Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine

large_imageI would like to start off by saying that I highly recommend Mary Szybist’s second collection, Incarnadine, to any lover of poetry. I admit that I do tend to be one of those people who enjoy whatever I’m reading, but I honestly believe that this book has the capabilities to appeal to a variety of readers, not to mention the fact that it was a 2013 National Book Award winner. The poems are extremely diverse to the point that it is surprising that they work well together as a collection, but they do. The most obvious way in which they differ is in format. The poems come in prose form and blank verse, wide and skinny, long and short. There is one poem presented in a sentence diagram, and there is a circular poem that resembles a sun, in which the lines go outward from the center of the page. The poems also differ widely in content, though most of them explore the same topic, annunciation, in some form or other. There is an annunciation from blades of grass to a little girl, an annunciation about a Right Whale being attacked by Sea Gulls, annunciations from people to spirits, spirits to people, and, of course, the center piece of that exploration is the annunciation of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. But even this topic feels very modern and relevant. The result of these explorations are moments of beautiful clarity that portray a desire for contact or comfort, a desire to be sure of things that cannot be supported by evidence.

Here are some excerpts from a few of my favorite poems in Incarnadine. The first is from the poem “Update on Mary:”

Someday Mary would like to think about herself, but she’s not yet sure what it means to think, and she’s even more confused about herself.

It is not uncommon to find Mary falling asleep on her yoga mat when she has barely begun to stretch.

Mary Sometimes closes her eyes and tried to imagine herself as a door swung open. But it is easier to imagine pink macaroons—

This poem stuck out in my mind as a vital part of the collection primarily because it draws a parallel between the character in the poem, Mary (perhaps the poet), and Mary, the mother of Christ. The Mary in this poem admits to thinking of the Virgin Mary when she hears her own name, and her implied connection to Virgin Mary seems to have implications on how she sees herself. Mary imagining “herself as a door swung open” suggests a desire to be open to the workings of God, though this idea is so vague and difficult to picture, Mary resorts to thinking of macaroons instead.

The next excerpt I’d like to share is from “To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary,” another prose poem:

I am looking at the postcard of Anunciación, the one you sent from Córdoba in the spring. I taped it to the refrigerator next to the grocery list because I wanted to think of you, and because I liked its promise: a world where a girl has only to say yes and heaven opens. But now all I see is a bright innertube pillow behind her head. All I see is a girl being crushed inside a halo that does not save her.

This is what it’s like to be alive without you here: some fall out of the world. I fall back into what I was. Days go by when I do nothing but underline the damp edge of myself.

What I want is what I’ve always wanted. What I want is to be changed.

Similarly to the previous poem, this poem also draws a parallel between the characters in the poem, Mary and Gabriela, to the Virgin Mary and angel Gabriel. In this poem, Mary seems to need an annunciation from Gabriela, a friend living far away, who she depends upon for verification that something can still happen, that the world is still full of the possibilities they imagined as girls. To me, this poem raises the question, what is Mary without the annunciation? Quite possibly, she is just another woman.

I love that poem’s directness. It is a quality that resurfaces various times throughout the collection, expressing moments in which the speaker reaches out most vulnerably for affirmation or comfort, and I started to savor them more and more as I went along.

I have not done this collection justice in exemplifying the variety that I mentioned at the beginning of my review–that can only be observed by cracking it open yourself–but I hope I have shown some of the books resonance.

Incarnadine is available from Graywolf Press

Ellie Francis Douglass was born and raised in Texas. She studied English Literature at St. Edward’s University, where she studied under the poet Carrie Fountain. She is now getting her Masters in Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

The Year of What Now by Brian Russell

9781555976484I first approached Brian Russell’s debut collection The Year of What Now with equal parts excitement and trepidation. Winner of the 2012 Katherine Bakeless Nason Prize for Poetry, these poems ask the reader to confront the terrifying prospects of cancer, to stand at the speaker’s wife’s hospital bed and “kiss the fevered foreheads of the damned.” However, the “damned” are not alone, as Russell is quick to note, “… we are each our own culture/ alive with the virus that’s waiting to unmake us” (“The Year of What Now”).

