In Code by Maryann Corbett. San Jose: Able Muse Press, 2020. ISBN 9781773490533 (paper).
Reviewed by Joyce Wilson
Anyone who has tried to make sense of a contract or finalize a will has wrestled with the rigidity of legal templates. In her fifth collection of poetry, In Code, Maryann Corbett looks back at her thirty-five years spent as an editor and indexer at the Office of the Revisor of the Statutes of the Minnesota Legislature, where she assessed on a daily basis the ways the laws were written. However much she might have wished to change the written copy (as she comments on the book’s acknowledgments page), she usually only got so far as to suggest the use of shorter sentences (viii). Now retired, Corbett mines her experiences for meaning. Scribe, editor, proofreader, translator, witness, she shows, through a succession of diversely formed and engaging poems, how arrangements of language represent the ways we communicate about weighty matters. Enlivened by her imagination, the poems are far from dull.
Winner of the Richard Wilbur Award and the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, and admired for attention to form, Corbett employs a variety of forms in this collection. Beside the sonnets, a villanelle, a canzone, and several examples of rhyming quatrains, she borrows structures from outside the literary realm, such as a multiple-choice questionnaire (“The Forgery”), list (“A Volume of Cases”), and riddle (recast from the Old English of the Exeter Book). Her sense of irony allows her to inject humor into her work, without risking irreverence. Depicting the vision of well-lighted office windows illuminating the night sky at the end of the day, she extends a directive to look at these windows and think of the people behind them:
They are profoundly
ignorable. My one task is to prod you
to think about them.
(“State Office Building, Seventh Floor,” 5)
That the people are ignorable not only speaks of the routine nature of the work but also the determination and secrecy behind which crucial decisions are made and protected by government oversight. She also sees weariness, concentration, and constancy required in preparation for the next day’s bills.
In addition to legislative matters, Corbett addresses stories of church history and theology as they might propel the mind to wander in search of belief. Her humor is evident in the self-referential hyperbole that complains about her age, the new translation adopted for services, and then becomes prayerful:
When I haul my carcass up from my creaking knees
She may be humbled, standing and kneeling during liturgical services, but she has much to say. In non-rhyming tercets, she wraps prominent figures in contemporary novelistic language, cutting them down to size: Constantine is pig-headed in the face of disagreement, Athanasius is a glamorous bandit on the run, and the holy terror resembles “the violent bear it away” (after Flannery O’Connor). She includes the Arians and alludes to the homoousios/homoiousios controversy about the nature of Jesus—human or divine?—and we wonder, should we know all this stuff? Is it necessary to understand in order to believe? Concluding that the pie-eyed optimism of the Arians, with their notions about divinity, seem to be fading from influence, she adds wryly:
to mumble the old form
(stubbing my tongue on the brick of a new translation)
humble me, Lord, to accept the awkward history
of these your mysteries,
a plotline tangled as the morning news.
[Their] lovely notion, suddenly dodgy-sounding
Engaging in the process of sorting through dogmatic chaff in search of the gold, she allows for the pragmatic view that history must be considered in the context of its time and is often subject to doubt.
With barbarian tribes at the border
And falling across the empire, the shadow of doubt.
In a poem that imitates the type of legal jargon she often sought to improve, she substitutes colloquial depictions to contrast the formal commendation awarded to a second lieutenant with the difficult reality of what might have happened.
WHEREAS, he was a rip-snorter at flying,
The praise for military performance becomes distorted and brings back the divisions over the efficacy of the US involvement in the Vietnam War.
an ace of all of it, the buzzing low,
the cutting close, the dodging fire, the strafing
. . .
WHEREAS, he neutralized his targets at
Vinh Hui, Quang Nai, and many other places
the record has not troubled to provide . . .
To clinch the contrast between printed document and what happened on the ground, Corbett makes use of a familiar scene from the news that has become a symbol we all recognize, of a time when war efforts were rewarded and human compassion suppressed.
Be it resolved that I have not forgotten
The wording of the commendation, presented on heavy paper with scroll borders and raised gold seals, cannot compensate for the memory of the vulnerable bodies of the young civilians running for their lives to escape injury and death in the crossfire. This image has become embedded like an unspoken code in our collective memory. We have internalized the photographs and reports of the assaults by our military on unarmed civilians, for which there is no commendation.
the faces of his targets. They run toward me
forever, naked, screaming, flesh on fire.
By showing how the application of the poetic form, like a law or code, works to present its subject, Corbett comments on the coexistence of laws and the truths they are designed to protect. She raises questions about the relative nature of laws and the perilous situation of absolute truths. Corbett has collected poems that pay tribute to her public life at work and her private life that imagines life beyond her work. She ends with an assessment of modern life seen through the eyes of an ancient:
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.
(“An Ancient in First-Year Greek,” 75)
Copyright © 2021 by Joyce Wilson.