Heather Corbally Bryant, Lottery Ticket, Parallel Press, 2013, by Caroline Collins
Heather Corbally Bryant’s latest volume, Lottery Ticket, quietly ponders the many risks inherent in living and loving, balancing love and loss in poems that build slowly and powerfully, pulling us in with a steady, calm voice. Her deceptively simple style, reminiscent of such American poets as Edward Taylor and Emily Dickinson, draws deeply on the metaphysical tradition. This is a philosophical, meditative poetry, rich in irony, wit, and paradox, as the book’s title poem aptly demonstrates. There we encounter an elderly woman, moving alone in “Late afternoon November gloom,” to trade in her dollars on a vain hope:
One by one, she scratches each
Digit with the rounded edges of
A shiny nickel, eyebrows knitted
And knotted, she turns up a loser
Five times over.
Bryant ends the poem on a ruefully ironic note: “who was to think / that she would be so lucky?” (39).
“A Baptism” opens the volume with details that immediately catch the reader off guard: “What do we do with the things of the dead-- / Glasses, rings, shoes, pants.” The next lines bring death and life together, balancing the sensory experiences of a funeral with the equally striking imagery of the ritual that often marks the beginning of life: “At the baptism, sunlight pours through purple glass, / The priest passes around incense and pungent oils.” Such ceremony is lost on the child: “Dressed in a white christening gown, the black-haired / Baby sleeps deliciously through the ceremony— / Arms raised up high once in startled reflex // As if surprised by all the fuss“ (8).
“Curator of Clouds,” a narrative elegy that follows “A Baptism,” is a remarkable recollection of the poet’s childhood wish for her mother’s immortality and the parent’s subsequent promise: “she would stick around as / Long as she possible could /. . .Corbally women are strong of heart and mind” (10). Later, her mother asks for a similar assurance “when we first started hearing / The words: hospice, mass, metastasis.” The daughter replies in kind: “I said, if I possible could, I would be / With her at the end. I used to calculate how fast / I could get there, if it were snowing, or clear.” Subsequent lines eloquently detail what the mother has provided, mingling the ordinary with the intangible in an eloquent catalogue that becomes a moving tribute:
Gave me strength, sarcasm, words, and books,
Always more books, and tiny packages of tissues;
She gave me humility, honor, and grace; she
Gave me life, she gave me everything. Eventually,
She showed me how to die.
The origin of the poem’s title is unveiled only much later in the poem: “She / Always told people that in her next life she / Wanted to be the Curator of Clouds so she / Could invent their shape and form.” The poem closes with a paean on the nature of grief:
all I could do was usher
Her body out the door where I knew my
Children, Phoebe Elizabeth, Douglas William,
And Walker Bryant, were waiting to catch
Me as I stepped back into our lives.
Clearly proficient with narrative poetry, Bryant is equally a master of the lyric moment, especially in describing encounters with the natural world. Indeed, the marvelous imagery and lyric intensity of these entries underscore the volume’s recurring themes of death, loss, and rebirth. “Winter Berries” finds the poet gathering red fruit against the coming winter, “knowing / Their last blast of fire will keep / Me warm, hold some brightness when heavy snows come” (36). Another poem, “Cicadas,” relates how the poet’s youngest son moves beyond his fear of the singing insects. His acceptance means growth for her as well:
Him for letting me see clearly again—
A universe, beautiful and new,
Filled with cacophony of life, one
Brittle shell left on the pavement.(20)
A similar poem, “Daffodil Bulbs,” begins in memory, as the poet voices the hope that “the four brown globes / In my hands, wrappers / Crinkling, edges wrinkling / Like paper lunch sacks” will become “just like / The ones my father admired / Amidst snow’s remains.” No less than the blossoms themselves, the father’s declaration has become a harbinger of spring: “When he proclaimed the first shoots / of April to be glorious, remarkable” (32).
Throughout Lottery Ticket, Bryant aptly handles the timeless themes of death and infidelity, but she is mindful of other losses, too. “First Leaf” records another kind of leavetaking, opening with a wonderfully evocative line: “And the first things will be the last” (31). On a morning walk alone, she finds a gorgeous maple leaf, newly fallen: “red and orange / Around the edges, best to announce / The season of death.” Such beauty cannot allay a mother’s mixed emotions and inevitable loneliness, as she recalls the day’s earlier events: “heart in / My mouth, / seeing a small boy trudge / Onto a big yellow school bus, without / Looking back at me.” Here as elsewhere, Bryant’s careful balance of contrasts splendidly recalls John Keats’s concept of “Negative Capability,” as she voices both the pain and the acceptance of letting go:
Of my body born,
These children of mine, I know they have
To go, just as fall follows summer, they
Must find their way. (31)
The poem’s closure is calm, yet fittingly still of two minds: “cherishing the quiet, / I long for their return to our house” (31).
“Mirror” presents a similar kind of letting go that brings readers full circle, back to the gifts bequeathed by the poet’s mother in “Curator of Clouds.” Here Bryant shares her own gentle, sage advice:
I had only one wish for you, it is that you learn
To look inside yourself for strength, love, passion,
Joy, peace, and tranquility—it is all already there,
As if waiting for you to turn your gaze
Inward to receive just what you need. (37)
The mother’s timeless wisdom on gazing inside evokes the title’s many meanings: “By staring long enough at who you are, / / You will know who you want to become” (37). Spendidly reversing the mirror with which we usually associate the act of looking, Bryant memorably enacts exactly the kind of turn prized by metaphysical poets.
Lottery Ticket will puzzle readers pleasantly, again and again. These are poems to turn over in our minds, poems that begin in quiet splendor, gather weight and emotion, and build to a kaleidoscopic beauty. Like the woman in the book’s title poem, readers of Heather Corbally Bryant’s Lottery Ticket are likely to wonder just how we can be so lucky over and over again.
Caroline Collins is an assistant professor of English in the Humanities Department at Andrew College. Her poems have appeared in such places as Fox Cry Review, Wisconsin People and Ideas, and Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies. Her chapbook Presences is just out from Parallel Press.