Versify #4 by Pamela Burger
Review of Incarnadine
I decided to read an review Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine because, inasmuch as any small-press book by a little-known poet can be said to “get buzz,” this book got some buzz last year. It also won the 2013 National Book Award for Poetry, which convinced me to read it even though I have no idea who hands out the National Book Award and what the criteria might be. What can I say, I’m a sucker for name brands.
A brief aside: My impression of this book was influenced by how I read it. For thrift’s sake, I downloaded Incarnadine as an e-book and read it on a Kindle app on my iPad. This was an entirely new reading experience for me, as I have never read a book of poems on an e-reader. Usually, I read a poetry collection out of order, skipping around and perusing poems that seem more interesting or relevant to me at a particular moment. Only after I have gone through most of the individual pieces this way do I look over the ordering of the poems and consider the poet’s intentions in ordering the poems the way s/he did. I find this way of reading liberating, and it is one of the reasons I like to read poetry collections. But because one can’t flip ahead easily on an e-reader, the format encourages linearity, and I must admit I found that constricting. This may have contributed to the impatience I felt with Incarnadine.
If I had to describe Incarnadine in one word, it would be smart. If I had to describe it in three words, they would be smart, but unsatisfying. The conceit of Incarnadine is a reimagining of the Annunciation of Mary–her visit from the angel Gabriel informing her of her impending pregnancy with the son of God–from the perspective of a modern woman. Or more accurately, she looks at this event as it is meaningful to a modern woman who has left behind the intricate belief system of Catholicism, but who yearns for the meaning once found in the Church. The poems explore the overlap between the divine and the daily, the simultaneous emptiness and meaningfulness found in ordinary life. The name shared by the poet and the blessed virgin is a tool for Szybist to explore the humanity of the Christian deity; the oft-repeated “Mary” is at once the all-too-human author and an icon for spiritual communion exhorted in the poems. In “Hail,” the speaker calls out to Mary, who “mattered to me” but who is “gone or asleep/in ash, in dust, I did not/ leave you.” She may feel a distance from Mary, but she cannot leave her behind, and instead re-composes Mary, over and over. Szybist times her own existential angst to the meter of Mary’s name. “I sleep to the sound/ of your name, I say there is no Mary/ except the word Mary.” The word means as much to Szybist as the spirit, and this concern with form explains why the poems are emotionally limited.
The poems in this collection unearth the gaps between modern life and spiritual yearning, so it is somewhat surprising that the poems read as intellectual treatises rather than spiritual meditations. Szybist throws in a host of classic “experimental” forms, including, but not limited to, shape poems, list poems, erasure poems, and prose poems. In “Annunciation in Nabokov and Starr,” she splices together quotations from Lolita and “The Starr Report”, though what she hopes to gain through this endeavor is unclear. Juxtaposing these 20th century texts with Mary’s Annunciation might make an interesting commentary on the ways Western art and literary history has exploited the female body as sites of (masculine) production of meaning. However, the poem never moves beyond its own clever conceit. And besides, Lolita was a twelve year old orphan, whereas Monica Lewisnky was a sexually mature adult at the time of her infamy, so the connection between the two figures rings hollow. I can’t help but feel that the poem is more invested in formal (and political) play than spiritual resonance.
Which is not to deny the authentic spiritual questioning present throughout the collection. The works here exhibit an honest desire for fulfillment and a doubt that such fulfillment exists, and they express all this with well crafted lyricism. And therein lies the problem. The poems are so deftly spun that they lack the messiness inherent to the subject matter. These are the kinds of poems one should read in order; if, like me, you need a little disorder in your poetry, you might want less coherence in your soul searching.
Pamela Burger has a very short attention span, which is why she loves poetry. Her poems have appeared in several small magazines you might never have read. She lives in Brooklyn, teaches writing and literature, and is an instructional technologist for the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College.