Mary Szybist may not have been the best-known writer on the poetry shortlist for the 2013 National Book Award, but her book Incarnadine was ambitious and thoughtful enough to overcome this. Her second collection, after Granted (2003), Incarnadine comprises poems focused on the Annunciation. Szybist, who was raised Catholic, uses this intimate moment as an opportunity to explore the relationships between poetry and prayer and to explicate an encounter between the human and “the other”—something outside of human experience, be it nature or, in this case, God.
The National Book Award judges called Incarnadine “a religious book for nonbelievers.” It opens with an epigraph from Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, which sums up Szybist’s approach to the project: “The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.” Receiving the award, she said, “There’s plenty that poetry cannot do, but the miracle, of course, is how much it can do, how much it does do.” I spoke with Szybist recently about religion, poetry, prayer, and the meaning of her name.
Incarnadine deals with the Annunciation—the visitation of Mary by the angel Gabriel, who tells her that she will have God’s son—and the implications and meaning of such an event. It’s an encounter between the human and something beyond human understanding. Your book is an attempt to describe the indescribable through poetry—which is something that prayer can do, also.
Prayer is one way to do this—and yes, I have thought about the connections between poetry and prayer for a long time, and sometimes I am even tempted to believe that they are similar engagements. When I was young, I reached a point where I found myself unable to pray. I was devastated by it. I missed being able to say words in my head that I believed could be heard by a being, a consciousness outside me. That is when I turned to poetry.
I have always been attracted to apostrophe, perhaps because of its resemblance to prayer. A voice reaches out to something beyond itself that cannot answer it. I find that moving in part because it enacts what is true of all address and communication on some level—it cannot fully be heard, understood, or answered. Still, some kinds of articulations can get us closer to such connections—connections between very different consciousnesses—and I think the linguistic ranges in poetry can enable that.
Reading your poems about Mary and what her experience might have meant, I was reminded of Blake’s line “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.” Was that in your mind as you were writing? Or is this book the distillation of a lifetime of thinking about religion and faith?
I turn to poems to find spaces that might enlarge, rather than distill, experience. I thought a lot about that idea from Blake when I was working on this collection. Returning to Christian iconography felt, at times, like going backward. Nevertheless, I came to think that I couldn’t lessen the power the icons had for me simply by trying to ignore them. They had taken hold of my imagination a long time ago, and I was still in their imaginative thrall, even if intellectually I rejected much of what they stood for.
So it was Blake, in a way, who inspired me to remake them. I was never compelled, however, by the idea that the only way to lessen the power of one system is to replace it with another. I don’t find Blake’s new cosmology the most interesting part of his work. I return to Songs of Innocence and of Experience often, not because they present a solution or a new and better system, but because they brilliantly hold up the limitations of two modes of experience and prompt me to try to imagine a way of being that might not suffer from the restrictions and dangerous naïveté of either mode. I love that Blake sympathetically acknowledges the temptations of both modes and the difficulties of going beyond them. In the spirit of Blake’s Songs, I wanted to create multiple versions in this collection in an attempt to provoke my imagination beyond them. I want to take the iconography of the Annunciation out of the realm of symbol, where its meaning is predetermined, and into the realm of contemplation—a realm with room for doubt, investigation, imagination, play.
You’ve spoken about how you were inspired by seeing the vast number of paintings made in the Middle Ages about just a handful of religious scenes—among them the Annunciation—and all the variations that different artists brought to the same tableaux. Did this tradition influence you in approaching the poems for Incarnadine?
The first time I visited Italy, I was overwhelmed by how many paintings depicted the same scenes, particularly religious scenes—the Nativity, the Madonna, the Crucifixion, the Assumption, and so on. At first there seemed something excruciatingly limited about it, and I felt relieved to live at a time when our choices as writers and artists are, at least relatively, so expansive. I remember one afternoon in a museum thinking to myself, I can’t look at one more painting of a dead or dying Christ. I actually felt physically ill at the thought of it. Then I turned the corner into the next room and was grateful to be in the presence of Andrea Mantegna’s harrowing, beautiful Cristo morto.
