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Poems for Lawyers and Other Citizens

Book Review by Bill Carpenter

InCodePomesBookIn Code 
by Maryann Corbett
Able Muse Press (2020), $19.95

In Code is a new collection of poems about law and public affairs by the award-winning St. Paul poet Maryann Corbett. Sound unusual? It may help to know that Ms. Corbett recently retired after nearly 35 years with the Minnesota Legislature in the Revisor of Statutes office. The collection embodies reflections on the daily work of compiling the laws, the gap between the formulas of law and the messiness of experience, and the ways that the contradictions between representation and truth—and between culture and compassion—define our lives. It is a brilliant, troubling book, displaying throughout a penetrating wit and understated eloquence. It is most accessible to lawyers, with their professional interest in law and public policy, but non-lawyers should read it too, since law and policy (and art) belong to us all. As does “contemporary life,” the overall subject and source of Ms. Corbett’s poetry from her first published chapbook, Gardening in a Time of War.

Readers will relate to this book. Following an election season like no other, the three-part “Judgments” resonates with the tawdriness of electioneering yet arrives at a painful claiming of residual faith. The first part is “Polling Place,” in which the voter, discouraged by “the blandeur of a beige community room,” utters her cri de coeur:

            This after weeks

of politicians’ droppings in the post!

            Hectoring months

of calls and ads! A grumpy memory speaks—

            a sort of Ghost

of Pollings Past—and says, It meant more, once!

All too familiar, but the voter goes through with the ritual notwithstanding: “Still, I’m here with the scuffing line, ready to flaunt my red I voted sticker…”

In the second part, “Roster Judge,” the poet has the unpleasant task of dealing with a voter whose ballot is rejected, probably because her current information does not match the rolls. “You rip the page up, hissing, Fascist! and storm out, red-faced. Dumb, I take the smudged form to its fate. Judge not, sayeth the Lord, lest ye be judged.” Alas, no public service goes unpunished. 

Part three, “Afterword,” has the poet listening to the news the morning after the election. Storms scourged the East Coast in the election she imagines, yet dedicated voters stood in line for hours:

People with shattered homes, people exploring

the strange new depth of their old powerlessness,

shivered and shuffled toward their polling places

under a lead-white sky.

                                    The voice signed off.

I wept in silence into my scrambled eggs.
 

Pity, with a self-deprecating touch of the ridiculous. 

Other topical poems include “Wildfire Season,” “Song for the Shooters,” and “‘Massacre of Children in Peru Might Have Been a Sacrifice to Stop Bad Weather,’” which suggests a connection between ancient child sacrifice and law enforcement shootings. More digressively, “Concealed Carry” riffs on the title phrase as referring to the IED in every heart, ready to go off at an unintended jolt: “Lob the grenade of your long and placid marriage at the gray clerk, alone again at sixty. Grand-child gossip—it’s acid in the face of the woman down the aisle, still empty-armed.” We end with a man in the produce aisle hearing Marvin Gaye on the PA: “setting his broccoli down sharply, like someone skewered through the vitals.” These hidden histories call for compassion.

The collection opens with “Threats,” a reflection on our post-9/11 security regime triggered by a bomb threat to the State Office Building in St. Paul, where the Revisor’s office is housed. The poet traces the threat environment pre-9/11 to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. She acknowledges a tentative mercy in the false alarm, which leaves behind a consciousness of fragility. The poem sets a baseline of dread for the volume, which is also topical.

“Seven Little Poems About Making Laws” is a string of haikus about life at the Legislature, like “Judgments” touched with dry humor. Haikus present terse illuminations in a strict 5-7-5-syllable form. For example:

Prayer by the chaplain:

cloudy pleas, made to a god

we keep nebulous.

 

 

Sulfite pages in

early casebooks flake to crumbs.

So much for the past.

 

 

Where white silk brocade

covers the tall, formal walls

we cut food support.

 

What is in those casebooks? “A Volume of Cases” discloses, in curt, strict rhymes:

The deference. The court’s respect.

The reasoning it must reject.

The lives behind the pages, wrecked.

 

The pieces that will not align.

The silent matters they decline.

The gold impressed into the spine.

 

That is pointed, but do not think the poet exempts herself from “the guilty knowledge of these gains, those losses guarded by a professional ambience.” Disillusion is a good thing, the poet seems to say, when it leads us to dismiss the false and know the true. Disillusion is also a good thing when it leads us to hear the call of compassion on the boundary of habit and culture. In its starkest form, “Fugue in October” juxtaposes a glorious performance of Monteverdi’s Beatus vir (in which the poet sings) with the hard life of the homeless struggling nearby. 

“Poses,” which is the grandest poem in the collection, presents this boundary in a tour of the Capitol mall in St. Paul. Ms. Corbett relentlessly pierces the veil of public art, and comes to an unusual take on the war memorials, whose truth risks eroding with time into a reiteration of “the Old Lie” (a phrase from Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est”):

 

                        The unspeaking bronzes lie

out in all weathers. Their mild clemency

turns Gettysburg, the Somme, the Bulge, My Lai,

the unnamed nightmares as they multiply,

to dumb abstraction. In that light, a statue

settles into forgetting. Such a statue

deadens against the pain and finally,

stripped clean of truth, is beautiful. To see

this is a sort of peace. A sort of mercy.

 

“Poses” is cast in the demanding canzone form, which requires a different arrangement of five repeating end-words in each of the five twelve-line stanzas and the final five-line envoi. As seen in the excerpt, Ms. Corbett mitigates that pattern, using rhymes more often than repeating end-words. This is her way with form generally. Her meter is often loose, even concealed. Rhymes, when used, may be slant (different vowel sounds) or unstressed. 

“Personal Account,” Ms. Corbett’s humorous sonnet to her retirement account, is unrhymed, so maybe not a sonnet at all. Some of the haikus in “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths” run on to the next in the series, undoing the form’s emphasis on momentary illumination. In a 2011 interview, Ms. Corbett observed that she “straddles” metrical and non-metrical forms, and that form can be a bully “if you let it slap you around.” She does not. Substance prevails. Even when the form is on the stricter side, it serves substance, as in the repetition of “statue,” the repetitions of the villanelle form addressing the grim “routine” of school shootings, and the terza rima in the “reassessment” of Dante. The poems are always musical in some sense, even if the music is that of divided segments of prose in “The Forgery” and “A Duty.”

Civic life in the Twin Cities has taken a beating. You might say it takes another beating under Ms. Corbett’s prosecutorial eye, but the dose of disillusion she administers is salutary—she refuses to be “bullied” by it. Instead, she bends disillusion to the purposes of truth and compassion, as well as humor and sheer enjoyment in ingenious speech. 


BILL CARPENTER practices in the fields of commercial and civil litigation with the law firm of Briol & Benson, PLLC.