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National Poetry Month - Mary Szybist

I could take the easy way out and tell you to read Christian Wiman, whose words are currently featured in the magazine. But instead I'm going to suggest Mary Szybist, whose 2013 collection Incarnadine won the National Book Award.

In Incarnadine, Szybist returns again and again to the Annunciation--or, it might be more accurate to say that she returns to "the annunciations," since she's interested not in a singular incursion of the eternal into the temporal but in an intersection that is more habitual. Think of Eliot's Four Quartets. There, Eliot describes epiphanic moments as "hints and guesses, / Hints followed by guesses," and goes on to claim that "The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation." For Szybist, the hint half guessed, the gift half understood is Annunciation, and this revision hints at some of the collection's major themes: motherood; the female body; the bewilderment and ecstasy of being called by love.

Like Wiman, Szybist is haunted by transcendence: yearning for something beyond her that can't be articulated completely but must be brokenly, desperately gestured towards. Take these lines from "Yet Not Consumed":

But give me the frost of your name
in my mouth, give me
spiny fruits and scaly husks--
give me breath

to say aloud to the breathless clouds
your name, to say
I am, let me need
to say it and still need you ...

In his interview, Christian Wiman talked about the unselving that occurs in joy: "the obliteration of the will," he called it. In "Here, There Are Blueberries," Szybist envisions a similar obliteration of the will in her sheer gratitude for sensuous, delightful creation:

What taste the bright world has, whole fields
without wires, the blacked moss, the clouds

swelling at the edges of the meadow. And for this,
I did nothing, not even wonder.

You must live for something, they say.
People don't live just to keep on living.

But here is the quince tree, a sky bright and empty.
Here there are blueberries, there is no need to note me.

For a full version of Szybist's poem "Mary," click here.

About the Author

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY. His book on poetry and theology in the modernist period is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Many thanks for your fine interview with Christian Wiman, and now for introducing me/us to the poet, Mary Szybist.

However, I've long been intrigued by a comment that her mother makes to Sister Helen towards the end of the film, "Dead Man Walking." She says (in a soft voice, hard to hear): "Annunciations are frequent, incarnations rare." Perhaps reminiscent of another Eliot line: "Between the word and the deed falls the shadow."

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