‘Incarnadine’ by Mary Szybist – Review

Botticelli’s ‘Annunciation’ on the cover.

Before I get started, two things. Firstly, although the spiffing Jo Vance recommended this book to me a while ago, I hadn’t really intended to read it right away, my excuse being the standard student one. Secondly, whilst I was in Heffers the other day, it was pretty much by accident that my eyes strayed across this volume. I was looking for some Szymborska, having picked up a ‘selected poems’ by Miłosz and feeling the need for a gender balance in my Polish poetry collection, when I spotted it and thought, ‘ah ha! That was what Jo was talking about.’ So, sorry Syzmborska – you will have to wait for another day.

There is something delectable about reading a collection of poetry from cover to cover in just one or two sittings, which is what I proceeded to do in the course of Sunday evening, so un-put-down-able was Szybist’s work. The best way I can describe her collection is this. Imagine a baby lying in a crib, with a mobile hanging over her head. She is fascinated by the mobile, reaching up to grab the brightly coloured, entrancing objects dangling above her. She cannot always hang on to them very well: she’s only little, and can’t sit up on her own. But the effort, and the inventive ways she reaches up to grasp these things, are fascinating. The way Syzbist writes is like that baby – a fragmentary, experimental reaching for numinous things.

‘Incarnadine’ is at its core a series of reflections on the Christian story of the Annunciation, that is, the angel Gabriel’s chat with Mary. (What I like to think of in my head as, ‘Oh hey, girl, you’re gonna have a baby and p.s. it’s the son of God’.) In my opinion, this is one of those parts of the Bible that is intended to elicit shock from its readers or listeners of any era. Some of the poems deal directly with the Annunciation: reimagining it from the point of view of the grass beneath and overshadowed Mary kneeling in a meadow, taking words to frame this ‘miracle’ from public political documents* or biological studies, checking in with ‘Marys’ in the present day in the form of young women on the willing cusp of new purposes or new choices. Other poems deal less directly with the Annunciation but speak to the many folds of the garment which is the Judeo-Christian heritage. As the collection progresses, one sees that for Syzbist, the Annunciation – and the resulting incarnation, or making-human, of God in Jesus –  becomes a way in to speaking about life in both profoundly spiritual and material terms.

how not to speakAnd sometimes Syzbist knows that such speech is quite futile, or that it requires the poet to play with the form of the poem in order tell slantwise truths about Christian spiritual existence. In the poems ‘How (Not) to Speak of God’ and ‘It is Pretty to Think’, words and lines careen about the page, requiring the reader to turn the book itself to read the poem, before even attempting to understand it.

The collection is not without its weaker aspects, and sometimes the form-experimentation doesn’t work as well as it could. But as an accessible means of entering into profound mystery from many different angles, ‘Incarnadine’ excels. Syzbist invites us to consider that rather than an angst- or boredom- or stress-fueled reaching beyond of material existence, spirituality is the permeation of the material by something else, and the surprising announcement or realisation that this permeation is deeply good.


* See a great discussion of some of these politically engaged poems here: http://therumpus.net/2013/04/incarnadine-by-mary-szybist/

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