Maryann Corbett, In Code (Able Muse Press)
Poets have been public servants in the past at all levels of government, but usually they have not written poems about their jobs. There’s a reason for that. Although civil service protections make it safe for most public employees to speak about politics, not all of them are so protected; many are at-will employees who can lose their jobs if they write anything that angers either the higher echelons of government or members of the public. Moreover, bureaucracy seems like the least poetic of careers, full of drudgery, minutiae, repetition, and often a paralyzing sense of the futility of even the most altruistic intentions in a system in which each advance can be reversed at the next election. In her previous four poetry books, Maryann Corbett has mainly steered clear of writing about her thirty-five years of working for the Minnesota Legislature: teaching attorneys to write in plain English, editing publications, improving the indexing of laws. In the wake of her retirement, however, she provides glimpses of how even the most prosaic of jobs can contain odd corners of poetry: not only the grandeur of some public buildings where the work is done—
Where white silk brocade
covers the tall, formal walls,
we cut food support.
(“Seven Little Poems about Making Laws”)
—or the beauty of public grounds that the workers pass through daily to reach their work (“An Aisle of Japanese Tree Lilacs”), but also fears of becoming a target of violence by anti-government terrorists, as in the Oklahoma City bombing (“Threats”) or of politicians who see the writer’s own job as fat to be cut (“Fearful of my government job, dreaming of retirement, I think of Du Fu”).
All of the above examples are oblique ways to approach writing about a job that has its share of tedium and angst. But obliqueness is a characteristic virtue of Corbett’s approach to many subjects, and most of the poems in the book are not about bureaucracy at all. She offers a lushly gorgeous lament for the now-disappeared card catalog: “the gods of Order / lived in their tabernacles of honey and amber maple / or oak like chocolate” (“The Vanished”). “Police Procedural” starts with “cottage garden placidness restored” at the end of a televised English murder mystery and abruptly shifts to an arrest taking place at night outside the poet’s home, where
one dark police-shape
rifles through a third car, its doors and trunk
splayed open like a pinned insect; a flashlight
pokes to be sure the thing is dead.
That drama ends with no resolution, the watchers left “as much in the dark as ever.” Many of these poems take a turn from the disturbing to the quotidian, or vice versa. The amusing “Praise Ode to the Customer Service Agent” starts by describing the speaker’s relief at talking to an actual person after being on hold for “mechanic eons” and closes with the speaker, asked to rate the agent’s helpfulness, praying “Let no one hold it like a knife to her throat.”
For a book whose title, In Code, appears to proclaim that its subject is words, and perplexing words at that, this collection contains a surprising amount of violence. Yet isn’t that what code is often used to cloak? The dry language of legal code “made lives invisible” while “lines on certain maps / . . . sentenced them to decades without voices” (“Working Draft”). But the book is haunted by literal death, too: of a coworker killed by a train as she crosses the tracks while “rummaging through her purse” (“Reasons for Hesitation”); of another office worker who left her job and whose skeletal remains are discovered in front of a television in a flat containing food “years beyond its date” (“Open Verdict”); of various skeletons and corpses discovered buried in a last embrace (“Refuting Marvell”); and even of Frances Glessner Lee’s exquisitely detailed miniatures of murders in 1940s crime scene dioramas, which rivet the speaker with “the pains by which / quiet women die” (“The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”). What code is more inscrutable than death itself? Yet occasionally there are also lighter kinds of mysteries here, as in the two Anglo-Saxon riddles whose deft translations Corbett includes, or her wondering what the money in her savings account has been doing without her knowledge (“A Personal Account”).
Corbett’s approach to poetic form is also oblique. There is some free verse here, but most of the poems are metrical or in a fixed form of some sort; however, their formal features are not always obvious. Quite a few are in blank verse; without rhyme, the meter is almost subliminal in its effect. Poems in common forms, such as sonnets or villanelles, often resort to slant rhymes that downplay the chiming effect. If Corbett uses rhymed couplets, then the lines, like Ogden Nash’s, are often of varying and unpredictable length, as in “An Ancient in First-Year Greek” or “Roster Judge.” Even more unobtrusive are Corbett’s forays into relatively rare forms, such as hendecasyllabics (a Latin meter of eleven-syllable lines, used in “Lesson”); litany (a list that starts each parallel phrase with the same wording, as in “Reasons for Hesitation”); rhymed haiku (“The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”); canzone (“Poses”); or multiple-choice quiz (“The Forgery”). In some cases, the form chosen is cleverly appropriate for the subject, as in “December 1399,” a poem about the death of Chaucer that uses rhymed couplets, as he did in his Canterbury Tales, or as in “Reassessment,” a poem about Dante, written in the terza rima he used in The Divine Comedy.
Generally, the forms of the poems, though handled with great skill, do not call attention to themselves, which allows the readers to focus primarily on what is being said, not on the way in which it is said. And that is good, because the content is always at the heart of Corbett’s poems. She focuses her humane attention with a doubleness of vision that can’t describe the performance of a Baroque chamber ensemble without seeing, at the same time, the homeless encampment nearby (in the extraordinary double-exposure poem “Fugue in October,” in which boldfaced lines about the former are alternated with regular-type lines about the latter). Reading an article about a massacre of children in ancient Peru, she thinks of ways in which our own children are “marked by the gaze of policemen armed for slaughter” (“Massacre of Children in Peru Might Have Been a Sacrifice to Stop Bad Weather”). Her interests are wide and surprising, but her sympathies are always with ordinary human beings here and now.
Susan McLean, a professor emerita of English at Southwest Minnesota State University, is the author of The Best Disguise and The Whetstone Misses the Knife, and the translator of Martial’s Selected Epigrams. Her poems and translations of poetry have appeared in Subtropics, Measure, Able Muse, Literary Imagination, and elsewhere.