The Slow Climb to Heaven
Review of Vertical Bridges: Poems and Photographs of City Steps by Paola Corso
by Angele Ellis
Poet and fiction writer Paola Corso’s eighth book draws on history—public and personal, visual and verbal—to create a poetic tribute to step building and step climbing, human activities essentially practical (to travel from place to place, or to take exercise) as well as innately spiritual. If Corso’s journey, centered in her hometown of Pittsburgh but also expanding to encompass steps created around the world—is, in poet Joseph Bathanti’s words, “the slow climb to Heaven,” it is equally rooted in our suffering yet miraculous earth.
Corso and poet Andrew Edwards are co-creators of Steppin’ Stanzas, a project that uses various locations on Pittsburgh’s steps—more sets of steps than in any other city—as amphitheaters to perform art. “City steps are vertical bridges, and I want to cross them,” Corso said in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. “As connections in the landscape, connections we make with each other. That middle ground where we meet.” https://triblive.com/local/valley-news-dispatch/harrison-natives-book-encourages-readers-to-climb-to-new-heights/
Connection and landscape are among Corso’s great themes, displayed in the moody and evocative photographs in Vertical Bridges—both archival images and contemporary shots taken by Corso—as surely as they are evident in her prose poems and free verse about progenitors, trailblazers, quiet heroes, and accidental victims. In 1907’s “Men on Brady Street Steps,” the formally posed workmen and supervisors on a Pittsburgh hillside in the process of transformation contain echoes of Corso’s grandfather, a Sicilian stonemason who became a steel worker, and of her father, born in Calabria, who went to war, then to college, and then to a career as a school administrator. (Both men make vivid appearances in this book.) Corso’s closeup of a pitted and graffiti-tagged Pittsburgh step railing in winter—untitled, but paired with Rudolph Nureyev’s aphorism “Never look back. That way you fall downstairs”—seems to merge the viewer with its steep descending steps and snowbound landscape.
In “American Future,” an ekphrastic poem written in memory of her father (and translated side by side into Italian by Sabina Vannucci), Corso traces his literal and metaphorical steps from youth to age:
Snapshot of my father as a young man
standing at the top of hillside steps
wearing a double-breasted suit and tie,
pants creased, shoes polished, his back
to the steel mill of the valley behind him
Feet anchored on higher ground,
my father set his sights ahead— …
What was my Italian father thinking
as he faced his American future
double-breasted for the camera?
What he didn’t know, couldn’t know.
He turned his back on an immigrant past
but his cancer faced front.
Dead center front.
Dead center lungs.
“Its Golden Cast” links Corso’s grandfather’s history to the struggles facing her own teenaged son, adopted as a baby in Guatemala. On a long-ago family trip to Canada, the elder Corso, detained at the U.S. border, displays something more impressive than any identity card:
…The officer walks back
to my grandfather’s window and orders him to get out
of the car. My grandfather obliges and shows the officer
more than his empty pockets. He lifts his shirt and reveals
to this stranger what he has never shown his family—
a foot-long scar across his stomach from taking a bullet
in World War I as an American soldier serving his country,
a bullet that would pain him until his dying day.
The officer signals for my grandfather to get back in the car.
He waves him through. I give my son the bullet to hold
in his hand. He examines its golden cast, runs his fingers
along its smooth cylinder, shakes his cupped hand up
and down to feel its weight. The look in his eyes tells me
what he cannot say: this is what you dodge, why
you learn to take cover. This is your will to survive.
Several poems in Vertical Bridges transport the reader to steps beyond both Pittsburgh and the Corso family. “Love’s Ladder” and “Emergency” each relate stories of injustice, love, and sacrifice: one legendary, the other contemporary.
“Love’s Ladder” is the saga of Xu Chaoqing and Liu Guojiang (she a “shunned” woman ten years older than he), outcast from the Chinese village of Gaotan to a steep mountaintop. Their solitary life is stark yet beautiful:
…Grass and roots for food,
walnuts and dates,
fish caught, leaves
ground into flour,
a kerosene lamp for light,
two wooden stools,
and their embrace
to warm the chill of night.
Although the woman rarely ventures onto the six thousand steps to the mountaintop that the man spends a lifetime creating, “…Some say the times she did / were for her husband, // so the soles of her feet / would touch // every slab he carved / with loving hands.”
“Emergency” takes place in a near-present Chatsworth, Georgia, and is as brutally paced as a news bulletin. An unnamed “87-year-old Syrian woman” climbs down a set of stairs with a steak knife to cut dandelion greens for her husband’s salad:
What’s your emergency?
There’s a lady walking on the bike trails.
She has a knife and she won’t leave.
She doesn’t speak English.
Police arrive with drawn guns. They fail to connect with the woman through commands and hand gestures, and so resort to the terrible language of violence:
…Police tase her
dot red, stun red
sting red burning her skin
electric red, shock red
enough volts to stop her heart.
That night there’s one less knife
in the kitchen drawer.
Today’s American poet—of whatever heritage—must possess what John Keats defined as negative capability: “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” (Vertical Bridges includes a poem called “Negative Capability,” set in Germany’s Elbe Mountains.) But it is in the book’s title poem that Corso experiences a crucial revelation:
Bridge to cross.
Then came a day I looked up to the hills and saw
what’s between : steps.
Pittsburgh is a triangle, a confluence of rivers,
but my geometric view of the city began to take a
The perpendicular, where horizontal meets vertical.
City steps and steps in the city. People climbing them.