Mary Szybist, a Pennsylvania-born-and-raised and, now, Portland-based poet, won a National Book Award a couple days ago. This was for her second collection of poems, ‘Incarnadine‘. According to judge Kay Ryan:
…. Szybist’s lovely musical touch is light and exact enough to catch the weight and grind of love. This is a hard paradox to master as she does.
Mary Szybist’s richly imagined encounters offer intimate spaces and stagings for experiences that are exploratory and sometimes explosive. Through the lens of an iconic moment, the Annunciation of an unsettling angel to a bodily young woman, Szybist describes the confusion and even terror of moments in which our longing for the spiritual may also be a longing for what is most fundamentally alien to us. In a world where we are so often asked to choose sides, to believe or not believe, to embrace or reject, Incarnadine offers lyrical and brilliantly inventive alternatives.
This is the first that I’ve read Szybist’s work, I think, and her use of language to express what most of us cannot even think through clearly has been a searing discovery. I can see why it would take ten years to complete this second collection. There is so much depth, layering, lushness and beauty here. Every poem is like a smooth, polished stone of substantial matter over which those years must have flowed like a boundless river, leaving such reflective surfaces that we cannot but see ourselves more starkly and startlingly in them.
In describing how she approaches the creating of her poems, when she received an NEA grant in 2009, this is what she said:
As I have worked on my current manuscript over the last few years, I have cycled through periods of faith and doubt, both about the poems and the project as a whole. To have my work selected for this distinction is a gift of validation and a boost of adrenaline to my writing process. I have always done my best work in long, uninterrupted spaces where I can listen, really listen, to the line I have just written; it is in stretches of silence that I can hear what comes next. This fellowship is a gift of time and space that will allow me to attend to poems with more vigor and concentration, and my best efforts will go toward writing poems that are worthy of this support. I am very grateful to the NEA for this grant.
In an interview with the National Book Foundation, Szybist described her fascination with the Annunciation, the scene that almost every poem describes through various encounters between mythical and/or real people and objects in classical and contemporary settings:
The scene to which Incarnadine continually returns—the Annunciation—has long been a site of ‘fine invention,’ especially in the hands of artists like Simone Martini and Sandro Botticelli; it portrays a human encountering something not human; it suggests that it is possible for us to perceive and communicate with something or someone not like us. That is part of what I find most moving about the scene: how it plays out the faith, the belief that that can happen—and can change us.
What artists like FraAngelico realized in paint, I wished to realize in words. By creating disjunctions that swerve between the carnal and the sacred, the mythic and the quotidian, I aim to create spaces receptive to heterogeneity and difference.
In another interview with the University of Virginia (where she studied poetry), she explained further where the theme of Annunciation came from:
It came to me in Florence. In a city overwhelmed by great paintings, I found myself returning to a few annunciation images: paintings by Fra Angelico, Simone Martini, Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci. I had grown up looking at images of this scene in the stained glass windows of my family’s church (“The Church of the Annunciation”), but I had never seen these paintings before other than in copies and reproductions; I was spellbound. I loved the vision of a human genuinely encountering something not human. I also loved what seemed to give the vision veracity: the space between the figures. The charged space between them began to seem like the primary subject. I started imagining how these images might have power for our current time, how they still might be used even for secular meditation.
It was hard to pick a single poem from the rich feast of poems she has created in her two collections. This particular one, an angel falling from the sky toward a girl below is not necessarily her most striking one, but, for today, it perfectly bridges those blind and hungry distances between speech and song, intellect and emotion, light and dark and faith and fear (as only poems can).
The poem, Conversion Figure, describes the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she will conceive and give birth to Jesus. But, it is set in a contemporary, alternative scene that gives us a new and imaginative way of contemplating what is one of the most intensely religious aspects of the Christian faith. In certain stanzas, as if the self is conversing with the self – where the descending angel and the earthy girl are one and the same consciousness.
Narrated by the angel to the girl on earth, it starts with the descent from the heavens. From the very first lines, that immediate action of the angel falling toward the girl creates a direct, purposeful connection between them. And, while the word “time” creates a sense of anticipation, the word “tremulous” in describing her face quickly tells us that there is more foreboding than joy in this anticipation – a foreboding that fulfills its promise in the last few lines of the poem, as we will soon see.
That this coming together of the angel and the earthly girl is not likely to be a happy occasion becomes even more evident in the second verse. The angel describes the skies he is falling through with jarring and dissonant images of shattering stars and sticky clouds – as if the skies themselves are both resisting his descent as well as trying to hold him back. The stark observation that there is no accompanying confetti shows us his own disappointment.
In the next verse, the picture below is more in focus, clearer, to the angel, so we know that he’s much closer now. And, the earthly scene that he describes appears to be one of celebration and lightness – with bright colors, party umbrellas, “daisied lawns”. So, it seems, that his arrival is not only feared, but it has not been expected.
After all this, we finally get a picture of the girl from the angel’s lofty perspective. In describing how she looks in that celebratory scene below, he says she’s almost like an “afterthought, something lightly brushed in”. As if she is incidental to God’s great plans and the life-changing news that he is bringing for her. We also get two very specific images. First, there are the plates of cupcakes, aligning with the previous party-related images. And, the second image is of play, where the girl’s “rosy hems swirled round your dark head”. A child, blissful and carefree.
The poem then takes a sharp turn in the next few lines. The angel repeats the use of the word “fell”, which brings to mind the phrase “fallen angel” and all that it connotes. Our angel now tells us about his shift in target – from the girl’s face in those first couple of lines to “the pulse in your thighs”. This is quite a jolting image, made even more so by the description of her pink slip and exposed knees. When he goes on to say that he fell from God’s mouth like a ripe fruit, “toward her deepening shadow”, there can be no mistaking the sexual allusions. I haven’t quite made up my mind on how far Szybist wants the reader to take these few sexually-suggestive lines. Regardless, it is confirmed that the angel sees her, now, no longer the innocent girl-child, but a sexual object.
And, now, the angel addresses her more directly. He tells her that it is “time now to strip away everything you try to think about yourself”. In certain reviews (see links below), it is mentioned that this is also the poet, Szybist, speaking to herself – telling herself that she must look at herself and her world anew. I find the choice of words interesting – to “strip away” is also to unbare. So, the angel here is instructing the girl to leave herself bare as a vessel. It isn’t about looking at herself anew, but of emptying herself entirely. The angel’s instructions after this statement are about putting aside her dog and the cakes – her playthings. Almost saying, as it is said elsewhere in the Bible, “put aside your childish things”.
The last eight lines of this poem get stronger as the angel questions and berates the girl for her past sinful behaviors. Like a scolding father figure, he tells her to lift up her shame-bowed head. And, now, that sense of time we had at the beginning is fully-realized in the last bit where the word “time” is repeated more definitively as below and the instructions are about giving up being a happy, slender child to become a woman of the world, who will, through giving birth to Jesus, be creating her own sorrow.
Lift up your head.
Time to enter yourself.
Time to make your own sorrow.
Time to unbrighten and discard
even your slenderness.
Links to various poems online: