Checking the Funeral Musicians’ Schedule by Maryann Corbett

Checking the Funeral Musicians’ Schedule
January, 2006, Saint Paul, Minnesota

Start doing funerals and you notice it:
the time of year the old people decide
they’ve lived enough—that death might be more friendly
than winter is. Some go outside to meet it.
They toss the snow from walks in reckless swoops,
till their hearts bank and dive, and then the sirens
call us to muttered prayer. Mostly it’s men
who get this easy out, who cheer themselves
right to the end with reasons to be, to do.
Their women, cursed by common sense, hang on,
caged in their houses, living on crumbs of care.
Their houses keep them alive and their houses kill them:
Rooms, more and more, resist the readying
for visits that rarely come. A room at a time,
they fill with the useless things that will not stop
singing the litanies of the dead and absent,
till living shrivels to a room or two,
a few clothes, dishes, everything hand washed,
warm water the last solace where the drafts
insinuate at every uncaulked crack
to say, Give up, dear. I don’t know how long
persuasion takes. I do know where it ends.

There’s nothing for it but to sing, although
my aging mezzo sinks more every year.
I curse the cold and salt the icy steps
pray at the wakes and sing the funerals.

by Maryann Corbett, from Breath Control

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Editor’s Note: The conversational tone of the narrator in this poem is strongly convincing. By the end, the lesson of aging has been subtly pressed into one’s mind.

From the archives – Ardors by Maryann Corbett

1redtree

Ardors

What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire —Stanley Kunitz

As if the sin of Adam took its toll
on trees, the maples stricken with the fall
burn in their sins. Red passion and proud gold,

their vanities float down like scraps of flame.
Lives ago, we burned them—garden stubble
and leaves—the yard’s year gone in a smoky plume

curling to heaven. Now the tumulus
of compost seethes in its center, simmers, mulls.
We rake the piles. The crickets’ wings rehearse

desire, desire, slowing as daylight’s slant
unwarms the world. We feel it too, the chill,
the ache displacing older, wilder want:

Leaf into loam, red giant to black hole,
lust into languor, everything that burns
burns out: the dust, the gas, the acrid smell,

the end of the matter. All our burning’s doomed,
even these fires where maple trees are found
still ardent after years, still unconsumed.

from Autumn Sky Poetry DAILY, October 1, 2015 — by Maryann Corbett

photo by Christine Klocek-Lim

Numinous by Maryann Corbett

Numinous

Numen. It rustles at me when I pass
this urban fen. Next to an asphalt road,
cattails and loosestrife, ringed with goldenrod,
chicory, butter-and-eggs, and wetland grass
wave all summer, over a swampy smell.
A soggy, boggy singularity
oddly distinct from everything nearby,
it seems set free of civilized control
as if an ancient spirit of the place
held it. This sounds like fantasy, of course.
Water, not spirit, is the mass-and-force
at work: the cutout for the underpass
has nicked an aquifer. No living water
chuckles out of the hillside right-of-way,
but step there, trying to steal a wildflower spray—
it’s got your ankles. Then you hear the laughter.

The messy richness of the place undoes
the modern-world religion of my thought,
the tidy categories god and not,
for this is a spot where startling power leans close:
A woodchuck carcass under goldenrod,
half out of sight and uncollected, lies
just visible; the steady work of blowflies
shows me for weeks what happens to the dead.
Passing morning and evening, I see the first
red-winged blackbird here each warming spring,
the gold and scarlet swipe across the wing
flaring from cattails in a heartbeat burst.

These apparitions stun. They set me dreaming
the genius loci is tolerant, at least,
of man’s intrusions. But I know the test
is winter—the black mornings when the steaming
vapor of bog sits in the dip like a ghost,
hard nights when frozen ground will not take in
the flow, and road and sidewalk grow a skin
of ice, thicker and harder with each frost.
Slick fingers of glare ice stretch down the hill
I struggle up. Those days, I turn around,
go back, cross over. Fear of gods seems sound
however we approach them, and the will
of one we bulldozed from his sacred haunts
might still be ill-disposed toward covenants.

by Maryann Corbett, first published in Candelabrum, from Breath Control

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Poet’s Note: In the decade since this poem was written, the city has “improved” the road, and the little wetland has been drained, a sad loss in the summer.

Editor’s Note: [ETA-a kind reader has brought to my attention that the blank verse in this poem is actually not blank at all. “Subtle slant-rhyme” rules this poem. Hat tip: Julie Ann Sih.] The careful imagery and blank verse of this poem corrals the emotions of the narrator into tidy lines. It cannot, however, completely disguise the residual instinct of our deepest fears.

From the archives – The Garden Expert Talks about Lilacs by Maryann Corbett

1wineglass_lilac

The Garden Expert Talks about Lilacs

They wander in, the couples, looking for lilacs.
They’re young; they don’t know squat about their plants.
I tell them every time: You get at most
two weeks in flower. Then the blooms turn brown.
They hang on till they turn to brown-black seedheads
that drain the plant of vigor and look like death
unless you’re out there wielding a pair of loppers,
pruning them off, patiently, one by one.

