Thanks to my friend C, who shared Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine with me! I love getting books in the mail. Especially if I wasn’t expecting any. Book mail rocks.
I’m writing about this particular book now because it seems like an appropriate time — Christmas is nearly here — and also because I had the chance to really dive into the collection while sitting in a waiting room for a couple of hours. Focused reading time is a rare but wonderful thing.
In any case, this book would make a great gift for a poet / reader in your life, whether their name is Mary (Mariah, Maria, Moira, Mae, Marie,…) or not. It’s also very pretty to look at: —>
Szybist’s Incarnadine is a remarkable collection that explores many facets of the legendary / biblical Mary and again and again conflates saintly beings with earthly, mortal ones.
The annunciation — where an angel appears to Mary and tells her she will give birth to the Son of God — is looked at from a number of perspectives, with at times remarkable and surprising points of view. One poem describes the scene as experienced by blades of grass, for example.
Many poems describe Mary as she is seen by others — by plants, by the Angel, by God even. True to the biblical source, Mary herself is mostly silent. However, we do learn a lot about her and what she might say if she were to speak. Mary is shown as plain, simple, maybe even a bit dull, but those are the exact qualities that make her the chosen vessel, if you will. The Mary we meet in this book is a young woman who’s always somehow vaguely out of place, she doesn’t quite fit but she also doesn’t stand out.
I think both paintings (the modern one and the pre-raphaelite) go well with the poems in this book. Burne-Jones’ because it picks up the recurring colors that permeate the entire collection: blue (shadows, pearls, sky, Mary’s dress, flowers), green and gray (wings, grass, leaves), and gold (pearls, branches, light); the modern painting because — like Szybist’s poems — it picks up on the strangeness of the encounter between young woman and angel. Szybist also mentions several specific (mostly Italian) paintings of the same scene, which you might enjoy looking up as you read Incarnadine.
One of the (many) poems I enjoyed the most here is “On Wanting to Tell [ ] about a Girl Eating Fish Eyes.” You can read the entire poem (or listen to it being read!) right here, thanks to the Poetry Foundation. Another poem that stands out is “Notes on a 39-Year-Old Body” — a poem that scatters itself across the pages with asterisks and brackets and white space.
Several poems use other texts to arrive at their own, such as “Annunciation under Erasure” (where a scripture text seems to be partially erased), “Annunciation in Byrd and Bush“ (weaving in passages from political speeches) and “Annunciation in Nabokov and Starr“ (using passages from Lolita and the Starr Report). The collection works well because it has both strong connecting tissue and a diversity of parts. The Virgin Mary theme ties the poems together, and the surprising takes on the theme (news stories, works of art, status updates) create a variety in styles and voice that keep the collection as a whole from sounding like a box of echoes. A remarkable book! Highly recommended.