Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine won the 2013 National Book Award
Packed into the pages of Incarnadine is spiritual and metaphysical angst. Szybist embodies our push-pull relationship with religion and spirituality—we both want it and question it at every turn. On the face of it, Szybist’s poems spiral around the Annunciation, the Christian event in which the angel Gabriel brought Word to the Virgin Mary that she would carry the Son of God, Jesus. Szybist considers what it means to be ‘incarnate’ or ‘incarnadine’—made flesh. Incarnadine, however, is more than simply an extended exploration of this Biblical event. By inserting herself and her experience into the query for metaphysical knowledge, Szybist explores our desires projected onto the world around us.
Sometimes her poems exhibit a genuine spiritual longing, as in Hail:
Mary who mattered to me, gone or asleep
among fruits, spilled
in ash, in dust, I did not
leave you. (12)
Other times, they portray metaphysical exploration as a learned urge, or as a coping skill taught to us. Take her poem Holy, in which she both denies and desires the presence of a supernatural spirit as she watches a loved one die from illness:
Shadow, are you here
splintering into the bread’s thick crust as it
crumbles into my palms, is that
you, the dry cough in her lungs, the blue tape on my wrists.
The dark hair that used to fall over her shoulders. (39)
Szybist’s poems are exposures of human frailty, how even when we come to the divine with the best of intentions, our jealousy toward its brilliance cannot be hidden. In The Troubadours Etc., Szybist directs jealousy toward the ability to be both human and divine:
Just for this evening, won’t you put me before you
until I’m far enough away you can
believe in me? (4)
Perhaps out of jealousy and the desire to exalt herself, she strips Biblical mysteries of their mystery by using them as metaphors for the human, non-supernatural, experience. In Happy Ideas, Szybist theorizes that everyone has the ability to access the unlimited, God-like expanse of the universe, simply by creating a void within themselves:
I had the happy idea to create a void in myself.
Then to call it natural.
Then to call it supernatural. (56)
The fear of mortality, of disappearing slowly and quietly from remembrance, is fervent throughout the work, which would naturally cause jealousy toward figures immortalized by the Bible (a religious person might call this divinely immortalized). Szybist boldly casts herself in the role of divine, not unlike many poets throughout history, and places herself above the temporal state of humanity:
Then try, try to come closer–
my wonderful and less than. (4)
Though Szybist “worries about not having enough words in her head,” Incarnadine doesn’t suffer from lack of material. (10) In fact, many of Szybist’s poems possess the qualities of ‘elliptical’ poetry, as Tony Hoagland would describe it: “relentless[ly] dodging or obstruct[ing]…expectation.” (Poetry, March 2006) I’d find myself at the end of a poem, a poem that I enjoyed, but realized could not deconstruct for its underlying mechanics. Szybist’s obliqueness of character and event makes it difficult to discuss the content of some of her poems. But perhaps this is not what is important about Szybist’s poems—perhaps it is not imperative to be able to say with certainty that the poem Conversion Figure is her attempt to equate her own birth to the descent of Christ from heaven into Mary’s womb:
I fell and I fell.
I fell toward the pulse in your thighs,
toward the cool flamingo of your slip
fluttering past your knees—
Out of God’s mouth I fell
like a piece of ripe fruit
toward your deepening shadow. (6)
What may be more important is Szybist’s consideration of our relationship to mystery. The scurry of thought represents our anxious inquisition. Szybist boils down this daily experience of taking in, processing, and regurgitating into a sort of daily incarnation of things both light and dark:
Before today, what darkness
did you let into your flesh? (7)
Throughout our lives, what comes into us transform us and dulls our youthful brilliance. The shiny emptiness of youth, the brilliant possibility of what we could take in, or what we could do with what we take in, is tarnished as Szybist incarnates ideas, desires, and questions. She takes in her world, both physical and supernatural, and it changes her.
But are we portals for the supernatural that exists outside of us, or creators of it? Is Szybist’s experience of the supernatural a matter of her declaring a moment as supernatural? Szybist rewrites herself over and over, attempting to understand the mysteries of the natural and the supernatural, deciding what she believes and doesn’t believe:
I do not believe in the beauty of falling.
Over and over in the dark I tell myself
I do not have to believe
in the beauty of falling (39)
Her inability to decide where she wants to place her allegiance, or how she wants to live her life, drives her poetry. Maybe being a human with free will to decide and make choices is the problem. Syzbist contemplates her existence, a luxury reserved for us humans. The concluding poem of the collection, “The Lushness of It,” exposes our self-centered natures; as the most evolved creature on this earth, we’ve inflated ourselves into pseudo-deities we believe all other creatures should admire. But this is a foolish belief, Szybist posits:
It’s not that the octopus wouldn’t love you—
not that it wouldn’t reach for you
with each of its tapering arms.
You’d be as good as anyone, I think,
to an octopus. But the creatures of the sea,
like the sea, don’t think
about themselves, or you.
Despite being humans, perhaps we’re no more important than any other creature, and certainly not god-like. And perhaps the divine IS no more important than us, whether it exists or not.
Buy it from Greywolf: $15
Nic Walker lives in Houston, TX and has an MFA in poetry from University of Houston. She currently teaches at Lone Star Community College. Her work can be found in Southern Humanities Review.