II - July 2007: Lives

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Maryann Corbett

Blank Verse and Blinders


I’ve written quite a few poems that are fairly long, in loose iambics and a discursive voice. These poems often feature a narrator whose opinions are cynical and whose viewpoint is noticeably blinkered or limited. Three of them will be published this summer (here in SCR, in poemeleon, and in Mezzo Cammin), and readers may notice that the “I” they encounter in them has an assortment of unlikable traits. Lest I be confused with my narrators and look even sillier than I am, I’d better explain how this habit of mine got started.

It was the end of my younger child’s first summer at home after a year of college, a summer that often brings out tensions between parents and children. It was also a low point for Minnesota’s state budget, which meant that my work at the legislature seemed to be under attack. I felt besieged at the office and at home.

That left as a safe space only music, in the Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings I spent in the choir of the Cathedral of Saint Paul. Into that safe space came Anna George Meek, a professional singer joining us as alto section leader. Our directors gave her a glowing introduction: violinist, poet, teacher at The Loft Literary Center, organizer of poetry readings, winner of the Brittingham Prize, and author of a book of poems published by the University of Wisconsin Press. They were soon talking excitedly about commissioning poems.

Unsettled as I was just then, simply hearing the word “poet,” let alone being around one twice a week, set something going in me. Although my credentials are in English, and my daily work is with words, and I’d done some translation work for choral compositions, I had written no poetry since my twenties. Suddenly I remembered it. I started reading contemporary poetry, an area I’d neglected when concentrating on literature before 1600. At the same time, Anna began giving me rides home from rehearsal, and we talked about poetry. And I read Anna’s poems. This remains one of my favorites:

The Pacifist Dreams of an Apocalypse

Fresh Broccoli Soup Can Be Ready In an Hour
— a front page newspaper headline

No one will get hurt in the green world.
The wealthy summer will spend its humidity
generously, fresh silver in the morning streets.
But you must prepare for it. A woman arrives
at the shelter wearing fingerprint-black
from the angry night. She has her purse
and her son. In the shelter’s kitchen
the foods imitate a healed body: a head of lettuce
and, of course, the bronchial vegetables,
cauliflower, broccoli. That life is spacious
and deep-breathing, believing that the coming revolution
will not be violent, will appear like splendid harvest
and all things rusting will move again with a little
olive oil. Steel yourself for the day
the broken man, who sobs and threatens you
through the telephone, receives a cup of green tea
and is soothed. Prepare, in our new millennium, for the end
of desires for which we hate ourselves.
Expect bounty. At this very hour, whole armies
are serving asparagus, repairing their nations
of grief, of the terrorism of illness, of beatings.
Sit down, says the shelter worker.
Let me fix you something.

This is Anna: dreaming the dream of the day of justice, and doing something about it, volunteering, protesting, being open to other people’s hurt. A number of her poems, like the one above, come out of her experiences on the crisis intervention staff at a domestic violence shelter. The poem “In Response to a Woman Who Asked Me What Stories I Would Tell My Daughter, If I Had One” is her most complete depiction of the craziness and vulnerability of shelter clients, and of the workers, too. An old lady weeps because her house has been destroyed by the city, and we learn gradually that the house was condemned because the bodies of forty dogs, strangled by her husband, were rotting under its floor. A woman has delirium tremens; the clients tell the staff to call it “migraine” so that the sufferer will feel less condemned. A woman wanders out on a winter night and is later found dead of exposure. The poem makes clear the battering effect of these things on a shelter worker. Still, there are moments of graced compensation: In “Langue de Femme,” for example, the poet gives us first plain, near-the-surface description of the interactions of staff and clients —

The boiling water tattles and sighs. We argue
about legalizing pot, we argue pain medication, not pain
medication: I’m the only one here never knifed....

— and then extracts from a knocked-over vase the full emotional intensity of sharing with women all their joy and pain:

lily tongues everywhere, broken glass, greenery,...Then
lily tongues everywhere, broken glass, greenery, the table shaking
under the nervous weight of our laughter. Langue
de femme: we are rich beyond shattering.

