Stepping Back to Stare: A Review of Maryann Corbett’s The O in the Air

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The O in the Air
By Maryann Corbett
(Colosseum Books/Franciscan University Press, 2023, 112 pages, $15.00)

Maryann Corbett’s latest poetry collection, The O in the Air (Colosseum Books/Franciscan University Press, 2023) begins with the poem, “Back Story,” which is set off from the other sections comprising the collection, as if to say read this before you begin; it explains everything. The poem’s epigraph explains that there is a category of European painting with a tradition of foregrounding a landscape, while a biblical or classical scene makes up the distant background.  In framing her collection this way, and by leading with the cleverly titled, “Back Story,” Corbett coyly prompts readers to pay attention to the background. A line from the poem’s second stanza says, “The whole scene’s leavened with this lightness. / Step back and stare at the mist beyond the frame, / these layers of ground earth and mineral and spirit.” It then asks, “What if the whole of it is heavenly?” It soon becomes clear that Corbett wants us to consider with her whether the leavening lightness, the mist that makes the whole heavenly is the ‘O’ in the air — is God.

In The O in the Air readers are invited to consider where God can be found in their lives and whether by being too focused on the foreground, we fail to recognize that God is as present as air. Corbett’s choice of air is critical: it is an element, but also a medium through which things travel and, especially, rise. Prayers, smoke, and the weather waft in air. We can feel the air, but we cannot not see it or grasp it. We can see its effects, however. And, of course, we need air to breathe. All of these attributes of air are examined and refracted in Corbett’s poems.

Perhaps in a nod to Dante, following “Back Story” the collection is split into three sections that roughly focus on the poet’s childhood, adulthood/parenthood, and the ubiquitous presence of death (specifically, the death of the poet’s mother and the anticipation of the poet’s own). One tension that persists throughout each section is time. Corbett shows readers how humans, bound by chronos, grapple with the kairos of God, the alpha and omega, the ‘O’ in the air — that circular letter that has no end (or has an end which is itself), that perfect vowel of astonishment and revelation and which begins most prayers — by focusing our attention on the air all around us. Try to see it all, the poet seems to urge. Even when the air, or God, is invisible, remember that the air we need to breathe is the same air that has been breathed throughout time, in and out, in and out. We barely notice it, but Corbett invites us to change that.

In one of the first poems of Section I, “Sorrowful Mysteries,” the author examines fragmented images from fractured childhood memories that “no one alive” can explain. In its final stanza, the poem concludes, “This is childhood’s essence: / always to grope in the dark. / When the grip finds, it hoards / to worry in its fingers. / To tell, like rosary beads.” (Note: hoarding, in various forms, shows up many places in these poems). Most of the poems in this section do exactly that: grope through the dark to understand memories and patterns across generations. Interestingly, the relationship between childhood and memory is considered both as an adult recalling things from childhood and as a parent wondering what her children will remember.

Many of the poems engage in a conversation; one poem might ask a question that is answered in the following. This is the case with “Late-Night Thoughts while Watching the History Channel” and “Knowledge.” The former starts by inquiring, “Is it by God’s mercy / that children are born not knowing / the long reach of old pain?” So much is passed down through generations besides heirlooms, and this poem questions whether it’s a merciful thing that children do not know why their parents act as they do since they have little real understanding of their parents’ own childhoods. Then, the latter poem, “Knowledge,” poses a new question: “Would it have made a difference if I’d known— / a little girl in a fifties Catholic school?” Several stanzas later, the speaker decides perhaps not. When her own daughter asks a question, the speaker answers just enough and then “the rest [she leaves] unspoken.”

The last poem in Section I, “Lavoro all’uncinetto” wonders “What happens now? Who values patterned beauty?” as it considers a grandmother’s needlework, saved for at least a hundred years, to explore what remains from the past and who holds onto it. Once the poem ends by petitioning the deceased grandmother to “mumble [her] clipped-Italian prayer / over this frill of sound, of air,” it’s clear that the poet sees her written art and her grandmother’s needlework art as sharing a deep bond across generations.

