‘Incarnadine’ by Mary Szybist

  • COLDFRONT RATING: three-half
  • PUBLISHED BY: Graywolf Press, 2013
  • REVIEW BY: Jesse Nathan


“Before today, / what darkness”

In one telling of the Hebrew exodus, the angels cheer as God wracks the Egyptians. “They are also my children,” he thunders, and the hosts fall silent. Satan, in the old stories, was a fallen angel. Rilke wrote, “Every angel is terrifying”—because who knows what their appearance might signal? Beings endowed with God-like power, but also with human curiosity, foolishness, pride, and lust. In Blake’s terse “I Asked a Thief,” a seraph drops down to earth to steal fruit and rape a maid. The darker nature of the angelic runs beneath primary notions of ministerial spirits or divine messengers. What do the angels of the tradition want from us now? Are they cherubs or devils? They seem all symbol, seem not to exist. How can they still frighten? How can they fail us?

Mary Szybist assays these questions in her second collection of poems. Incarnadine consists of 42 poems, including sonnets, a villanelle, an abecedarian, word collages, prose poems, a poem in the shape of the sun, free verse paragraphs, flashes of rhyme. The book is funny sometimes, but very dark. Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary twists at its core. Szybist frames that encounter, successively, as wondrous, devious, irrelevant, threatening, ecstatic, brutal, contemporary. A great being inseminates a childless country damsel with much news and future. Gabriel and Mary’s collision, in Szybist’s hands, is electrifying, becoming metaphor for the experience of being chosen (or not) and for the feeling of being deeply changed (or not).

“Incarnadine” functions in the language as noun, adjective, or verb. As noun, it refers to a color: cinnabar, the color of blushing, a crimson, carnation, blood color. The adjective is a thing so colored, like a cheek. The verb, as used by Thomas Hardy in Far From the Madding Crowd, describes the change, the happening of reddening: “Repose had again incarnadined her cheeks.” This line epigraphs Szybist’s book, by the way, and incarnate comes from the same root as incarnadine, the Latin incarnātus. To incarnate is to clothe in flesh.

Like her first book, Granted, which was published a decade ago, Incarnadine has a painting on the cover. Painting is a way into history for the poet. For Incarnadine, the painting is Botticelli’s rendering of the moment of Gabriel’s coming “in unto” the Virgin Mary, as the King James has it. Botticelli’s Mary averts her eyes and is both turning away from and reaching toward Gabriel, who is on one knee. Their hands reach out. Gabriel has a stalk of lily, filed sharp at the end, which he’s holding like a pen. Mary’s hips are leaving the room, but her torso, downturned face, and outstretched arm are extending toward destiny. The effect is almost of spinning, of being caught mid-turn. “I spent a long time falling/ toward your slender, tremulous face—” Szybist writes in “Conversion Figure.” It is a poem of the self finding the self, tumbling into some new maturity or phase. It’s an annunciation—a number of poems have “annunciation” in the title—borrowing the motion of an arriving angel to talk about what it’s like to be thunderstruck by new belief or profound insight. Here is the sixth stanza, the new self speaking unto the old:

Out of God’s mouth I fell
like a piece of ripe fruit
toward your deepening shadow

and the tenth stanza:

Before today, what darkness
did you let into your flesh? What stillness
did you cast into the soil?

and the final:

Time to unbrighten and discard
even your slenderness.

Darkness at the moment of conversion strikes me not just because of its note of anti-celebration, but also its cautionary ring: change is terrifying and ambiguous, it warns, and can drop like a net, like great flapping wings darkening the day. Anyone who’s lived a week on earth knows this to be true. One long prose line in Szybist’s “Entrances and Exits” begins, “Olivia and I look down on Duccio’s scene.” A woman and a girl in the early 21st century studying the fourteenth-century painter’s Annunciation perceive the work in this way: “I point to the angel’s closed lips; she points to his dark wings.” The speaker sees silence; the child sees power.

In the poem’s neutral tones, Szybist, who lives and teaches in Portland, Oregon, tells the story of “Olivia and I” looking at the painting, weaving it with the story of a 76-year-old woman gone missing in the Oregon wilderness and found only when rescue teams spot ravens circling. Olivia is not the speaker’s child—the speaker, throughout the book, is painfully childless, calling out once to “the angel of barrenness.” In the painting by Duccio, the “slender angel (dark, green-tipped wings folded behind him) reaches his right hand towards the girl; a vase of lilies sits behind them.” The angel’s gesture communicates desire and intention. When I look at the painting, I see Gabriel advancing, and Mary seems to be both interested in, and shrinking from, his invitation—like in the Botticelli on the book’s cover. Szybist marinates us in Mary’s confusion.