Don’t get the white kinds if you love your lawn!
They sucker—send up more shoots every year
as if they meant to colonize the planet
like movie Martians. And don’t try being frugal
by using sucker shoots to start a hedge!
The volunteers—the elm and maple seedlings—
take root among the stems, and soon they’re in
too deep for weeding, full of fast new growth.
They stick their wacky limbs up tall and wide
and finally make a sad disfigured hash
of your hedge plan. I’ll tell you how it ends:
in twenty years, in thirty, you’ll be here
renting a truck or tractor to pull up
the stumps of your Frankenstein hedge.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .I tell them this.
It makes no difference; some still leave with lilacs.
It has a lot to do with living here
where winter’s five months long. We can forgive
a lot in a plant that wakes us with perfume
after we think we’ve died. They buy the purple,
the species, since it’s cheap; they buy the white
because it’s fragrant—tip the pot on its side,
the branches poking out of the tied-down trunk,
and drive off, dreaming of vases filled with sprays
of giant bracts of bloom in bridal white,
set in the bedroom, along with other things
uselessly warned against, and much too brief.

from Autumn Sky Poetry DAILY, May 22, 2015 — by Maryann Corbett

photo by Christine Klocek-Lim

Entrechat by Maryann Corbett (with editor’s note correction)

Entrechat
probably from the Italian, intrecciata, intertwined

April again. The old seductions of April.
Cat in the kitchen, loitering with intent,
swivel-eared, listening to the menu
as birds at the feeder intone the daily specials.
She’s slinking, wide-eyed, close to the closing door—

O indoor innocent, haven’t we played this scene?
All impulse, you bolt through the opening’s last inches.
I, Keystone Cop, give chase, flailing and staggering
through raspberry canes. Then, standoff under the porch:
stooped, on my knees with supplication and tuna
for an hour. At last my desperate lunge, and you
panicked, darting beyond my asthmatic powers.

And then the hours, wondering if this is it.
If this is the frayed end of an obligation
I never chose, the long denouement
of a ten-year-old’s desire, her vow of fidelity
to food, water, and litter box forgotten
a dozen years, a handful of lives ago.

The end of lapfuls of motorized condescension,
of rub-around entanglements on the stairs,
of black and chic reduced to snag and fuzz,
demands, imperious, piercing the depths of sleep,
dust, dander, hairballs, puke, and allergies.
Dare I imagine? Then the night of waiting.

And morning, and the whine outside the door,
and the odd, old, twisted leap of the heart.

by Maryann Corbett, first published in The Raintown Review, from Breath Control.

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Editor’s Note: Many apologies—for some reason, the note I wrote for this poem didn’t properly save (human error perhaps? internet demon?). Here is the correct note: Every cat owner knows the frustration of discovering that the creature believes it owns you. Tuna is only partially useful, and the heart is a lost cause. This poem’s delightful narrative teaches us these things we’ve forgotten.

Confessional Work: Late Advent by Maryann Corbett

Confessional Work: Late Advent

Long lines at this season, everywhere.
I’m used to them: airport security,
checkout, post office queue, holiday movie.
In darkness that falls early, they fold into corners,
hugging the buildings for something like support.

Always the choreography of burden,
balanced against the hip, hugged to the chest,
kicked ahead of me in the snaking line:
the carry-on that I already know
will not fit in the overhead compartment,
the package that can never arrive by Christmas
to buy me an impossible absolution,
the near-despair clutched at for thirty years.
the pointless sin, the life I never fix—
when my arms tire, I will drag it across the floor
through a trail of puddle left by slushy boots
to a counter where a face, with practiced patience,
will ask me, Anything else? and motion me on.

And all this longing for no reason I know,
except that even now, the lumped gray sky—
as if it heard earth sing Rorate coeli
plops down fat flakes, thick with springlike wetness,
and parking lots filled with the scraps of autumn
look cleaner, in the very way we beg for
in the prayer of another season: white as snow.

by Maryann Corbett, first published in Rock and Sling. Appears in the book Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter.

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Editor’s Note: The winter season isn’t always calm and peaceful. Sometimes it’s filled with despair and regrets. This poem illustrates that with impeccable starkness, giving only a glimmer of hope at the very end.

Ardors by Maryann Corbett

Ardors

What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire —Stanley Kunitz

As if the sin of Adam took its toll
on trees, the maples stricken with the fall
burn in their sins. Red passion and proud gold,

their vanities float down like scraps of flame.
Lives ago, we burned them—garden stubble
and leaves—the yard’s year gone in a smoky plume

curling to heaven. Now the tumulus
of compost seethes in its center, simmers, mulls.
We rake the piles. The crickets’ wings rehearse

desire, desire, slowing as daylight’s slant
unwarms the world. We feel it too, the chill,
the ache displacing older, wilder want:

Leaf into loam, red giant to black hole,
lust into languor, everything that burns
burns out: the dust, the gas, the acrid smell,

the end of the matter. All our burning’s doomed,
even these fires where maple trees are found
still ardent after years, still unconsumed.

by Maryann Corbett, first published in Christianity and Literature. Appears in the book Breath Control and the anthology Imago Dei.

Maryann on Facebook

Editor’s Note: The slant rhyme and controlled meter emphasize the underlying yearning toward an emotional footprint, so adroitly described within this poem.