From the author of Granted (2003), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, we get the long-awaited second collection of poems from Mary Szybist, Incarnadine, via Graywolf Press. This crimson exploration of spirituality and identity takes us on a journey through the thoughts of a troubled soul. Szybist’s poems are clever and written as if in conversation with a close friend. Her brilliant play on her own name, Mary, and the Virgin Mary brings the Biblical Annunciation into a new light – a contemporary context. As Szybist guides us through her very real scenarios brimming with reoccurring themes of motherhood, religion, love and aging, we embark on a pilgrimage – a search for common ground in our relationship with God and ourselves. She casually takes us to the place where spirituality hinges on self-identity.
From the painting on through the end of the book, Szybist constantly references the Annunciation from the Bible. She has many poems written as annunciations. She puts it best in an epistolary poem (styled like a letter), “To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary,” where she claims, “I think I see annunciations everywhere: blackbirds fall out of the sky, trees lift their feathery branches.” She spins a sexually-charged annunciation using language from the Starr Report and Nabokov’s Lolita in “Annunciation in Nabokov and Starr” where Mary has “something soft and moist about her,/a dare, a rage, and intolerable tenderness.” Later, in “Annunciation in Play,” Szybist describes a scene in which a girl reluctantly loses her innocence to “his expert touch.” The poem can be read as both a loss of innocence of the Virgin Mary to Gabriel or any young girl, which allows it to hit a little more at home with the readers. Szybist even takes the original Biblical Annunciation and subjects it to erasure in “Annunciation under Erasure.” Her clever exclusions create a “Lord [who] is troubled in mind,” and the ominous Gabriel warns Mary, “the Holy will overshadow you/therefore/be nothing/be impossible.”
Szybist is no stranger to form. Through her journey of self-actualization, she glides through a range of experimental and traditional forms that will surely satisfy anyone’s particular tastes. Szybist takes a snippet of conversation between a group of girls assembling a puzzle picturing the Annunciation and turns it into an abecedarian poem. Later she employs the form of a villanelle to lend a musicality to a despairing poem depicting the story of a girl who, “Blind, lobotomized, she waits for you.” Furthermore, “How (Not) to Speak of God” is a poem in the shape of a sunburst with lines sprouting from a central circle. Her shift in form keeps us on our toes as we follow her through each carefully thought out situation. We remain entertained and challenged through the very emotional and troubling topics she brings to light.
In the poems, Mary is a strong woman longing “to be changed,” and questioning everything and everyone trying to change her. The ease to which Szybist is able to successfully rewrite the Biblical Annunciation around a dozen times illustrates her poetic virtuosity. She grounds spirituality in the everyday, and encourages the reader to look into themselves rather than the heavens.