The Historical Sense of Maryann Corbett

In Code: Poems | Maryann Corbett | Able Muse Press (2020)

Reviewed by Jane Scharl

These are strange times. 2020 has been a year marred by division, defined by isolation. More and more, we find our society fragmenting, splintering on the rocks of political disagreement, protest, riot, and pandemic-induced distancing. 

In this atmosphere, Maryann Corbett’s new collection of poems, In Code (out later this fall from Able Muse Press) could not be more timely. The collection probes the human need for civil society, a need that persists even though society is the source of some of our deepest wounds. Corbett’s incisive formal verses explore the tender points in the body politic where law, order, and humanity meet—often only to clash.

In Code is Corbett’s fifth collection, and her first committed primarily to exploring her career working for the Minnesota state legislature in the nonpartisan state Office of the Revisor of Statutes, where she had a behind-the-scenes look at how the slow machine of law and justice—sometimes injustice—turns. Her work there prohibited her from making public political statements, so these poems are the result of decades of deep, silent consideration: formally elegant, morally sensitive, and perhaps most of all, simply good reading.

It takes a deft hand to write poetry about politics. Too often, such work becomes so political that it forgets to be poetry. Political language is often lazy; it has to be because it seeks primarily to sway. Even the best-crafted political speeches struggle to be poetic because poetry demands that our language be as true as we can make it. Political language cannot risk being completely truthful, because its primary purpose is to persuade. Poetry, even when it seeks to persuade (as poet and critic Carl Dennis says, nearly all poetry does), seeks primarily to persuade to a truer seeing, not to a certain point of view.

This is why Corbett’s collection is such a gift. In a season where people tend to simply react without taking the time to truly see, to let reality settle into their souls before trying to respond to it, Corbett gives us poems about politics that she has been mulling over for years—sometimes decades. And from those years of silent gathering and grappling, Corbett emerges as a trustworthy guide towards a humane way to think and write about the difficult relationship between the individual and society.

In “Seven Little Poems on Making Laws,” Corbett gives us a series of haiku snapshots from the halls of legislature that capture the dissonance that comes when we try to codify justice. Corbett’s vision of law-making is uniquely American; in the third haiku, “Sulfite pages in/early casebooks flake to crumbs./So much for the past.” This American tendency to downplay history runs right to the heart of our imaginative vision of ourselves. Americans believe they are free, free from the past, free from ancient desires, loves, hatreds. From the Founding of America, we have seen ourselves as a tabula rasa, both as a nation and as individuals. The first European settlers of America were Puritans, who rejected the idea of historical hierarchy and religious tradition; Scots-Irish refugees, fleeing starvation and poverty in their homeland; and criminals, exchanging life in debtors’ prison in England for the perilous freedom of the New World. Each of these groups saw the past as something to be jettisoned. Their story, they believed, was written in the future, in letters of golden promise—and they were the author of that story.

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Today, many Americans still retain the belief that we are self-made, that our pasts do not define or limit us, that anyone can become whatever he or she wants. We eschew the idea that history has power over us, that where we came from has any bearing on where we are going. And we enthrone this belief in law.

But at the end of “Seven Little Poems,” the poet warns that however much we ignore the past, it still has an iron grip on us. “Capitol café:/German proverbs, whitewashed since/1917,//are restored to view/with bright applause. Old hatreds/have new objects now.” The illusion of being self-made is just that: an illusion. For even as we seek to escape the past, we find new ways to act out its worst elements of hatred, greed, and tyranny.

This poem demonstrates Corbett’s deep historical sensibility, one of her greatest strengths. T.S. Eliot writes about this historical sensibility in his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” saying,

. . . the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.

Corbett has this historical sense in spades. Besides working in politics, Corbett has a background as a medievalist, which stretches her language beyond the clichés of contemporary thought. She writes at the end of a villanelle about school shootings, “No one can tell/how human ears unhear the song of hell,” fitting Dante-esque language into a Renaissance formal poem about a wrenchingly modern subject.

The historical sense allows poets to marvel at the strangeness of their age without giving way to panic. In “After the Political Speeches,” Corbett’s refusal to aggrandize the strangeness of contemporary society allows her to issue a timeless critique of political language. She writes of “handing my heart/across the screen, into those whirligig/orator-arms, where tongues like juggled cutlery/mince the meat of my thought…” Today, we hear unending denunciations of the nameless masses who are deceived by political speech. But Corbett does not do that easy finger-pointing. Instead, she takes a close look at the only person whose motivations she can truly know—herself—and finds that, if she is any exemplar, people are not deceived by political speech so much as by themselves. By the end of the poem, the poet says,

Here is my gut, growling for what it lacks,
and this odd goulash, honeyed to taste like justice.
Again, starving and desperate, I gulp it down.

To the question, “What is the problem with the world today?” the poet here offers the same answer as G.K. Chesterton famously did: “I am.” `

In Code gives us poetic vision into the fearful landscape of contemporary America, but unlike many other volumes of poetry about politics, it saturates that vision with the historical sense. It offers a glimpse of a world in which disasters, violence, hatred, vice are not “unprecedented,” as so many voices would have us believe, but are woven deep into the human experience. This may seem like it makes for bleak reading, but In Code shows quite the opposite. Once we understand the persistence of pain in history, it frees us from the paralyzing fear that comes from feeling we are wading into the unknown. All of history is unprecedented; at the same time, when we look at it carefully, it all begins to look familiar. These are strange times, surely, but even in these times, the same human patterns play out, both for evil and for good.

Jane Clark Scharl is a senior contributor at Crisis. Her work has previously appeared in National ReviewThe American Conservative, and The Intercollegiate Review.