The first small poem of Mary Szybist’s first book ended with this remarkable statement: “there are some sadnesses / in which I do not long for God.” I find it remarkable because few contemporary poets admit to a Christian perspective, even if they carry its psychological imprint. Ten years after that book, Szybist published Incarnadine, her second book, and much to everyone’s surprise it won the National Book Award. Second books seldom win that prize, let alone books that have gestated for such a long time and have such a weighty concern with the old, big themes. The judges of that prize called Szybist’s “a religious book for nonbelievers.”
Every poem in Incarnadine is concerned with or shaped by the story of the Annunciation, the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary telling her that she will give birth to a King. That is, of course, the Virgin Mary and not Mary, the poet, although the poet takes pleasure in the confusion of names.
The Annunciation in this book is remembered not simply as it appears in Luke’s gospel, but as it appears over and over again in Renaissance art. Szybist also finds the sacred moment in the words of Nabokov and Bill Clinton investigator Ken Starr, in scientific writing about butterflies, even in political speeches by Robert Byrd and George W. Bush. It colors the way the poet hears two little girls doing a jigsaw puzzle and the way she reads a poem. In an interview, Szybist says, “Paintings of the Annunciation tend to reinforce a vision that a transformative encounter between two radically different kinds of being is possible.”
There is nothing easy or naive about the poet’s reflection on this moment. She starts a poem called “Holy” like this:
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.
My beautiful, moon-faced mother is sick
and you sleep in the dark edges of her shadow.
“Holy” ends up being a poem of elegant despair at her mother’s illness and imminent death. It ends: “Fragile mother, impossible spirit, will you fall so far / from me, will you leave me / to me?”
The spirit at the beginning, the one who would not help, is gone now, and the spirit that remains in the end is the fragile mother. That, the poet seems to imply, is what is really holy.
But there is still a transcendent vision in this remarkable book. In one poem Szybist writes, “I think I see annunciations everywhere.” And she begins another, “Update on Mary,” playing on her own simple name and its historic connection to the divine moment: “Mary always thinks that as soon as she gets a few more things done and finishes the dishes, she will open herself to God.” It is that possibility that makes this poet different and makes Szybist perhaps even one of the important poets of our time.
Mary Szybist reads from Incarnadine and other poems at UMMA on Thursday, January 12.