From the archives – Shrubs for the Northern Garden — Maryann Corbett

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Shrubs for the Northern Garden

Forget azaleas.

Forget cerise and orange flowers,
their lipstick-counter colors loud as teenagers,
bursting over Carolina lawns.

The whole landscape of memory: put it away.

Learn not to think of dogwoods,
their cream blossoms arching
over the college walks and the lovestruck young.

Concentrate on what you still have.

On what has learned to be numb.
Lilacs, say. Not a sign from them
in all that freezing time, and then
coming to their senses for a fragrant moment—

Make careful choices.

Take forsythias. Some are sub-zero hardy.
They offer their clear yellow—
so stalwart, so ready to face facts—
early, before the snow has disappeared,

almost before you are prepared to remember

drifts of yellow over Connecticut hills
the spring when you kept flying back, watching
your name drop from your father’s mind
like a spent bloom.

from Autumn Sky Poetry 16 — by Maryann Corbett

Photo by Christine Klocek-Lim

The Garden Expert Talks about Lilacs by Maryann Corbett

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.

by Maryann Corbett

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Editor’s Note: The voice of the narrator in this poem is wise and experienced, but also exasperated. It transcends the usual first person narrative of so much modern poetry and becomes a conversation between the character and the reader.

Swift-Counting by Maryann Corbett

Swift-Counting

High summer. Sunset, leaning. On the lawn,
the knot of curious seekers tightens, drawn
to tease apart the known and the unknown

by squinting at a soot-stained chimney stack.
Around its tower, arcing flecks of black:
the swifts, drawn by the dark, are coming back.

One comet from their reeling galaxy
curves in, approaching asymptotically,
then veers again, away from certainty

till finally, yanked on some uncanny string,
with the barest flicking motion of a wing
it brakes in air above the opening

and drops. And seven voices sing out, “One!”
as, denser by the minute, swifts return
to the black-hole center of this darkened sun,

falling at last so thick no human sight
is certain by itself of being right.
They call out numbers in the failing light

to firm their grip on facts, though it’s unclear
what use these are, or where they go from here
as progress makes the chimneys disappear.

One conjured total settled on the page,
they scatter in goodbyeing badinage.
The moon’s half-measure blurs along its edge.

by Maryann Corbett, from Breath Control

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Editor’s Note: The rhyming tercets of these lines reflect the disorganized organization of birds flocking. Just when you think they’re about to collide, the beauty of their flight coalesces into something stunning. So, too, does this poem coalesce into a moment a still snapshot could not capture properly.