Only then did it occur to me that many of the paintings I love most—Annunciation scenes by Fra Angelico, Simone Martini, Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli—were made within these subject limitations, and I started to wonder if the limitations themselves had played a role in engendering the art. I began to imagine imposing this subject limitation on a series of poems. I was drawn to the challenge of having to work that particular limitation, and I was drawn to the Annunciation scene for all kinds of reasons, including the ones you articulated at the start of this interview. Paintings of the Annunciation tend to reinforce a vision that a transformative encounter between two radically different kinds of being is possible, and yet they also emphasize a real and unmistakable distance between those beings that never closes. That acknowledgement, for me, is part of why the vision feels viable. I wanted to include and enter that space in the poems.
You quoted Wallace Stevens in your acceptance speech. Is there a poem that stands out in your mind as being able to connect us with “the other”?
I think that a good deal of poetry and art gives us some sense of access to another’s voice, perception, texture of thought, imagination. Sometimes it gives us better access to the strangeness in ourselves.
Wallace Stevens is a virtuoso of this. I am particularly moved by the vision of “The Idea of Order at Key West.” In that poem, the song of the woman on the shoreline is a kind of otherness, and the speaker’s connection with it moves him toward deeper engagement with the larger world.
Your mother died this year, and while listening to your acceptance speech, I couldn’t help but think of that, and the idea that today art and poetry offer people many of the same things that religion once did.
I am both attracted to and resistant to the idea that poetry and art can be replacements for religion. Art is not religion, and neither can bring back the dead—at least not in the way that I want them back. One of the things I liked about practicing a religion is the sense of being part of something larger than myself, larger even than my own imagination. It provided relief from myself. I gave myself over to a set of rituals, I could enter into prayers the way I could enter into a church. The opportunity of making a poem offers something different. As Charles Wright once said, “New structures, new dependencies.”
Since you finished Incarnadine, have you been exploring a new approach or way of thinking?
Someone once advised me to write the kind of poems that I wanted to read, and I have been thinking about that a lot. Lately I want to read poems that somehow provide company, if not guidance, in living through grief and sadness. I used to think often of this sentence from Iris Murdoch—“Only the very greatest art invigorates without consoling, and defeats all our attempts to use it as magic.” Occasionally, however, it is possible for a great poem to invigorate and console. I think of George Herbert and William Carlos Williams. I have been thinking about what kind of consolations poems might still authentically offer.
I would imagine that one positive thing about winning the National Book Award is that people know how to pronounce your last name.
I suspect that there is little danger that many people will know how to pronounce my last name! I can’t say that it has ever bothered me when people mispronounce my name. There are conflicting authorities when it comes to how to pronounce it. My parents and grandparents pronounced it SHE-bist, so that is how I pronounce it. It is a way of belonging to them. On the other hand, my great-grandparents most likely invented—or deferred to?—this Americanized pronunciation. My understanding is that the Polish pronunciation is closer to sha-BIST.
Perhaps there is a way in which I wanted Incarnadine to give my first name as much possibility as my last name. “Mary” always seemed so common and overworn, so weighed down by the “known”—and by what I came to think of as a Platonic ideal of the Virgin Mary. One of the unexpected treats of visiting Laos a couple of years ago was learning how funny the name “Mary” seemed to Laotians. The young boys I tutored in English knew the verb to marry, but the idea of using it as a name struck them as strange and comical. “Mary,” the boys asked, “are you married?” Hilarious laughter ensued.
A Polish woman once told me that “Szybist” means glassmaker or window maker. I have no idea if this is true, and I haven’t pursued the truth yet because I am fond of the idea that my name might carry such meaning. I remain intrigued by the old trope of stained glass as a metaphor for poetry and even for language. I spent many hours looking up at the Annunciation scene in a stained glass window in my childhood church, watching the way the light changed the scene, lighting it up, letting it go. The faces of the figures are somehow always the first parts to be extinguished in the evening. The colored glass was so thick that I couldn’t see much through it, even in the most optimal moments. Still, I could see shadows, light—hints of a world beyond the glass.