Friday, December 27, 2013

Incarnadine by Mary Szybist: A Poetry Book Recommendation

So already, I write today to recommend Mary Szybist's National Book Award-winning collection of poetry, Incarnadine.  I first learned of this book through John Freeman's Boston Globe review of it and immediately added it to my holiday wish list.  The back of the book, in my opinion, gets it just right:

"Mary Szybist’s richly imagined encounters offer intimate spaces and stagings for experiences that are exploratory and sometimes explosive. Through the lens of an iconic moment, the Annunciation of an unsettling angel to a bodily young woman, Szybist describes the confusion and even terror of moments in which our longing for the spiritual may also be a longing for what is most fundamentally alien to us. In a world where we are so often asked to choose sides, to believe or not believe, to embrace or reject, Incarnadine offers lyrical and brilliantly inventive alternatives."

Viewed in terms of its dominant biblical motif, this book of poems invites us to imagine from so many viewpoints not only the encounter between Mary and Gabriel, but also the experience of Mary as she both anticipates and actually experiences the moment when "the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee."   But "invites" might not be nearly a strong enough word for what this book does:  through its varied forms; its allusions to and meditations on events, individuals, and groups past and present; and its use of imagery and perspective to create paradoxical voices and states of being, it just plain yanks us into the center of those extraordinary moments -- and other moments that disturb us and don't let go.

Check out these lines from "Knocking or Nothing":

     Knock me or nothing, the things of this world
     ring in me, shrill-gorged and shrewish,

     clicking their charms and their chains and their spouts.
     Let them.  Let the fans whirr.

     All the similar virgins must have emptied
     their flimsy pockets, and I
     was empty enough, 
     sugared and stretched on the unmown lawn,

     dumb as the frost-pink tongues
     of the unpruned roses.

     When you put your arms around me in that moment,    
     when you pulled me to you and leaned

     back, when you lifted me
     just a few inches, when you shook me

     hard then, had you ever heard
     such emptiness? (Szybist 62)**

Szybist's Mary is hardly meek and mild, hardly blandly submissive.  She's got edge, intelligence, and curiosity. I don't think I ever took the time to imagine the different tones of voice the biblical Mary might have used when she responded to Gabriel's announcement, "troubled at his saying," with her very sensible question, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?" Though she's relatively quick in the moments following to identify herself  as "the handmaid of the Lord," she's already thinking "how me" if not "why me." In Szybist's poem, she gets to to the "why me" -- and sounds hardly elated as she ponders the question.

As a former "Bible as Literature" teacher, I've always been fascinated by Mary -- and all of the biblical "go-to girls," the ones who move religious history forward and who, in my opinion, are chosen for their roles quite deliberately.  I've always loved that it's in the context of the woman-to-woman encounter of Mary and Elizabeth that Mary pours out her feelings and faith in the Magnificat, a prayer that is so significant to Christians and so Jewish in form, imagery, and spirit.  In 1994, when I visited the Church of the Dormition in Jerusalem, I was so pleased to see six very important earlier biblical women -- Eve, Miriam, Jael, Judith, Ruth and Esther -- hovering above the life-sized statue of the "sleeping-in-death" Mary, courtesy of the mosaic-tiled domed ceiling above her.*** 

But don't be misled by how excited I can get about the connections between biblical texts and IncarnadineSzybist's focus on "annunciation" does not matter most as an amplification or interpretation of the biblical narrative. If Szybist's poetry, in the fashion of midrash, fills in scriptural blanks, it does so in order to move us, her readers, beyond the doctrinal, decreed, and narratively recognized and accepted to a more immediate, personal experience of the problems and possibilities of spirit and meaning in our own lives. The power of Incarnadine resides in the respectful yet inventive way Szybist makes use of an imagination-and-faith-stretching biblical moment as a stimulus for exploring, understanding, and perhaps even accepting her own spiritual emptiness and fullness, and, by extension, for motivating us to strive to encounter our own. 

But as I think of it, perhaps she wields that biblical story more as a catapult than a stimulus. We've entered a falling rock zone in Incarnadine: despite her craft and control, the steadiness of her beautiful language, the rocks hurling themselves onto our path are real, so we must pay attention to them. In "Entrances and Exits," the poet is examining a book of paintings in her office when the news of the day -- the rescue of an older woman who had been missing in the wilderness for two weeks and the death of Pavarotti -- collides with the unexpected visit of a friend's six-year-old daughter on the prowl for snacks.  These random events intertwine to inform the poet's response to Duccio's Annunciation.****  There is other news of the day at the heart of "So-and-So Descending from the Bridge"; you can listen to Szybist read it by watching the bottom video embedded in the National Book Award web site. Prepare to be haunted.

And so I leave you with a paragraph-stanza from one of the book's few prose poems, entitled "Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary":

     It's not enough to say the heart wants what it wants.  I think of the ravine, the 
     side dark with pines were we lounged through summer days, waiting for 
     something to happen; and of the nights, walking the long way home, the 
     stars so close they seemed to crown us.  Once, I asked for your favorite 
     feeling. You said hunger. It felt true then. It was as if we took the bit and bridle 
     from our mouths.  From that moment I told myself it was the not yet that I 
     wanted, the moving, the toward -- (Szybist 22)

If you read this book, listen to Mary Szybist read her poems, or read any of her poems in other places that they're published, I would love to hear your thoughts. 

*Szybist includes the text of Luke in her notes so we know that the King James version of Luke plays a major role in her thinking and writing.  I am writing about Mary's experience in the present rather than the past tense because I'm dealing with it more as an experience in religious literature than in religious history; no offense intended to those who view it as history.
** Szybist, Mary. Incarnadine. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2013. Print. 
*** Interesting that none of the matriarchs -- Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel -- make it onto the dome ceiling; interesting that most of the six portrayed are for all intents and purposes woman warriors who actively defend Israel against enemies that would destroy it.  The photo web address is <>.

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