This principle of entropy is central to the collection’s philosophy and at times borders on bleak positivism as in this passage from the ironically titled “The Higher Order:”

remarkable absolutely remarkable
the life cycles of some
parasites the brain the so called
crowning achievement of nature
they use it against us for instance
the single cell beings that find
their way into rats into their brains
their instincts and erase
their fear of cats in fact
the smell attracts them it’s sickening
the inefficiency of it and hard for us
to understand ….

“All of us” means all of us: men, women, children, pets, the flowers that adorn our last days, down to the “smallest form of life/on earth” that in our unmaking “mindlessly thrives.” Reversing the Classical notion of a “Great Chain of Being” (scala naturae) in which all things in the universe are hierarchically ordered from God at the apex of creation, to man, to the beasts he holds in dominion, Russell presses us to abandon our romantic mythologies and consider a world indifferent to suffering at best, and one which eerily excels at it inflicting it. Survival becomes a matter of lottery,

… a testament
… to the faith in the impulsive
unknown who seemed to revel in choosing

you but not you
you but not you

and as the reader moves through the collection’s four parts, the narrative of survival shifts from the failing health of the speaker’s wife, to the deterioration of their marriage, and finally to the collapse of the tribal bonds that hold us together as communities and nations.

It’s these shifts in the currents of loss that lend Russell’s poems a well earned tragic profundity. For rather than relying on the pathos of the terminally ill, the reader is challenged to see life and death as a rhyme echoing across natural and human history. “What ever happened/to the Mayans,” a little girl asks in “Belongings,” “we are alive we are everywhere,” the poem’s tour guide responds. And as if to clarify, the poem guides us out of this memory and into the present where a “a cleaning woman I don’t recognize enters/ the room and says excuse me and slips past/ to change the sheets for the bed’s next resident.”

Formally, The Year of What Now enacts the same process of erosion that the poems thematically express. Moving between tercets, couplets, and stanzas of irregular length and shape, each poem appears painfully excavated, distressed with fragments of thought and gaps of white space within the lines themselves. Yet as these lacunae underscore the collection’s insistence on ruin, the speaker’s fluid narratives juxtapose and complicate the sense of resignation. This is not easy, these poems say, but neither is the truth: neither pointless nor convenient to human desires for meaning. A mystery – part of which our bodies embody – terrible and beautiful. In the end, as Russell writes in “The History of Right Now,”

… there’s me and
there’s you miracles in our own right coming up

with our own reasons for being here
our best excuses …

Brave, deeply moving, this book is a quiet revelation that will stir in you your own “reasons for being here.”

The Year of What Now is available from Graywolf Press

Anthony Cirilo is a poet, translator, and MFA candidate at Rutgers-Newark where he teaches composition.

Building Castles in Spain, Getting Married by Amanda Nadelberg




Amanda Nadelberg’s chapbook Building Castles in Spain, Getting Married emerges as a triptych across Europe investigating the types of realizations travel, romance, and geographical difference can bring about. But I found that beneath the journey, Building Castles provides a psychological exploration of the deleterious relationship loops we fall into when we lose touch with ourselves. While evoking a degree of terror to be found in the way we participate in these inimical cycles, Building Castles trims out the filler that distracts us from the romantic patterns in which we participate, beautifully exposing the misfortune that can exists when we unwittingly repeat our actions.

Before I even got a sense of the looping that the text contains and the distressing relationships Building Castles’ subject duplicates, the speaker sets a sense of foreboding in the vague and weighty diction that opens the chapbook:

It begins on a train
because she is thinking
and people take trains
to get places. Hair wild and full,
this young lady is older (1).

The speaker opens up with ambiguity: “It begins on a train.” Through the whole text, we never know what “it” is; we are on a journey with the poem’s subject, the unnamed “she,” trying to unravel what might begin on this train at the same time that the subject appears to be unthreading her own realizations about herself and her relationship. Between the subject’s present progressive “thinking” and the periodic impression of the woman being “young” and “older,” I felt a certain timelessness and tautology both in the subject and in myself. At the same time, the fact that the heavy and indefinite “it” was only beginning, I knew there was more mystery, more “thinking,” more “wild and full” exploits to come only to be revealed in the reoccurrence and replay of the subject’s experiences.