“Entrances and Exits,” like so many of these poems, creates a space of gorgeous conflation—prose with poetry with painting, the time of Jesus with the time of Duccio with the time of now, Mary of Nazareth with Mary Szybist, the Wallowa Mountains (in which the 76-year-old woman wanders bewildered) with an office in the English Department at dreamy Lewis & Clark College, Portland. Olivia’s attention to Gabriel’s ambiguously powerful wings foreshadows something made more explicit in one of the book’s last poems, a sonnet. “Annunciation: Eve to Ave” maps Satan onto Gabriel, God’s most famous renegade angel onto God’s esteemed high messenger. Fourteen lines expose—in both incidents—the seducer as a seducer, and one who is male but not a man: the dynamic at work, in other words, when Satan advises Eve to eat is made to mirror the moment when Gabriel informs Mary she’ll be a breeder for God. This conflation occurs within the very technology—the sonnet—that the culture of performed male lust and pursuit (e.g. Petrarch) produced:

The wings behind the man I never saw.
But often, afterward, I dreamed his lips,
remembered the slight angle of his hips,
his feet among the tulips and the straw.

I liked the way his voice deepened as he called.
As for the words, I liked the showmanship
with which he spoke them. Behind him, distant ships
went still; the water was smooth as his jaw—

And when I learned that he was not a man—
bullwhip, horsewhip, unzip, I could have crawled
through thorn and bee, the thick of hive, rosehip,
courtship, lordship, gossip and lavender.
(But I was quiet, quiet as
eagerness—that astonished, dutiful fall.)

The two quatrains are all ode, full of naïve adoration and perfect masculine end-rhymes: first for this man-figure’s “lips” and “hips” (Mary/Eve does not see his “wings”), then for the “showmanship” of his sweet talk, then for the smoothness of his “jaw.” In the sextet comes revelation, that this is “not a man.” The rhyme scheme begins to disintegrate. A blurry tumble of sexually charged verbiage—“bullwhip, horsewhip, unzip”—registers her shock, and then her ecstatic, confusing desire to crawl through even “thorn and bee” for his “lordship.” Lordship, meaning… Gabriel? God? There is no Shakespearean closure. In what’s left of the couplet, the conflict intensifies. Instead of ecstasy, Mary here expresses quiet astonishment, and describes the whole thing as a “dutiful fall.” Her “quiet” looks like “eagerness,” but is not said to be eagerness, exactly. There is a gap there. There is sadness and even dread in her submission—in that quiet bending over. She has been chosen by God; this Gabriel has no actual love for her. Like Eve to Satan, she is just a tool in the schemes of mighty beings. Her lust shimmers into loneliness.

Still, Mary’s “eagerness” arrives in the context of astonishment. “The perpetual ideal,” Derek Walcott says, “is astonishment.” We long always, at some level, for the addictive manna of astonishment, for it contains the germ of hope as well as agony. It is the experience of possibility. What perpetually astonishes and frustrates Szybist is the state of chosenness—Gabriel visits this woman, God selects this woman, at this moment in time and myth, to be bearer of messianic flesh. The complications of being chosen for that task hover alongside experiences of countless childless mothers who are not chosen—the unfamous, the not-visited by angels. To be chosen is to seem to be blessed. What is favor but the seeming validation of the world? Szybist recounts experiences of favor, over and over again. In “Annunciation (from the grass beneath them)” she describes, for instance, its coming on:

how many moments did it hover before we felt
it was like nothing else, it was not bird
light as a mosquito

and she admits its magnetic draw in “On a Spring Day in Baltimore, the Art Teacher Asks the Class to Draw Flowers,” a triptych (fusing one verse lyric with two prose poems) that remembers the speaker’s long ago brief relationship to a man one day arrested for molesting a little girl—the way it felt to be chosen by him for little while, once:

That summer he carried his sketchpad everywhere, and on those slow, humid afternoons, I felt him elongate, shade, and blur. Above us the sky was like a white rush of streetlights, and I wanted to be nothing but what he shaped in each moment—

I closed my eyes, felt the sunlight on my thighs. To be beheld like that—it felt like glittering

and in “Annunciation under Erasure” (an erasure of the Gospel account) the poet divines, “be afraid Mary.”