Section II seems to explore the responsibilities of adulthood and to wrestle with the heaviness of history. If it were a season, it would be the transition from winter to spring; it anticipates new life and growth while waiting under snow. In fact, “Ice Dam” tells the story of a mundane problem of winter: water damage. “The airiness of snow’s accumulation” was beautiful and comforting at first, but by March, “the full weight of what was always water” reveals the difficult truth. The repair will be expensive. The speaker discovers that “there is no bargain-rate salvation. / This costs. Somebody has to risk his life. / The Checkbook bleeds again.” All of a sudden, Christ’s sacrifice comes to mind. He is the one to risk his life and bleed. He is the O in the air that is both heavy on the cross and light as He rises — which is fitting, as if this is winter-spring, it would be Lent. For the family that’s dealing with the water damage, the financial cost of repair comes with sacrifice. Even here, in a poem about wintry water damage, Corbett considers what’s beyond the frame.

Other poems in this section consider how, in adulthood, one learns about “costs.” The poem “Syringa vulgaris ‘Victor Lemoine’” refers to the French flower breeder who created many of today’s lilac varieties. It would seem that the poem’s speaker is talking to a younger person and believes some things are “beyond” us in youth, only becoming clear in adulthood. Even then, though, there are still mysteries — especially about what costs. “You always thought they were pure gift, the lilacs,” it starts. Once again posing questions about generational differences, a stanza near the end of the poem asks, “You who twiddle and fidget in line for coffee, / can you conceive whole countrysides in labor / at birthing these particular notes of purple?” It later concludes, “These are beyond you. Cost and pain, beyond you.”

Later in this section, several poems unveil more generational differences by focusing on parenthood. In “Differing Visions,” Corbett uses a child’s color-blindness as a lens for meditating on the way children view things differently from their parents, and how they lead intertwined but separate lives. “Waiting Up” is a parent’s prayer to God for her children’s safety, but also a surrender to God’s will — a child of God submitting to her heavenly Father. “October” laments a child’s innocence before beauty is “bullied out of” him.

The last poem in Section II, “Hoarder,” consists of a crown of seven sonnets. Ironically, there is much formal order and beauty for a poem about obsessive and disorganized collecting. As the last line of each of the crown’s sonnets is picked up for the first line of the next sonnet, the poem suggests that the hoarded items get moved from place to place, as are the memories they represent. While this unfolds, the speaker realizes (or admits) that she is a hoarder of memory: “Worse than the stuff you own is the stuff you know.” It also ends in prayer, shaking its poetic head and crying, “The mess, dear God. Forgive us for the mess.”

Finally, Section III of the collection settles on death as its theme. The poem “Buying a Plot in Plague Time” considers the anticlimax of paperwork that creates a will, on the poet’s work as a writer, on what we leave for our children, and on the awkwardness of living when we know we will one day die. Similarly, “Monuments” offers its memento mori from a cemetery dedicated to pioneers and soldiers, but also the cemetery where the speaker’s relatives are laid to rest. The speaker observes that “The snows of every winter wipe them out,” signifying not only that the headstones become covered in white but also that people are wiped from memory once no one alive remembers them.

With some urgency and anxiety, the final poems sift through memory and childhood once again, this time for answers to questions raised in older age. “Praying Sleepless” queries “Lord, / what happened to my childhood certainties?” The speaker finds herself trying to learn to pray in a real way, yet going back to the memorized Hail Marys of youth. These prayers, as well as “hours of rosaries, psalms” accompany a mother’s quiet death that is somehow unexpected even while the speaker has been sitting by her hospital bed for a long while. The psalms return again when the very next poem, “Responsorial Psalm for the Beneficiary of My Mother’s Will” uses five actual psalms about inheritance, heritage, and blessing to narrate going through “murky records” to sort out what will be given to each person named in a will. The speaker “hoard[s]” the items that were her portion.

Finally, the very last poem brings us back to the first. The “Back Story” that has been present in all of these poems — throughout memory, childhood, adulthood, time, even death — comes to the foreground. In just four short lines, the poem reads:

Like is the yoke of a simile’s pair. God is the question, the O in the air. Now is not now is not now. But it was. End is the problem since everything does.

Now eventually becomes the past. Everything ends — everything, that is, except for the O in the air which hangs there, in the distant background and in our daily breath.