As the chapbook progressed, I saw the speaker acknowledge her future, yet repeat her behavior: “I am getting married” (1). But while she says this, she cycles through men, engaging with and leaving a painter, bidding him many mistresses, pointing out that “there are men everywhere,” and meeting a man named “two glasses please” at a wedding (2). The seeming interchangeability of men is part of the poem’s power. It draws attention to the amorphous similarities our choices and actions have when abstracted and how this similitude sets us up to repeat inimical loops unaware of our own pattern. Just as the subject parted ways with the painter, piqued, I watched her slowly grasp the decay of her liaison with the next man, “two glasses please:”

[…] He’s needed on the
telephone—would you apologize
for me—her face in the window
watching color and the wind,
all forms of disappointment (2-3).

Despite the fact that the subject is slowly repeating her own romantically injurious pattern, she stays with the man, holding onto him even though the colors and the wind around her are all tinged with “disappointment:”

[…] Hair
such a mess in Paris, she
goes back to the country,
she will not call. She wants
a man to hold onto, she
needs only a minute.


No time he says, even for
apology. No, she didn’t get
the letter, the telephone
interrupting, I’m awfully
busy, he says to her, wait
a minute […] (4).

A great deal of Building Castles’ success stems from the ambiguity of place, space, and tense. It becomes increasingly harder to know whether the poem’s subject is dealing with her “fiancé” or with a European love affair. The uncertainty made me feel that this woman will continue to rotate through use and abuse until she can develop awareness around this pattern and break free from it; furthermore, it made me ponder where I do this in my own life. Nadelberg concludes the poem with a chilling degree of obfuscation, as the closing stanza brings us right back to the beginning:

On the train she is
happy at the window,
the colors of the country.
A wild woman, she goes
back to Le Mans, returns
to the lovely invisible street and,
like other women, makes lamps (6).

The cyclical nature of the chapbook made me feel like I was back at the first stanza. In fact, the succession made it difficult to not start the chapbook over again, and then again, and then again. For a moment I felt sucked into the cycle along with Building Castles’ subject. She loops back to the beginning, slightly different than when the chapbook opened, but her difference is one of degree, not of kind. She is happy; she is still wild; she returns to France; now, she is not travelling; she is working; she “makes lamps.” Yet in doing so, she is “like other women.” She becomes equivocal like the abstracted and interchangeable men she described. I didn’t know and couldn’t know what her fate would be, but I could see the dangers in her iterations and transpose such peril onto my own proclivity to repeat actions. As a result, all I could do is hope for this speaker to change her loop, and reciprocally, stop and examine the harmless or harmful loops in which I participate.

Download Building Castles in Spain, Getting Married for free at The Song Cave

Tim Etzkorn lives in Laramie, WY where he instructs at the University of Wyoming and is a M.A. candidate in literary studies. He specializes in early modern poetry, drama, and iconography.

Ethical Consciousness by Paul Killebrew

51qNZInriYL._SY300_Paul Killebrew’s Ethical Consciousness, the follow-up to his excellent debut Flowers, is a book of poems obsessed with remnants of meaning. For Killebrew, gestures, the unsaid, unspoken, and ineffable bits of flotsam are an undeniable force. His poetry’s particular fascination lies in the architecture of experience, what we get to say about the perpetual work of becoming.

The poems in Ethical Consciousness are poised to wonder what we may say about being alive, breathing and thinking, if we don’t even know how to communicate the flow of little experiences, thoughts, and memories that fragment what we think of as reality. These poems seem to suggest that our language isn’t suited to that flow. Yet they say so in a way that somehow performs both hope and disappointment, inscribed into each other—and beautifully. Late in the book, we find:

I am here

to tell you

that you are not

dying. You are

already dead.

