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Review of Incarnadine by Mary Szybist

Graywolf Press, 2013
$10 paper

By James Crews

It’s been ten years since Mary Szybist’s first collection, Granted (2003), was published to much acclaim, and lucky for us, Szybist did not rush her next book of poems. Reading through her second collection, Incarnadine, published by Graywolf Press earlier this year, one gets the sense that she held onto each of these poems until they became as luminous and well-formed as a glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly—both of this world, and otherworldly at the same time. As a result, Incarnadine is easily one of the best books of the year.

The success of the collection rests not only in its cohesion and its flawless arrangement, but also in its quiet playfulness with form. Unlike a lot of poetry published these days in which laziness parades as experiment and risk, Szybist’s work actually rewards with each subsequent reading, and even her most difficult poems remain accessible because they engage more universal concerns: Representations of the Virgin Mary and the Annunciation, for instance, as well as the speaker’s daily encounters with love, spirituality, and grief.

Szybist’s is a language balanced between simplicity and what I can only call a compelling strangeness; each turn of phrase startles and feels earned through the clear attention she has paid to every line of these poems. And throughout Incarnadine (meaning “blood-red,” or “flesh-colored”), we feel this poet combing through every bit of received language in order to make better sense of the myths (especially from the Bible), which have been handed down to us in Western culture. In “Annunciation in Nabokov and Starr,” for instance, Szybist uses quotes from Lolita and The Starr Report to invoke the voice of the angel Gabriel, who announced to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive Jesus:

There was something soft and moist about her,
a dare, a rage, an intolerable tenderness.

How could I have known
what the sky would do? It was awful to watch
its bright shapes churn and zero
through her . . .

Szybist captures here and elsewhere the charged, sexual moment of spiritual awareness, and the way this poet manages to speak of God and the numinous without a hint of facile sentiment is nothing less than masterly. Yet whether or not Incarnadine, in spite of its subject matter, can be called a “spiritual book” is an open question. In “Conversion Figure,” the speaker describes another such moment of profound change, seemingly within herself:

Out of God’s mouth I fell
like a piece of ripe fruit
toward your deepening shadow.

Girl on the lawn without sleeves, bare even of lotion,
time now to strip away everything
you try to think about yourself.

It is this “stripping away” of fantasy and false faith that Szybist enacts throughout this book, which brims with doubt and honest confusion, most apparent in the prose poem, “Update on Mary.” The speaker here seems to be the poet herself (the other “Mary” in this collection), as she makes various attempts to engage with faith:

Mary always thinks that as soon as she gets a few more things done and finishes the dishes, she will open herself to God.

At the gym Mary watches shows about how she should dress herself, so each morning she tries on several combinations of skirts and heels before retreating to waterproof boots. This takes a long time, so Mary is busy.

This poem, somehow both funny and serious, captures the difficulty of embracing a spiritual practice in the midst of an otherwise comfortable, unhurried life. As the speaker says later in “Update”: “If she let herself, she’d stare at the sky all day.” But perhaps Szybist also implies here that one need not go to great lengths to “open herself to God”; maybe this “staring at the sky” is as close as most of us will get to spiritual awakening, which is (more often than not) merely the ability to abandon the busyness of our lives and abide with the self in stillness and silence.

One of the standout pieces in this collection is “How (Not) to Speak of God,” a shape poem that appears in the form of a sunburst with a blank circle at its center, each of its lines reaching out to the edge of the page. Here is a sample, though one must read the whole poem to experience its several astounding levels of complexity as Szybist muses on the presence of God:

who knows us in our burnished windshields as we pass
who remembers the honey-colored husks of the locust
who knows the scent of dust, the scent of each sparrow

Although each of these lines attempts to describe God, her title suggests that any words we use to speak of such a presence will inevitably fail, and will end up saying more about humans than about the numinous. The strategy here also proves brilliant because she asks readers to think beyond what we believe a poem must be (lines read left to right, with a clear beginning and end). In fact, in order to read “How (Not) to Speak of God,” we must physically turn the book in a circle: we cannot simply read and take in her words in the usual way.

Incarnadine also gives us a poem in the form of a diagrammed sentence, and a wonderfully effective and touching abecedarian piece, “Girls Overheard While Assembling a Puzzle.” As is the norm with Szybist’s work, content ultimately drives form as, reading this poem, we feel that we are actually eavesdropping on these two girls chatting as they “assemble” yet another image of the Annunciation:

. . . Where does this gold
go? It’s like the angel’s giving
her a piece of honeycomb to eat.
I don’t see why God doesn’t
just come down and
kiss her himself. This is the red of that
lipstick we saw at the
mall . . .

Even a playful poem like this points to one of the central confusions of the collection: If there is a God, why would He make it so difficult for us to touch Him? Why make us sift through the endless representations and symbols? Why not “just come down” and reveal Himself? By filtering this question through these two girls, and by juxtaposing this question with the mention of the “lipstick we saw at the/mall,” Szybist again avoids directly asking questions about God and refuses to offer the answers she does not have.

For all the risks Szybist’s poems take, the quietest, most traditional piece in the book, “Holy,” is also the most powerful. In this poem, as the speaker faces her mother’s illness, she finds herself mercilessly interrogating her own faith. As “Holy” progresses, the speaker sits in the hospital, waiting for her mother’s death and wanting help in any form in which it might appear:

Spirit who knows me, I do not feel you
fall so far in me,

do not feel you turn in my dark center.

My mother is sick, and you
cannot help her.

This is stripped-down music wrung out of grief and doubt. The speaker wants to believe, wants the easy faith that might relieve the anguish of mortality, even if only temporarily. The weight of all of Szybist’s work derives from her ability to tap into those private spaces in the mind and to speak to us with complete honesty. What often results in Incarnadine is a desperate invocation of “God” or “spirit” to which we become both transfixed witnesses and willing accomplices. This poet knows it is only through struggle and loss that we are able to know ourselves and—to the extent it’s possible—touch something much larger, beyond ourselves. In “Holy,” the speaker asks:

Ghost, what am I
if I lose the one
who’s always known me?

Spirit, know me.

Like language, Szybist implies, human relationships—given their impermanence—also tend to fail us. They become habitual, quotidian, and like any sense of faith, we can rather easily begin to take them for granted. She nonetheless ends the collection with a series of moving love poems that again resist all sentimentality and typical notions of romance. In each of these pieces, the speaker seems to embrace the plainness and everydayness of earthly love—a stance that contrasts the earlier, far more dramatic scenes of annunciation and conversion. In “To You Again,” she writes:

are ordinary.

Still, how many afternoons have I spent
peeling blue paint from

our porch steps, peering above
hedgerows, the few parked cars for the first

glimpse of you.

One senses that Mary Szybist, like only the most exacting artists, spends a good deal of her time waiting for the right images and words to come, to shape themselves into poems. Though she offers no easy answers (and no real answers at all) when it comes to questions of faith or our more “ordinary” human love, Incarnadine is all the more enjoyable for this withholding, which amounts to an utter lack of pretense. Szybist gives us poems that wrestle with the same mysteries and contradictions we all face on a daily basis, doing our best, and often failing, to make sense of them. Somehow, she has managed to make lasting art of our human failings; she has turned our sometimes humorous, sometimes serious engagements with confusion into a beautiful, grace-filled book that was more than worth the wait.