And Szybist elsewhere celebrates favor’s strange seeming randomness. “Another True Story,” another poem made of uncluttered, even-toned prose chunks, reflects on a photo of a bird that’s alighted on the shoulder of a young Jewish man in the last days of World War II, in Florence, home of many famous angel paintings. “The bird has made its choice, and it will remain, perched for days, on his shoulder.” The boy will live a long life, but will forever be at that moment “the one place in the world to rest upon.”

The privilege bestowed in the bird’s choice—but also the inevitable near-mystical gravitas—gives way to funny, disturbing shades in a later poem, “Night Shifts at the Group Home,” set in recent times. The poem’s speaker works as a night attendant for the elderly. The attendant usually catches a nap after all her charges go to sleep. But one crazed woman crawls into bed with her every night, kicking and snuggling and clutching:

Sometimes I imagine I

was someone she won
at a fair as the wheel spun
under the floating, unfaltering sun

and clicked each lucky one
and one
until I was happily undone.

To be chosen is to achieve a place in someone’s pantheon of importance. But to be chosen is also to give up some anonymous everyday freedom—it is to be bound up in something. One of the things this book articulates is what it might look like to reject that binding. “Annunciation in Byrd and Bush” is a collage of Szybist’s own lines and speech language from Senator Robert Byrd and President George W. Bush. A little girl in a meadow is imagined subjected to the whisperings of “a stranger who leans in beside her.” The whisperings consist of phrases like “the highest call of history” (Bush). But the girl is trying to read a book. The voice distracts her. She wavers. Something is being asked of her—something vague and weighty. But then the poem’s last line: “She looks down: her finger in her book.” No, thanks, is her choice. Her choice is to not be manipulated by the scheming voice.

This, I think, is the prayer of these poems, if there is one: Please, I do not want to be misused. But, cry out these poems, I want to be changed! Billie Holiday once said something about how she knew she’d be used all her life, and so asked only to be used well. This is deep cynicism infused with small hope, balm for the anxiety of existence. “To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary” unfolds in the prose lines Szybist wields so well throughout this collection. Its sentences are journalistic in their restraint and report, starting out sounding like a letter update from an old friend, then diverging into reminiscence:

Once, I asked for your favorite feeling. You said hunger. It felt true then. It was as if we took the bit and bridle from our mouths. From that moment I told myself it was the not yet that I wanted, the moving, the toward—

“Be it done unto me,” we used to say, hoping to be called by the right god. Isn’t that why we liked the story of how every two thousand years, a god descends. Leda’s pitiless swan. Then Gabriel announcing the new god and his kingdom of lambs—and now?

The poem answers, sort of, a few lines later:

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

Longing for transformative significance is instinctual, even if the part you play is brutal. I think of Auden’s lines, published in 1930:

Rise with the wind, my great big serpent;
Silence the birds, and darken the air;
Change me with terror, alive in a moment;
Strike for the heart, and have me there.

In Auden, as in Szybist, there lives a desire to be taken, to be exalted, lifted by duty and love to a higher use—and yet, in the moment of that selection, a realization descends on Szybist: such selection represents raw might at work, and calculations beyond you. It is the gods carrying out their salacious ambitions.

The wish for good news—for a blessing, for a metamorphosis, for a child—remains a simple and beautiful desire. Jorie Graham, in a poem called “Annunciation,” calls the wish for good news “the small sound of matter wanting to be changed.” In interviews, Szybist has described how, as a girl at mass, she would watch light changing through stained glass windows. It is the stuff of promise. But because angels do not exist here in the twenty-first century—era of drowning in facts and hype and chosenness and mini-fame and so many pronouncements trivial and discordant—the poet must update the tradition. The poet must re-see the tradition’s images, listen to its rhythms again, and translate them for our time. Mary Szybist has done this.

And what she has produced in her study of the old stories and paintings—tapestries of angels and gods—is a sense of doubleness entirely contemporary. She is a poet full of wishes, but she is unwilling to make anything seem to be what it is not. Some will mistake this for quietism. To me, it is stubborn honesty. “Now the dark rain/ looks like dark rain,” she writes in one poem. In another, “afternoons passed like afternoons.” The real is in its place. The truth begins, argues Szybist, with the sober unmetaphor, the literal. What is is. And so when the angels do not visit us—when they have died with God—what then?

We wait, in 2013, still offering invitation, calling out into the expanding universe, into the vast unknowable systems of chaos. “Invitation” begins, “If I can believe in air, I can believe / in the angels of air,” and includes “Failed inventions, tilt my head back” and finishes, “Without you my air tastes / like nothing. For you / I hold my breath.”