Book Review: Incarnadine: Poems, by Mary Szybist
Posted on December 21, 2013
Publisher: Graywolf Press, Minneapolis 2013
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is so beautiful, in so many ways. Szybist is a new favourite poet of mine, now that I have just finished both this book of poems and Granted, her first published collection. These are modern contemplative pieces that are well introduced by the two quotes Sybist has included at the beginning:
The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation. — Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
Repose had again incarnadined her cheeks. — Thomas Hardy, Far From The Madding Crowd
How apt those quotes are, since in the poems, Szybist draws our rapt attention to the intersection of flesh and spirit, and the inevitable constellation of feelings born there: hope, longing, fear, dread, the breathless fluttering of hearts — the particulars depend upon who is meeting whom, of course.
The icon she has chosen as her central motif, around which the poems are wrapped smoothly as ribbons around a May pole, is the Annunciation. (The Annunciation, in brief: The angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary to announce to her that she has been blessed and favoured by God to bear Jesus, the Son of God, and that this will happen through the intervention of the Holy Ghost. For the full text, see the Holy Bible, KJV, Gospel of Luke, 1:26-38.) The most beautiful and famous visual depiction of this scene is Botticelli’s Annunciation, painted in 1608 and housed at the Uffizi, a reproduction of which graces the cover of this book.
Of course, in the Bible, Mary responds demurely and graciously to Gabriel’s announcement, accepting her role as handmaiden to God. But Szybist wonders what a woman in such a position might really be thinking. What didn’t she say? That book never got written. This deeply personal response to the ineffable and mysterious, which we encounter not only in the kingdom of Heaven but also here on Earth, is Szybist’s realm of exploration, and it’s a trip worth taking with her. It is helpful to have some supplies in your backpack, including knowledge or resources about art history (European, Christian, Middle Ages through Renaissance) and the Holy Bible (KJV). There are quite a few references to both.
Szybist’s style is quiet (except when it’s not) and subtle (mostly) and funny and tender and biting, and brimming with what I can only think to call a kind of perpetual yearning, but without clumsy pity or insincere remorse. She does not venture only into the religious mystical realm, but broadens her theme to include other encounters that fill us humans with equal parts awe and trepidation, wonder and terror, and always always longing to know more and to understand better.
I love The Lushness of It, which begins:
It’s not that the octopus wouldn’t love you —
not that it wouldn’t reach for you
with each of its tapering arms.
You’d be as good as anyone, I think,
to an octopus … (p. 64)
This poem is the last in the book. I was delighted to find myself arriving here, floundering in a wild sea and aching to be embraced by its tentacles, from such a lofty starting place, where Heaven and Earth overspill each other’s bounds and angels ascend and descend with alarming regularity.
I cannot say which poems are my favourites, since I liked every poem in this collection. Anyone who reads poetry knows that this is rare. Also, like many other fine poets I read and enjoy, I am absolutely sure I missed some of the subtler and finer things she was saying. Never mind. I plan to reread and reread this one, so I will notice more as I spend more time with these poems.
Here’s a brief quote from Knocking or Nothing, which is definitely a favourite (along with Here, There Are Blueberries), despite my not having favourites:
Knock me or nothing
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? … (p. 62)