Maryann Corbett

Sympathy for the Devil

Minos, lower right of The Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel

On Michelangelo's great altar wall,
the newly cleaned Rinascimento nudes,
their drapes yanked now, are giggling at old prudes
like Biagio da Cesena. After all,
who but an artless ass would have the gall
so to insult the master whose black moods
could paint him in this demon-shape that broods,
ass-eared and snake-bound, at the mouth of hell?
Yet we poor, prurient gawkers prove him right.
He knows where human eyes will go, and what
resistless, ancient forces make them pause
as he stands glowering in the angry light
of naked vengeance--cleaned, so we can spot
his wilted member in the serpent's jaws.

Exhibition of the Terracotta Warriors

Their secret-keeping eyes half-close
not freed, quite, from a stiff repose
in which enchantment, centuries long,
they kept the tomb of Qin Shihuong.
Each model form weighs in on space,
a firmness cast in heavy clays,
template armor, hollow breast,
emptied aspect.
                            These served best
a king who sentenced books to burn
so that his subjects could not learn
the old religion.
thousands unstirred by thought, by will--

And yet. Their souls are not the same.
Some hand has stamped a personal name
at each skull's base.
                            See with what care
each brow-furrow, each plait of hair
is placed, as though the sculptor's knife
incised an individual life
in clay its emperor would enslave.
His empire cracked above his grave.
Changeless in their fidelity
they watch us roam the gallery.
We, in our fickleness, admire.
Rest now, soldiers tried by fire.


Maryann Corbett is the author of two chapbooks and three full-length collections of poetry, including Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter (Able Muse Press, 2013), and the recent Richard Wilbur Award-winning volume, Mid Evil. Her poems, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in Southwest Review, Barrow Street, 32 Poems, River Styx, Measure, PN Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, The Raintown Review, Verse Daily, American Life in Poetry, and many other venues. She is a past winner of The Lyric Memorial Award and the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize.


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