You are not shrinking.

You have disappeared.

Your reputation

isn’t waning. You

are unknown.

Almost all of the book’s two-dozen or so poems are composed of clipped lines that unfurl long and short and then even longer sentences. Killebrew’s New York School ethos (wit, juxtaposition, high- and low-brow cocktail) is on full display, but he’s after something else. Even if he’s in the traditions of Ashbery and Schuyler, what distinguishes his writing is the way his poems keep circling back and homing in on the scene of some crime, where the evidence can’t quite stand in for what’s happened. Instead, the poems prove that what we’re left clutching is not even evidence—but only a story we’re trying to tell, in order to rectify some long-past crime or injustice.

The book’s first poem opens:

My disease, if I

have one,

is life

in its entirety—

the white drapes,

the faceted expression

the face

of the unerring

device, these

inscrutable tears

collecting like tulips

around a copse

of vases.

This long, heavily enjambed sentence is not an exception in the book, it’s the rule. Killebrew’s poems are staccato and ephemeral, springy and exploratory. They cut to the quick, yet pivot outward. His poems think, they talk, they even wax rhapsodically, but their short and shorter lines seem to say: onward, down, more, further; let’s keep going, by hook or crook, we’re not there yet. Or, in the poet’s own words, “Each step is a holograph.”

The poem “Really Isn’t” begins:

It is such
a beautiful world,
and yet
I treat
so many things
as emblematic,
as if each
teardrop on
the brim of
his lies
spoke for
a large and
shadowy theme

If the opening cliché that the speaker’s fully invested in (as if saying, I know it’s corny, but I mean it!) harkens to Ashbery’s daffier lines, what propels Killebrew beyond the derivative is his hunt to locate certain words to believe in through a scrutiny of shared experience. Thus, while Killebrew may be at home under the spell of passing feelings, he knows this brings him no closer to the words that might cast the same spell on the reader. The poems in Ethical Consciousness trust the mindfulness to attend to what’s fleeting, what’s “emblematic” and even “shadowy,” but they mistrust our ability to communicate those fleeting experiences to one another. In response, the poems twist and shirk down the page in these long, lovely, funny, perplexing, careening sentences and questions.

Again and again, Killebrew’s pleasures are entrenched in his frustrations: how to express the ineffable, how to accurately describe the experience of a mugging, a defendant lying on the stand, a friend’s personality shifts in the throes of a run for Congress, a beam of sunlight on a sidewalk, even the conceit of a conceptual poem breaking down—without ruining the stuff through the very act of our having said it. Prufrock’s famous “Do I dare to eat a peach?” becomes, for Killebrew, in the same poem from above:

No one heard me
peeling the orange.
I lived mostly as a walk
through frozen iterations
of a neighborhood,
everyone’s briefly meeting faces
seem to allude
to a future conversation
in a smoke-filled garden
draped in beads.

It’s not, should I peel and eat the orange and might that disturb the universe? It’s, well, I peeled it and “No one heard me” anyhow. As such, the poet seems to ask: what of our lives can be said to be meaningful if the smallest and sometimes most resonant details belie communication? Killebrew has conjured something that only the best poets find new and pleasurable ways of manifesting: poems that think through their own making, fall short, but which somehow perform the pleasures of having missed their marks.  That poem’s closing lines are:

Theories found us
huddled in our comfortable resemblances,
scouring each change
in the melody of conversation
for a method,
a route through the atmosphere
from eyes like condemned theaters
to the adventure of pure meaning
we are sure awaits us.

The experience of the gap that the poem articulates—that wish for and falling short of the “pure meaning” we yearn to know—is what makes Killebrew’s poems so good and so haunting. They’re scored with forlorn resonances of missed opportunities to connect. And yes, they’re disappointed by their own inability to trace any experience back to that nonexistent source for which it apparently stands. And, yeah, they’re even sorry about it, in their own funny, meandering, and plaintive ways. But as Killebrew writes: “My only wish was that / the metaphor would outlast / the afternoon.”

Joshua Marie Wilkinson is the editor of The Volta