5.2 Poet Maryann Corbett takes us back to the beginning of "Knowledge"
A great many narratives, fictional and real, turn on the unexpected discovery of a document. I suppose that when such a discovery actually happened to me, even in the turmoil that brought the document to light, I recognized the event as a narrative crux, something that might tie together frayed ends in the story of myself.
I found my mother’s annulment papers almost as my poem describes, but a few more details may be helpful. In 2008, my sister died of cancer. She had been the one who lived near our very elderly mother; I lived a thousand miles away. My sister’s care had made it possible for Mom to live independently, and now that care was gone. We tried home help; it wasn’t enough. After several crises, it was clear Mom would have to move to assisted living. In the course of taking over her affairs and moving her belongings out of her apartment, I found her personal papers, and in them the details of a marital history that she had told me almost nothing about, but that explained a great deal.
Learning those details at that overwrought time—after decades of living far from my childhood home and of being happier away from it—forced me to analyze all over again our family’s discomforts, many of them caused by the secret-keeping the poem explains. But the ferocity of my resentment, once I had a particular villain to focus on, surprised me, and I needed to work out its reasons.
I didn’t write immediately. The stewing stage that many poems need went on for some months. I often begin poems simply by turning on the spigot of blank verse—I’ve talked about the process elsewhere and used the image more than once before—and that was what I finally did. My most important help with the poem came from two women poets, one a practicing Catholic (as I still am) and one a nonbeliever. I wanted to know how the poem came across to both.
Then I waited. I waited a year.
I waited, because I wasn’t sure the poem should be published at all while my mother was still with us, and she is. But she’s stopped reading even weekly newspapers and women’s magazines. Computers are beyond her. I believe no harm will be done.
It’s important to me that no harm be done. In particular, it’s important to me that the poem not be read as laying blame—not on my well-meaning parents, not on the starchy foreign-born Irish nuns who taught me, not on the Church as a whole. It’s tempting to believe, when one has been unhappy, that a wrong has been done, but my most important discovery in this process is that, after the first wrong move, most parties had no choices.
The story is what it is. It’s far from the first story of people’s struggles to live with the difficult words of Jesus, about marriage and other matters. My best tools for dealing with the pains caused by the Church are still the words of the Church, words addressed to God in the Eucharistic Prayer: In the midst of conflict and division, we know it is you who turn our minds to thoughts of peace.
Maryann Corbett's poem "Knowledge" appears in issue 5.2 of Relief.