Apr 4, 2014

MARY SZYBIST--"Incarnadine"--Reviewed by MARGENTO

Initially published here

Mary Szybist--Incarnadine--Mysticism by Means of Poetic Experimentation, the Worldly, and the Other

The recurrent motif impressively and proteanly reprised and refashioned by Mary Szybist in Incarnadine is the one of the Annunciation.  And one of the most unique “Annunciation” scenes is staged as “from the grass beneath them,” which not so much means that the ‘announcement’ is made by the grass, but that, unlikely as it may sound, the voice in the poem is the voice of the grass.  The grass beneath “them” who?—and them doing what?  What seems to be sure is that it is the grass beneath a possible (‘deconstructed’?) scene of the annunciation, or more precisely, under a “girl” with her “knees pressed into us”—us?, us the blades of grass—while an ineffable “it” hovers above and descends in a both powerful and flighty manner, barely “skimming the tips” of the grass but still cool form the clouds and making the air “itchy.”  Whether “it” be the spirit descending, orgasm and/or impregnation (by a man, since the fact that “the shadow her chin made/ never touched but reached just past/ the crushed mint” may speak of a rather ‘unholy’ position), or the baby being conceived, this is still not the annunciation, but the ‘consummation’ of what has been announced, the act itself.

“[We] held ourselves tight/ when it skimmed just the tips of our blades” says the unusual plural speaker, “it” being the wind of the spirit. And “holding tight” may be read there as pulling ranks, a possible emphasis on a symbolic community reinforced by the Whitmanesque motif with its both erotic and funeral connotations; plus the reference to the bard’s poetics of the earthly as the same as/ultimately fused with the beyond.  But Szybist’s is a community of poems rather than one of characters or personae, with mainly a variety—or, better, variations—of form, style, and angles on a certain theme in diverse contexts.  Charles Altieri in his blurb, after speaking of the nothing out of which presence comes and the “self’s reality,” confesses to feeling “at times that I am witnessing a rebirth of the lyric.”  What a wonderful compliment, but what the famous critic does not mention is that the context in which he witnesses the lyric’s rebirth is every now and then a substantially experimental one.  And indeed, Szybist has this rare capacity of professing a fervent lyricism along with (and in the most felicitous cases, when the recipe is not more obvious than the meal itself, precisely by means of) an impressive range of styles, forms, and approaches.

These things are actually shrewdly and sort of programmatically enmeshed together in the opening poem, “The Troubadours Etc.,” the title of which can be of course read as an expression of post-postmodern ennui, but also literally, the troubadours and the rest of other such… poets and poetries fusing the deeply lyrical/confessional/sentimental with form, experiment, and song or declamation.  The very first line actually encourages this latter reading rather than the former, as it tries to cast irony away —albeit temporarily and merely in a funny way: “Just for this evening, let’s not mock them./ Not their curtsies or cross-garters…”

And then the poem lithely veers to the landscape and, under the guise of journey notations digresses from ecological and farm animal treatment concerns to the clouds of blue and the messenger pigeons,

Before us, above us, the clouds swell, layers of them,
the violet underneath of clouds.
Every idea I have is nostalgia.  Look up:
there is the sky that passenger pigeons darkened and filled—
darkened for days, eclipsing sun, eclipsing all other sound…

images that ultimately lead (in actually quite a traditional troubadour fashion, although of course in a different diction and form) to the speaker’s innermost feelings and deepest ‘anima’, still seen as shared with the other(s)—“And when we stop we’ll follow—what?/ Our hearts?” (author’s emphasis)

Szybist elegantly circumscribes in this poem the three main themes of the book: (experimenting with) poetic tradition, the (eco and/or city)scape, and the paradoxes of (encountering/approaching/describing/translating) the other.  For the latter, the overture comes at the end of “The Troubadours Etc.”—“…won’t you put me before you/ until I’m far enough away you can/ believe in me?// Then try and come closer—”

And the key metaphor for all these three themes is, as already stated above, the Annunciation, but an “incarnadine” one, that is, strongly colored by fiery emotions, and celebrated in the flesh only.  Yet in the flesh not in the sense of utter denial of the transcendent, but as the mainly if not the only way to have access to, or rather, as in the recurrently dislocated biblical scene, to receive the transcendent.

In one of the best poems (and also one of the most accomplished in terms of expressing the main concerns) in the collection, “Hail,” Szybist alternates couplets (in a book of great variety, the most frequent stanzaic pattern, maybe due to its psalmic connotations and elegiac resonance) with stand-alone lines, just as the speaker herself seems to shift from the voice of Gabriel to the one of the tapestry weaver depicting the scene to that of ‘the’ poet—“I sleep to the sound// of your name, I say there is no Mary/ except the word Mary, no trace…” is strongly allusive of Stevens’s “there is no life except in the word of it”—and finally to that of the poem as such.  The latter, containing, just like the introductory poem, masterful and relevant enjambments, testifies to its own completion and contradictory nature at the same time, perpetual and temporal/temporary, constant and in motion, a “momentary stay” finally engulfed again if not by confusion then by silence, even if meant to render an enduring image and voice: “…Mary, I am still/ for you, I am still a numbness for you.”

But Szybist’s poetry is actually never still.  “How (Not) To Speak of God” is a concrete poem in which the lines are arranged as the spokes radiating from a void hub, a solar symbol maybe that is frequent in so many cultures.  The first word in all of these lines and therefore the closest to the center is “who” (twice in the modified form, “whose”) an emphasis maybe on the personal God of the annunciation and Christianity in general, but also a smart way of embedding ambivalence in the poem—just as the title, these lines can be read both as assertive descriptions as well as questions.  But beyond such negotiations of meaning, there is a genuine fervor that really irradiates through both the diction and the design—“who should be extolled with our sugar tongues/ […]/ who saw the world incarnadined, the current flowing/ whose face is electrified by its own light…”

The author of such concrete poetry who also included a poem arranged as a syntactic tree diagram, erasure poems, found poems, poems composed of intertwined citations, ekphrases (not only of paintings but of family snapshots as well), later on in the book also authors a sonnet, “Annunciation: Eve to Ave,” whose stanzaic configuration and the rhyming scheme observed in the first quatrain are Petrarchan, but which, once reaching its volta, goes beautifully crazy, as a Mary subtly merged with Eve machineguns her amazement at the mystery of the holy experience to a hip-hop beat, playful, impudent, not forgetful of the power games informing not only (a woman’s) life but soteriology as well:

“And when I learnt that he was not a man—
bullwhip, horsewhip, unzip, I could have crawled
through thorn and bee, the thick of hive, rosehip,
courtship, lordship, gossip and lavender.”

On the facing page, in a totally different tone, a speaker (a possible far relative of Martha the sister of another Mary in the Gospels) overhears the annunciation from her kitchen; the angel is now a director shooting the scene for a movie since—“Mary, step back from the camera”—is what the speaker overhears while washing some pears in the sink.  The poetically ineffable is masterfully juxtaposed with a both subtle and overwhelming mystical experience, urbanized nature, contemporary family life, and their inevitable mediation by media.  But above all, this is the unforgettable music of the inclusive, lay and sacred chants poetry can now freely intone in the verse of the world’s most gifted young poets, mystical in the starkest bodily way, inexhaustibly experimental since relentlessly open to the other:

There were faint sounds
like walnuts being dropped by crows onto the street,
almost a brush
of windchime from the porch—

Windows around me evgerywhere half-open—

My skin alive with the pitch.


[Mary Szybist. Incarnadine. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2013]

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