Intolerable Tenderness: A Review of Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine

Jacqueline Kolosov

Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2013. 72 pages. $15.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

Since I read and reviewed Mary Szybist’s first book, Granted, in 2003, I have sought out her incantatory voice fueled by a longing for transformation that borders on transfiguration—“What I want is what I’ve always wanted. What I want is to be changed.” Arriving ten years later, Szybist’s second book, Incarnadine, is even more deeply fueled by her ability to fasten the individual to the archetypal and so achieve a mythic resonance within her deeply spiritual and disquietingly explosive lyrics. At the heart of Incarnadine is the Annunciation, which figures also in Granted. In Incarnadine, however, the Annunciation is not a single miraculous event, evidence of God’s entry into time. Instead, annunciations in Incarnadine are ongoing, and in a series by this title Szybist embeds references to literature and popular culture (Nabokov’s Lolita and The Starr Report by Kenneth Starr in “Annunciation in Nabokov and Starr”), politics (George W. Bush’s Address to a Joint Session of Congress on September 20, 2001 in “Annunciation in Byrd and Bush”), and natural history (the Native Plant Society of Oregon in “Annunciation as Fender’s Blue Butterfly with Kincaid’s Lupine”).

In the long prose poem, “To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary,” the speaker confesses: “I see annunciations everywhere: blackbirds fall out of the sky, trees lift their feathery branches, a girl in an out-sized yellow halo speeds toward—” And annunciations, in this collection, are coupled with something pitiless and primal, so that revelation is accompanied by destruction—by devastating loss. The wings of angels become the wings of the ravens who circle the body of an elderly woman trapped in the wilderness at the bottom of a canyon (“Entrances and Exits”). “I liked [the Anunciación’s] promise: a world where a girl has only to say yes and heaven opens,” Szybist says in “To Gabriel at the Donkey Sanctuary.” “But now all I see is a bright inner tube pillowing behind her. All I see is a girl being crushed inside a halo that does not save her.”

What accounts for the shift in vision? Like Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, or fellow poet Louise Glück in her harrowing and mythic Averno, Szybist possesses the ability to ask the most terrifying questions—“What slouches // toward us?”—without flinching. Neither does she try to piece together some impossibly hopeful explanation for the violence, terror, and inexplicable suffering rife in our world. “So-and-So Descending from the Bridge,” for example, refers to the woman who threw her two children from an Oregon bridge one early morning in 2009—quite a comment on the use of the word “descent” in this title. (“One child died; one survived,” Szybist’s note reveals.) The poem enacts the inconceivable horror of such actions and does so, remarkably, without judgment, almost finding some thread of common ground between the speaker and the mother:

I know that darkness.
Have stood on that bridge
in the dizzy space between the streetlights
dizzy with looking down.

Maybe some darks are deep enough to swallow
what we want them to.

But you can’t have two worlds in your hands
and choose emptiness.

I who have no so-and-so to throw

or mourn or to let go . . .

Szybist’s speakers are simultaneously appalled by and drawn to that trope of darkness that courses through Incarnadine, that darkness in the circling ravens’ wings and in the psyche of the “so-called // crazy little mother who does not jump.” The speakers are both drawn and appalled, and the fact that the poet recognizes such darkness within herself infuses Incarnadine with gritty—as in “dust you are and to dust you shall return”—authority.

The more personal revelations in Incarnadine tilt the reader towards understanding the experiences that seem to have shaped Szybist’s anguished vision: “I liked its promise: a world where a girl has only to say yes and heaven opens. But now all I see . . . is a girl being crushed inside a halo that does not save her.” Here, the later poem “Holy” is perhaps the most central:

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

though she edges toward you,
saying your name with such steadiness . . .

The speaker here is addressing the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost; and the “she” is the speaker’s mother who is dying, and in her dying, clings to her faith, a steadfastness the daughter cannot follow:

Ghost, what am I
if I lose the one
who’s always known me?

Spirit, know me . . .

There is a transparency to the speaker’s voice, heavy with grief, questions, peril, and—yes, nostalgia, that pulls the reader in: “Spirit, know me . . . ” Who does not share that desire to be known? recognized? understood? loved? Reading “Holy,” with its distilled, lyric lines, one finds in the speaker one’s own terror or knowledge of what it means to lose the one who is absolutely fundamental—“the one / who’s always known me?”

Szybist published Granted in her early thirties, and Incarnadine’s voice and subject matter are infused with the experience of a woman entering middle age; and while the stakes of the speaker’s experience are more charged with the knowledge of limits and mortality, the poems themselves are often more technically daring, marvelously experimental. “Notes on a 39-Year-Old Body” is composed almost entirely of fragments from Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography and Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady (the Bildungsroman that Szybist referenced in Granted with very different effects):

                  in          the          dull
        cycle of
internal                  ros[es]                  glow
                                                            pink and
                               red         here
                                                            and [t]her[e] 

I reproduce the first and sixth of the poem’s seven sections to dramatize the confidence with which Szybist juxtaposes the language of two very different texts and sets them dancing across the white space, a playful movement that belies a wry attitude towards aging.

And one finds play in Incarnadine despite the losses. In one of the most playful of her poems, “Happy Ideas,” placed near the end, Szbyist finds her epigraph and her organizing principle in a line from Marcel Duchamp: “I had the happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn.” There is something both absurd and utterly realizable in this gesture, one that “Happy Ideas” repeats across its twenty-odd lines:

. . . I had the happy idea that the dog digging a hole in the yard in the twilight had his nose deep in mold-life.

I had the happy idea that what I do not understand is more real than what I do,

and then the happier idea to buckle myself

into two blue velvet shoes.

I had the happy idea to polish the reflecting glass and say

hello to my own blue soul. Hello, blue soul. Hello.

It was my happiest idea.

The poem encapsulates Szybist’s range. The palpable grief of “Holy” abides here; yet what transforms that grief is the speaker’s sense of play. She buckles herself into “two blue velvet shoes”—they could not be any other color despite the title’s emphasis on red. And she greets her “blue soul.” Blue, here, recollects the blue of the Virgin Mary’s clothes; and it contains within it the cerulean infinity of sky. It is simultaneously the blue of sorrow and loss, and that is crucial, as is her ability to look into the polished mirror and say “hello.” Such a gesture is within anyone’s reach, but it takes a sensibility and a talent that is Mary Szybist’s alone to dramatize the profound value and the sustaining reach of such a gesture.

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