstersinger beside me. That’s the game
old rhymers played. Same iron gates of life
banging, same tearing pleasures, ripping the same
raw wound. Old rhyme, new rap, snick of the knife –
What if I strafed back with the whole Roget
and gunned my engine to its own rough strife . . . ?
Green light. Varoom. So much for woman’s say.
Floor it, O beatbox Marvell. Seize the day.
And yet the speaker won’t seize that kind of day. Curiosity, concern, pity, wry acceptance – such are the emotions that well-mannered Minnesotans allow themselves to display. There are occasional flashes of other emotions in Corbet’s poems – a this-can’t-be-happening panic when the husband had a heart attack [“Heart Event”], the ache for children, now “strangers / tall and tense and text message crazed” who seldom visit [“Spoonspell”]. But in general, there’s a reticence to expose too much, a resistance that finds itself validated by the example of those one has seen who ventured too close to the edge and fell in, like the former grad student who haunts the undergraduate campus, lecturing to no one at night in the library stacks [“Weirdos”].
The strongest emotion coursing through the poems is an elegiac melancholy: “ . . .the sweet illusion of changeless time, / though I wish for it fiercely, will not come back” [“Lament for the Midnight Train”]. Here, Corbett’s speaker visits her childhood home and finds it waiting to be torn down so that a McMansion can be erected, as has happened to the plots on either side [“Teardown”]. Getting her hair cut, the speaker notices the clippings in her lap, and their black and gray reminds her of the cigarette ashes her father left all over their house: “I, too, turn to ash / cigarette-wise, my loose ends / cinder-swept away” [“Haircut, with Vision of My Father’s Ashes”].
But the melancholy doesn’t sink into self-pity, and behind it all there is a gentle humor, an acceptance, expressed in rhymes and other wordplay that are often delightful. I recommend this satisfying book.
Reagan Upshaw is a poet and critic living in Beacon, NY. His poems, articles, and reviews have appeared in Able Muse, American Journal of Poetry, E-verse Radio, Poets & Writers, the Washington Post, and many other publications.