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What We’re Reading: Incarnadine by Mary Szybist

2013 April 18

What We're Reading

Incarnadine coverTen years in the making, Mary Szybist’s second collection of poetry, Incarnadine (Graywolf Press, 2013), is a formally playful and carefully crafted book with a sense of wonder. Through a grace and a little humor, Szybist explores spirituality and intimacy in the quiet moments of life. What makes Incarnadine unique is the uncertainty and occasional darkness that complicate any faith. Szybist balances heady philosophy with a focus on the body, with an eye towards discovering new ways to be.

Szybist, a passionate and devout skeptic, uses the Annunciation to touch on themes as myriad as motherhood, violence, and aging. The Annunciation, the announcement by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive God’s child, takes on different meanings depending on the language used. “Annunciation in Nabokov and Starr” employs text from Nabokov’s Lolita and The Starr Report, blended with Szybist’s own text to tell the story. Szybist italicizes the borrowed text, but doesn’t specify the source of any particular phrase:

I simply can’t tell you how gentle, how calm she was

during her cooperation. In the windowless hallway,

I bent toward her.”

The themes of sexual abuse through power that are present in Nabokov’s text and The Starr Report color this reading of the Annunciation in a disquieting way, ominous in how hidden they are. This postmodern act of hybridity plants Incarnadine firmly in a contemporary world.

The weight of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement never overpowers the images in the poems, however, and, despite some postmodern moves, the language Szybist uses is lyrical and lush. The white lily (and white flowers in general), symbolizing the Virgin Mary’s purity, are present throughout, as in “Long After the Desert and Donkey (Gabriel to Mary):”

But you were not solid.

From the first moment, when you breathed

on my single lily, I saw

where you felt it.

Elsewhere in the book, even the grass is given voice:

How many moments did it hover before we felt


it was like nothing else, it was not bird


light as a mosquito, the aroma of walnut husks


while the girl’s knees pressed into us


every spear of us rising, sunlit and coarse


the wild bees murmuring through[…]

–Annunciation (from the grass beneath them)

The precise language Szybist uses creates a world that feels palpable through all of the senses. She draws the reader in until there is nothing left to do but meditate along with her. These poems stick with the reader long after the book has been closed.

The strength of Incarnadine as a collection is a result of the muscle of the individual poems. There is an almost dizzying array of forms collected here, each uniquely suited to the content of the poem. Some poems are fairly traditional, with mid-length lines, enjambed more often than end-stopped. Other poems are prosaic, with lines stretching across the wide page. One particularly spectacular poem, “How (Not) to Speak of God,” features eighteen lines arrayed in a starburst pattern with no beginning or ending. (You can read Szybist’s thoughts on visual poetry, as well as her poem and the inspiration here.) These varied forms give the impression that Szybist composes carefully, with an ear and an eye towards doing what is best for the poem.

Though Incarnadine is only Szybist’s second collection, it’s clear her poetic muscle is strong. As postmodern as some poems are, Szybist’s subjects are universal and timeless. Through lyrical language and disquieting hybridity, these poems draw the reader in and force them to rethink what they thought they knew. Even if a third collection takes another decade, there is enough to unpack and experience in this book to last until then.

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