Brief Reviews

Maryann Corbett – The O in the Air [Review]

O in the AirFinding Beauty in the Foreground

A Review of

The O in the Air
Maryann Corbett

Paperback: Franciscan University Press, 2023
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Reviewed by Renee Emerson

Sometimes I feel like all religion is a search for order in the world. Maryann Corbett’s recent collection of poetry, The O in the Air, offers order to a disorderly world; or rather points out the order within the seemingly meaningless details of life.

I started reading Corbett’s poetry with her collection Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter and made my way through all of her work last summer. Less familiar with formal poetry, I was mesmerized by the meters of her work– the surprising yet inevitable conclusions of her poems. A free verse poet myself, I felt like someone who only sings folk songs listening to someone singing opera and totally nailing it.

The O in the Air opens with the poem “Backstory”; the epigraph references landscape paintings that keep the everyday in the foreground and the biblical story in the background. This poem is a fitting frame of reference for the entire book—not that the everyday actions and objects of life are more important than the larger questions of faith, but that those are the things we, as earthly creatures, see first. The sand at close-up, the construction zone, the history channel.

“Magnification” examines sand at 400 times its size, finding the gemstones that comprise the grit under our feet. “So brokenness, shivered from what it was, / reduced again, again, / till it seemed to us /not worth our focusing” Corbett’s poetry has an eye for the small, forgotten treasures under our feet.

“To the Anti-Librarian” is a poem of a scene I’ve witnessed and lived many times as a mom of five children—the rampaging toddler in the library, gleefully pulling books off the shelf into a “brightly patterned havoc.” The poem reads like a benediction, the poet witnessing the “small vandal” and blessing the chaos, noting the parents of that little one caused their own chaos in their day. “Change is the charge we’re wired for” the poet asserts, connecting the small destructions of a public library with the larger changes new generations bring to society.

Many of the poems in this collection look to Corbett’s family. “Knowledge” is a longer poem that struggles with the weight her mother carried over an unchosen and unchurch-sanctioned divorce experienced as a young woman, which barred her from communion until she was elderly. The poet is between generations and letting go of both—her parents released to death, and her children released to adulthood. In “October,” she bemoans the “beauty soon /bullied out of him” when her son noticed, at the age of ten, “it’s lovely out here.”

A Tennessee girl raised in the Bible belt, I kept drawing together the marriage of her Catholicism and formal sensibilities; liturgy, rhythm, and tradition are deeply connected to the spiritual in her book. Whereas in the country churches I was shuffled to growing up, we were more likely to have an impromptu testimony or sing verse four just ONE more time—and here I am, a free verse poet. Church traditions and poetry traditions can learn from each other, I believe, and I found myself learning much from yet another inspiring collection of poems by Maryann Corbett.

Renee Emerson

Renee Emerson is the author of the poetry collections Keeping Me Still (Winter Goose Publishing 2014), Threshing Floor (Jacar Press 2016), and Church Ladies (forthcoming, Fernwood Press 2023). She is also the author of the chapbook The Commonplace Misfortunes of Everyday Plants (Belle Point Press), and the middle grade novel Why Silas Miller Must Learn to Ride a Bike (Wintergoose Publishing 2022). She lives in the Midwest with her husband and children. Her website is www.renee-emerson.com

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