By Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, Associate Editor
What could be harder to write in a cynical world than an annunciation scene? Angels rarely come a-courting these days, and any archangel who shows up bearing a lily better have a good disguise. (The Virgin Mary, commentators observe, met her angel at the age of twelve. No doubt there’d be hidden camera now, and a lengthy prison term.) That’s exactly how the angels arrive in three poems by Mary Szybist in the current KR.
“Girls Overheard While Assembling a Puzzle” comes to us in the guise of a found poem, combining the banality of everyday chatter with the slow reveal of the jigsaw’s divine image:
Are you sure this blue is the same as the
blue over there? This wall’s like the
bottom of a pool, its
color I mean. I need a
darker two-piece this summer, the kind with
elastic at the waist so it actually
fits. I can’t
find her hands. Where does this gold
go? It’s like the angel’s giving
her a little piece of honeycomb to eat.
I don’t see why God doesn’t
just come down and
kiss her himself.
The puzzle here requires a bit of assembly: it’s the jigsaw, of course, but also the mystery that these girls struggle to make sense of (“And are we supposed to believe / she can suddenly / talk angel? Who thought this stuff / up?”). Slyly, it’s also the poem’s form, which reveals in its abrupt lineation the unexpected structure of an abecedarian. The effect is to make the poem’s tone suggest overheard, everyday, uninspired speech, which—as in any found poem—the poet gives meaning by her acts of juxtaposing phrases to draw out their resonance. But the form reveals a deeper structure, like the act of finding divinity in the banal things of this world, or the way a religious narrative is made deeply human when we realize that the Virgin Mary was a young girl—the same age, perhaps, as these girls—when that seductive angel came calling.
Talking about it, these girls puzzle out their own sexuality, longing for a two-piece bathing suit, judging the shade of lipstick they want from the mall. Their worldly narrative is about those points in our lives where we brush against the eternal—sex, aging, and death:
That flower’s the color of the
veins in my grandmother’s hands. I
wish we could
walk into that garden and pick an
X-ray to float on.
Yeah. I do too. I’d say a
zillion yeses to anyone for that.
An annunciation scene is both gentle and terrifying. What is faith, after all, but saying a zillion yeses, even if the angel carries with him a dowry of sacrifice and pain?
“Annunciation as Right Whale with Kelp Gulls” tears the same puzzle apart, reversing the previous poem’s terms and revealing the sacrificial violence implicit within them. Beginning with a BBC news story about the dramatic rise in the number of whales attacked by gulls, which have learned to feed on the whales’ flesh, the poem recasts angel and virgin as a congregation feasting upon a host who offers these swarming birds her wounds:
Why wouldn’t such sweetness
be for them?
For they outnumber her.
For she is tender, pockmarked, full
of openness—For they
swoop down on her wherever she surfaces. For they
eat her alive.
Here, the language is ritualized, full of sacramental repetitions that conceal a terrifying worldly logic: the gulls eat the whale because they can. She is a revelation, God’s gift to gulls. Like the virgin courted by an angel, she finds her innocence turned to flesh, a helpless incarnation of the feasting birds’ unearthly desire.
It’s in the third poem, “On a Spring Day in Baltimore, the Art Teacher Asks the Class to Draw Flowers,” that Szybist makes this disturbing metaphor literal and returns it to grace. The poem begins with a seduction scene, a teacher leaning in to whisper in a young girl’s ear as she draws:
I can begin the picture: his neck is bent,
his mouth too close to her ear as he leans in
above her shoulder—to point
to poppies shaded in apricot, stippled
just as he taught her. Class is over.
They are alone in the steady air—
How is this an annunciation poem? In a sense, it’s the furthest thing from that romance of earth and air. It’s the kind of event we read about in the police reports, hoping nothing like it ever happens to our children: “There are only a few lines in the paper: her grade his age, / when the police arrived.” But then a surprise: the poem’s speaker remembers this teacher, and her own moment at the center of his gaze.
Yes I knew him. One summer we lounged in the backyard sun and
listened to songs about wouldn’t it be nice. On the swing, on the lawn,
I posed for him, leaned my head against the picnic table. That was
when I did not have enough, could not have enough looking at.
Here’s a radical claim: we might see annunciation as the fundamental narrative of contemporary poetry. The poet’s gaze impregnates the world with meaning, just as the painters of the Italian Renaissance used this imagery of annunciation to suggest spiritual forms born into the base realities of our world. “To be beheld like that,” Szybist writes, “it felt like glittering.” These three remarkable poems remind us that angels come to us disguised, but their approach reveals us, and the world itself, in all our trembling longing.
She shifts in her chair. Her uncertain fingers
trace, against the sky—how many times?—
the red edges of the petals, caress
the darkening lines, trying to still them—
though she cannot make the air stop
breathing, cannot make cannot
make the shuddering lines stay put.