Although I've published many poems in the past ten years, I'm really a latecomer to serious work at making poems. Music, though, is something I've made all my life, especially as a singer, most especially in churches. Thus my many poems about singing, in all of my three books, especially my newest, Mid Evil, winner of the 2014 Richard Wilbur Award. My work has appeared widely in print, online, and in anthologies, most recently Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters. You can learn more about me at maryanncorbett.com.
Sacred Harp Convention
Don’t let it fool you. The careful Southern manners,
the primly white-walled church in its Baptist plainness,
the rigid etiquette of the square of singers—
nothing is tame here, nothing without its dangers.
Certainly not the sound. Tone like a bray,
pitch and tuning a bristle of disagreement,
dynamic range from freight train to tsunami.
You don’t hear this: you quail before its power.
The fourths and fifths of its harmonies opening like jaws.
The words lying in wait for the unsuspecting—
all that wandering, all those wayfaring strangers,
everyone leaving, bound for the promised land—
and now the teeth of its meaning close on your throat
and drag you to earth: you’re choked, you’re stupidly sobbing,
remembering your dead, so that the alto beside you,
whose voice has already rasped away your defenses,
goes quiet and settles an arm around your shoulder.
-from Breath Control
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.
-from Breath Control
©2015 Maryann Corbett