Book Review

Maryann Corbett, Breath Control, David Robert Books, 2012

by Judy Swann

As John Ashbery once said of Adrienne Rich, Corbett is “a traditional poet, but not a conventional one.” She is a master of poetic forms. One of the most striking poems in Breath Control, her most recent collection, consists of ten lines of perfect Virgilian dactylic hexameter. Deceptively simple, clean, and rooted in both the cerebration of language and the slap of emotion, “Rereading the Aeneid, Book IV,” is a masterpiece:

Sting of a memory, roused from its coils in the roots of the Latin:
raising my voice to my teacher, right there in the hallway. I lost it –
my grip on the weave of the grammar, the veiled indirectness of

Corbett pays homage to language—from which memory flows—and then the coiled snake of old passion envelops her muse, taking us straight to the still furious girl-memory of yelling, right there in the school.

Red-faced, incensed at her hint that not all of the weeping was Dido’s.
Calling Aeneas a jerk and a rat, almost shouting that duty,
piety, vows to the gods were all lies.

The angry spondee of “red-faced” is followed, like a sob itself, by the early caesura; and right after that, the accented “h” gives the speaker breath before the long wail of teenage curses. Dido’s flame flicks out at the old teacher:

                                                                        And her face. And her eyebrows
(bristly and white and just visible under the edge of a wimple)
knitting. Then suddenly both of us silent. The bell. And then moving
stone-faced toward chemistry class, while across on the opposite
slouching, a certain young perfidus carefully stared at his loafers.

The ending simmers. The perfidus has nothing to say. What could he possibly say?
Corbett shows her technical mastery again and again in this collection. She pulls off a ghazal, blank verse, a sonnet, accentual Anglo-Saxon meters, tricky ballads, and rhyme forms I do not know if she learned or created, including a double abcedarian. She is by turns lofty, goofy, sardonic, mild, idyllic, and keen. Her Pushcart-nominated poem “Development” is here, with its masterful opening:

This is your deed. Its words
impose restrictions.
You leave behind unruly nether worlds
of noisy rental neighborhoods,
landlords, evictions,

leave the wheezings of pipes, the fluorescent hummings,
the homeless houseplants on the fire escape

Corbett, a Ph.D. in English, is smart enough to make witty literary puns and double entendres, but she is also warm enough to write movingly about the dementia overtaking an old parent, a small boy with superpowers, a daughter smiling at skinheads. She comes across “Spot,” from the Dick and Jane early readers series, who is “all stillness as he runs and runs.”

And let me not go on too long about the homage she pays fellow (sometime) Minnesotan John Berryman (“Variorum”) or the delicious “Asparagus.”  But do look these poems up. Many Corbett poems are available online. I’d like to end this review as skillfully as Corbett ends her own works.  As Ashbery said of Rich, she knows how to “leave the reader at the right moment,” while still pronouncing the words of creation: on on on as Corbett says in “Reach,” a poem that juxtaposes Michelangelo’s Creation and a filmmaking son. The only negative about this volume is that it’s too short.

Judy Swann lives in gorgeous Ithaca, NY in a small house painted in Frida Kahlo colors. Her poetry has appeared in Lilliput Review, Verse Wisconsin, Soundzine and other places both in print and online. She is an Iowan who often visited Wisconsin in her youth.