Maryann Corbett, a poet about whom the word “virtuoso” comes to mind, has succeeded in creating in her new book Mid Evil, a collection of poems so cohesive and penetrating that even the cover seems to be part of the overall poem-world within. Both gorgeous and sinister, its darks and lights beckon us deeper to where that dimly seen image in the mirror flashes into focus for tantalizing moments.
And so we open her book, which includes translations of actual medieval poems – Corbett’s renderings of Old English, French, and Latin poems from the era, in which she is well-versed, are strikingly contemporary and real – as well as her own.
From the title piece, we learn the origin of the title, a student in her Medieval Literature class:
And the last blow is this:
in which, over and over, you call the course
mid evil literature. Yes, I suppose
for you that is the word. We both are lost here,
mapless in Middle Earth and muddling through.
She allows herself to gain insight from “you who are always painfully there…as if to aim it right between my eyes: your boredom/ with low-tech words in a language you don’t speak.” Similarly, Corbett finds some deeper, universal thread in the everyday, as in “Insubstantial Pageant.”
Kitchen curtains part: a stage-set morning.
Hung with a fog scrim
spun from the ground’s heavy breathing,
the world gone Grimm:
Hidden, the rude devices
(clotheslines, trash bins, garden tools)
that label life an interlude of prop arrangers.
Foregrounded, all that glitters.
Autumn and watery air refract the light before us:
maples in court costume, their mill and murmur
an opera chorus——
Unsolid. Such is matter.
The light-play deliquesces in a blink.
Yet even the dishwasher
frothing now behind us in the sink
has curlicued these vapors
in foggy likeness, threading light-diffusions,
the plainest facts conspiring to be shapers
of glorious illusions.
Note the threading of today with history, the skillful use of rhyme to take this ordinary scene to another level. Just like her “plainest facts.”
And this shows to me Corbett’s more profound understanding of things medieval. One of my most influential college classes was Medieval History, in which our professor insisted we learn from original sources and spurn historians’ stereotype-ridden rewrites. The take-away for me was a discovery of the Middle Ages as a world where the “plainest facts” were imbued with meaning, where personal relationships were treasured over objects, things. How in the light of a higher vision, without artifice, one can find “the rude devices” mere props in the greater “illusion,” in which one fervently believes, about which one deeply cares. This worldview seems to infuse this book, and reading it has an almost religious feel.
Which is no accident. Religion plays a part in Corbett’s work, but on a more universal level. From “On Singing the Exultet,” which takes place in an actual religious ceremony, to “As Little Children,” where the narrator, in response to a birthday party for children, observes:
…I’ve come to feel
how all my feasts are haunted——
some holy, wounded memory
hanging above the meal.
There is also humor, as in “Foundation Myth,” about what girls and women do for the “myth” of their appearance:
Eyebrows thinned beyond the pale
and eyelash stubs now need the sort of wands
mascara conjures. Lips no longer full
call up the powers, and the hand responds…
And yet even here there’s a touch of the medieval: mascara wands,” or even calling up the powers. And the ending is even more fairy-tale-gone-wrong medieval. But you’ll have to get the book. 🙂
Oh yes, there’s darkness in the “Dark Ages.” But there is also light. And the same could be said of our world right now. Or, as in one of several poems that brought tears to my eyes, “The Historian Considers the End Time,” even after “the fact of body felt less like God’s gift, and more like a thoughtless insult,” her narrator asserts:
The fathers set it in stone, the world is good,
and the body’s way of knowing it is all we have
in the end.
And of course there’s more, but again. This didn’t win the Richard Wilbur prize for a few choice insights. This book won because people who love to read found that the reader who gets between these pages will be totally rocked.