Tag Archives: beauty

Poem: ‘Advances in Personal Care’

1700 BCE
A length of fibre to extract a tooth –
a flint to decorate yourself with scars –
a large, strong thorn to make holes for tattoos –
an oyster shell to scrape off excess hair…
so health’s improved and beauty is accented.

1700 CE
High heels and wig show stature, vigour, youth;
a monocle improves both look and looking.
How we’ve advanced, compared to ancient times!
Some say there’ll be advances still to come,
but how, when all’s already been invented?

This poem is a riff on a 19th century joke. Charles H. Duell, the Commissioner of US Patent Office in the late 1890s, is widely quoted as having stated that the patent office would soon shrink in size, and eventually close, because “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” (In fact Duell said in 1902: “In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.”) But the joke appears to have had earlier incarnations in the 19th century in Punch magazine and elsewhere, presumably as the world was adapting to the reality of life changing more and more rapidly.

The poem is in iambic pentameter, but the only rhymes are between the two verses: the first lines of each and the last lines of each. But I feel that produces enough echo to make it sound adequate. My thanks to Bill Thompson for including it in the Alabama Literary Review – ALR 2021.

Photo: “France-001560 – Louis XIV” by archer10 (Dennis) is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Maryann Corbett, “Dutch Elm”

Maryann Corbett

That trees would die
yearly, we knew. The columns of the nave
of Summit Avenue, the architrave
of openwork where canopies unfold,
green or briefly gold,
the arched, leaf-dripping limbs
backlit with sky—

in every year, some go.
Some ends arrive with force: the papers warn
with pictures, after every storm,
of fallen branches, hollow at the heart,
or great trunks snapped apart,
battering cars and houses with the blows.
(We knew, but now we know.)

Some ends are quiet: the red
stripes appearing, like a garotting wound,
on trunks where the inspectors found
beetles in bark, bare limbs lurking in shade.
The tree crew and the chainsaw blade
will come—we know now—soon—
The stripe says, This is dead.

They make short work of things
with sweat and cherry pickers, saws and zeal
rope and rappelling acrobatic skill
and limb-shredding machines.
Only the stump remains
and is soon sawdust: nothing left to chance
but next year’s fairy rings.

No help for it, then.
This cut to sky, this coring of the heart.
These trees too far apart.
This just delivered balled-and-burlapped stick,
its trunk two inches thick,
decades from beauty. What we always knew:
We start again.

Maryann Corbett writes: “All day today I’ve been hearing, and sometimes watching, the process of the removal of my neighbor’s enormous elm, which peeled apart suddenly in a recent storm, exposing a hollow core. I was reminded that I’ve seen this process so many times in my city that it prompted a poem over a decade ago, and it’s a poem I’m happy to remember. It first appeared in The Lyric and is included in my second book, Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter.”

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: maryanncorbett.com