Scienter Press, 2009 $8.50
Reviewed by Jon Stone, Richard Meier and Rob A Mackenzie
I thought at first this collection was titled Dissonance Poems because of the odd layout of the cover: ‘Dissonance/ Poems/ by/ Maryann Corbett.’ There’s also no Contents page, which gives the sense of a slightly rushed production. The last page is even weirder. It’s laid out exactly like the (other?) poems in the book but goes like thus:
This book was laid out in Bell MT font,
on a Dell laptop computer.
100 copies were printed.
Is this a poem or not? Probably not but it’s rather confusing to have it laid out like this. Corbett’s poems, however, do their best to make up for the odd presentation. She has more of an affinity for rhyme and regular metre than most contemporary poets but never veers towards doggerel. Everything here is tightly written, carefully worked. While Nigel McLoughlin’s similarly titled Dissonances took the title as a cue to explore cohesion and tension between the tone and subject matter of different poems, Corbett is focused more outwardly, on uneasy relationships between characters (“Her children’s marriages end; my children’s fail to begin”), on the jarring disparity in urgency from headline to headline (‘Saturday Edition’) and on subtle-but-telling differences in perception that can be reasons for celebration (‘Differing Visions’) or serious concern (‘Hamartia’).
One particular recurring theme is the generational gap. This is dealt with through metaphor in ‘Reservations’, albeit via the familiar comparison of vibrant youth (“flowering chartreuse, fling/ a deshabille of loose/ light over curving limbs”) with withered age (“arthritic-jointed, stiff—/ are standing off. They dip/ the merest leafbud-tip/ into the warming air”). More compelling is ‘Speak, Memory. Or Not.’ with its doting on young men and subsequent self-chastisement:
(I clamp my mouth shut tightly. Fair is fair;
this is their time; these are my daughters’ men.)
It’s a shame, though, that this poem ends on quite a reductive note, suggesting that our lives (as young people) are little more than repeat showings of the previous generation’s. I’m not sure there isn’t a little fear informing this point of view, as seemingly evidenced by ‘MySpace Invader’, where the narrator tries to get to grips with internet slang. “Not stalking,” she insists. “I need to know the world I will be old in.”
‘Fist’, meanwhile, a sonnet about the power of sonnets, is an enjoyable overselling of a proposition, replete with ninjas and X-ray vision. One could argue the pamphlet is lacking in revolutionary ideas but then, revolutions rely on a degree of haste. In contrast, the care with which these formal poems are put together reflect the care with which Corbett examines the world, its disparities and discordances.
This pamphlet contains some fine work, particularly when the poet is writing about the natural world. That said, I struggled somewhat to locate the emotional freight in a number of the poems. In ‘Differing Visions’, for example—a poem which uses the premise of a child being diagnosed with colour blindness to explore a parent’s struggle with her son’s growing separateness and individuality—I sensed a flatness in lines such as:
The evidence is cruel
but clear enough: he’ll frame things differently,
in layered undertones she doesn’t share.
And what emotional heart may have prompted the poet to write a poem-cum-resumé of the ‘Saturday edition’ of a newspaper seemed attenuated by the strain of producing a sonnet come what may:
It isn’t news to those who sell the paper:
Their readers can take only so much hell.
They proffer me the surgeon and the draper
as pastures where my bovine brain may dwell.
Corbett’s nature poems are much her most successful in my view. This, for example:
The honey locusts, though—
are standing off. They dip
the merest leafbud-tip
into the warming air,
keeping in cold control
the slow-sapped unbelief
they’ve hardened in since fall.
This writing here seems so much fresher and, well, natural. ‘Bluejay, Singing’ is similarly accomplished in its Frostian simplicity yet depth:
One note—then it descends
a major third—then two.
Splashed on the ear, it blends
the feel of wet and dry,
a liquid with an edge
to slice humidity
in August morning heat.
This newness, from a bird
I thought I knew about.
So many years, so wrong,
I only knew the scream.
I never heard the song.
The least successful poem in my opinion is ‘Hamartia’, which I found it to be a rather ‘nimbyistic’ in its description (or stigmatisation) of a person suffering from schizophrenia:
he haunts the playgrounds and the school bus stops,
tight-jawed, unnerving as an armed grenade.
The inauthenticity of the grenade image speaks much, I think, about the distance which the poet strives to put between herself and the man (and I don’t believe for a moment, judging by the tone of this poem, that she has ever been one to “greet him/ with a wave”).
Although the poet says that the man, and his situation, makes her “think of ancient Greeks, of tragic error./ Pity is hard. Much easier is terror”, I fear the error is all hers. The terror of ‘catharsis’ was that which arose through identification, or sympathy, with the tragic hero (a sympathy which this poet clearly does not feel) and although, yes, pity can at times be hard, I didn’t get the impression that the poet had tried all that hard. Oh well, one can’t have everything; but a bit of a shame nonetheless, especially since Corbett’s nature writing is so fine and deeply felt.
Rob A Mackenzie:
Dissonance is an interesting title for this pamphlet by U.S. poet, Maryann Corbett. The poems are metrical—sonnets, Sapphic stanzas, and other formal structures. Marriages begin and end, a frightening neighbour is consumed by his own fear, and a joke reveals previously hidden pain. Packing such uneasy subject matter into tightly structured poems is in itself an effective dissonance between content and form.
The two eleven-line stanzas of ‘Lament for the Midnight Train’ focus respectively on past and present. On the discontinued train, Corbett writes:
Languid in summer, dulled in snow,
it spoke to me calmly: Trust and rest.
The night world works on a steady clock.
The first stanza is crisply written and brings the old times to life through plain language and evocative imagery. The night train’s “strange chord” is “a distant dissonance, treble-cleft.” The second stanza is less convincing, although it has its moments, for example “the freeway sound and the freeway grime/ color the nights. The snow turns black.” It is possible, too easily possible, to summarise the poem’s message. Indeed, the poem itself does so. After the noisy cars and black snow, we hear about rising crime and the narrator’s fierce but impossible wish for a return to the old, peaceful ways, despite the train’s horn. Really, those final lines are there to satisfy formal demands, but I could have predicted their sentiment from halfway through the poem. I felt Corbett had a tendency to explain too much, to sum up certain poems, narrowing their effect rather than setting them loose to haunt readers’ minds.
In ‘Rereading Aeneid, Book IV’, the poet employs Virgil’s dactylic hexameter, extremely difficult in English. The poem connects a schoolgirl with the story of Dido and Aeneas. The teacher has sympathy with Aeneas. The schoolgirl is enraged and calls Aeneas a “jerk and a rat, almost shouting that duty,/ piety, vows to the gods were all lies.” Corbett is in full control of the long lines and fragmented close-ups she uses to create cinematic tension:
And her face. And her eyebrows
(bristly and white and just visible under the edge of a wimple)
knitting. Then both of us suddenly silent. The bell. And then moving . . .
The poem has great emotional impact and maintains the tension until the clever bathos of the final line, when we discover the real reason for the girl’s emotional distress.
My other favourite poems in this pamphlet include ‘Winter Exercise’, ‘Dissonance’, ‘Swing’, and ‘Prophesying to the Breath’—poems possessed of that indefinable resonance which settles in the brain and won’t go away, which has no formula but exists within this pamphlet.