Baroque chamber ensemble and homeless encampment, Saint Paul
Perfect: the singers, strings, and keyboards. Perfect
Bruised sky above the tents of the squatters’ district
the little jewel-box church, its bright acoustic
calm in the year’s last mildness, the only music
softened a little in the candles’ lighting,
the mumbling underpass. The wind. No fighting
for this is God’s mind, woven of harmonies
for once. Tonight, for once, no one ODs—
and our souls thread through the flame of the vigil lamp
someone got lucky at the entrance ramp
as we hold, hold to Monteverdi’s line
(panhandling, on this warm day, with a sign)
and stop our breath until the last string dies
and parcels out his manna of salty fries
in the last great chord of his Beatus vir
while sirens wail some sorrow, far from here.
Editor’s comments: “In case it isn’t clear from whatever device you are reading this on, each couplet here is comprised of a line about a musical ensemble in a church followed by a line about a homeless encampment under a highway. You can read it straight through as a soft-voiced line followed by a harsher one; or you can read every other line in one voice and the remaining lines in a different voice; either way, you are blending two very different aspects of city life into a larger, richer picture of community sharing, whether in glamour or squalor. This is an unusual and remarkably effective use of rhymed couplets of iambic pentameter.
The contrast built into the poem, and the skill with which it was done, made it a natural poem for inclusion in the ‘City! Oh City!‘ Potcake chapbook. It first appeared in Measure Review; and is included in the collection In Code.“
Maryann Corbett writes: “Events that trigger a poem need not be as simultaneous as the poem makes them seem. The choral concert in this poem took place on a subzero night during the Christmas season; the rise of homeless encampments occurred at a warmer time of year–but both could be happening in my city at any time, and they probably still are.”
Maryann Corbett earned a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota in 1981 and expected to be teaching Beowulf and Chaucer and the history of the English language. Instead, she spent almost thirty-five years working for the Office of the Revisor of Statutes of the Minnesota Legislature, helping attorneys to write in plain English and coordinating the creating of finding aids for the law. She returned to writing poetry after thirty years away from the craft in 2005 and is now the author of two chapbooks, five full-length collections already published, and a forthcoming book. Her fifth book, In Code, contains the poems about her years with the Revisor’s Office. Her work has won the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, has appeared in many journals on both sides of the Atlantic, and is included in anthologies like Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters and The Best American Poetry 2018.
Her web page: http://maryanncorbett.com
Photo: “sleeping on the rock of ages” by waferboard is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
A most beautiful poem – perfect word-choice. Thank you!
What a fascinating approach to a subject which, both in its generalities and its particulars, hits a nerve for me! Just last month, one chilly day, I had attended a classy classical Christmas concert at a beautiful old-style church in DC. As I approached the building, on the sidewalk right in front of it, I saw a neat line of eight homeless people’s tents with carefully stacked piles of belongings in between each “home.” As I ascended the church steps and entered its doors, I struggled to reconcile what I’d just seen with the milieu that unfolded before me. In fact, I was contemplating writing a poem about this, but I hadn’t decided how!
Corbett’s approach of alternating the bolded “church” lines with the italicized “squatters” lines (and the formatting and order that she assigns to each) brings to life the type of ironic close-quarters contrasts that I experienced that night. And the many off-rhymes in the sets of lines accentuate this dramatic tension. It’s especially fascinating that the whole poem can be read sequentially in a way that makes at least tenuous sense up until the third to last line (where we have to admit that a “string” couldn’t “parcel out fries.”) My own experience attests to Corbett’s point (in the notes) that both the concert and the homeless encampments could easily exist at the same time and place.
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I’m delighted that her work resonated so well for you!
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