That these were accurate observations I knew, though only at second hand. I had visited a shelter years before with a close friend who did the same work. I had listened many times to the stories she needed to tell me to stay sane. So I knew that shelter work took a selflessness that I had not been able to muster. Knowing something about the strength of the person behind the poems brought the poems into high mental relief. All of poetry suddenly became more solid.

At the same time I was reading Anna, I was starting to write poetry again, much of the time in a blank verse that came as automatically as water from a spigot. Having been silent for decades, I had a life to draw on. But it struck me forcefully that the life problems I wanted most to explore in this writing lacked the drama of the problems in Anna’s poems. Women running from violence were not my material. What I had to write from, what I wanted to dig into, was on the surface a very placid life, and even beneath the surface it was a quiet matter: the dailiness of mothering, the adjustment to children’s independence, the discovery of what comes next.

It also became clear that writing involves real risk of self-exposure. Say what you think and what you feel, even in fiction, and your interests, preoccupations, limits, and tics are clear to the world and open to its judgment. To be figuring that out after years of having read literary criticism sounds a little ridiculous, but then (1) I’d been away from the academic study of literature for over 20 years, (2) medieval literature has many Anons and relatively few personalities, and (3) it’s different when it’s your own life. Once I discovered on-line poetry boards, I found out quickly that mine was also a comparatively circumscribed life, defined by a religious view of the world and well insulated against other ways of seeing it. There is nothing quite like offering a poem for comments to deliver the lesson that what you thought was obvious — whether the antecedent of a pronoun or the philosophy of a life — is not.

This was an uncomfortable spot. I was comparing myself with a brave and generous poet, twenty years my junior, who wrote gripping poems about exciting material, while I poked with blank-verse tools at the low fire of midlife and reached conclusions that often looked wrong to half my readers. To get the same intensity, by the same methods, as the poet I admired was not within the realm of the possible, and I would have to do something different.

Not by logic, but by guess and indirection, I arrived at a kind of self-protective method. I would write my long loose-iambic pieces, letting them ramble in whatever direction seemed productive toward any conclusion that seemed to present a real human being. Then, in drafts that whittled the piece down and tried to improve its vividness and craft, I would try to emphasize the speaker’s flaws, limits, specific kinds of brokenness. That might mean an aspiring contemplative who tries to ignore good ideas, or a woman who focuses on clothes and brushes past the lives of the wearers, or a mother more bothered by waste than interested in creativity.

The end product is something like a “flawed narrator” poem in which — I hope — some interest and intensity derive from the process of learning how the narrator struggles. By this process I’ve distanced myself from the person speaking but still said what, at some level, I think is true, however awkward it may be to utter. That the broken person looks a lot like me is no great matter. All narrators are flawed, because all human beings are.

Whether this way of working will go on being productive for me is an open question. I still go back to Anna’s poems, and I’ve never stopped admiring their vividness of diction, image, and emotion. My new goal is to focus on the small, closely observed moments, like the one that begins another Meek poem, “An Old Man Performs Alchemy on His Doorstep at Christmastime”:

After they stopped singing for him,
the carolers became transparent in the dark
and he stepped into their emptiness to say
he lost his wife last week, please
sing again. Their voices filled with gold....

I still hope for the day when in my own writing I can begin at the point of that vividness, instead of lobbing pentameter at it from a distance.

Anna George Meek’s poems are quoted from her book Acts of Contortion, University of Wisconsin Press, 2002.

Maryann Corbett earned a doctorate in English language and literature and expected to be teaching Beowulf and Chaucer and the history of the language. Instead, she has spent the last 25 years working as an in-house writing teacher, editor, and indexer for the Minnesota Legislature. This close proximity to the legislative sausage grinder makes it necessary for her to turn to poetry as a calming influence. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Measure, The Lyric, The Raintown Review, The Barefoot Muse, Mezzo Cammin, and other journals in print and online.