An interview with alumna poet Mary Szybist
Mary Szybist's (Col '92) new book of poetry, Incarnadine, looks at modern life though the lens of the Annunciation. The book was just nominated for the National Book Award in Poetry. She spoke to UVA Magazine about her inspirations, her old teachers and what she's reading now.
Q: Where did the idea to use the theme of the Annunciation come from?
A: It came to me in Florence. In a city overwhelmed by great paintings, I found myself returning to a few annunciation images: paintings by Fra Angelico, Simone Martini, Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci. I had grown up looking at images of this scene in the stained glass windows of my family’s church (“The Church of the Annunciation”), but I had never seen these paintings before other than in copies and reproductions; I was spellbound. I loved the vision of a human genuinely encountering something not human. I also loved what seemed to give the vision veracity: the space between the figures. The charged space between them began to seem like the primary subject. I started imagining how these images might have power for our current time, how they still might be used even for secular meditation.
A: The Virgin Mary was held up to me as an ideal, and she is a strange and impossible ideal toward which to aspire. When I was young, my name was a constant reminder of the Platonic ideal of Mary, and I felt like a very fallen shadow of that ideal; I also identified with her. As an adult I found that simply trying to reject or ignore that ideal didn’t make it entirely go away. It took hold of my imagination a long time ago, and as a “Mary” who is neither virgin nor mother, I can sometimes still feel in its shadow. I’ve turned to poems to unsettle this relationship in part by re-envisioning Mary’s annunciation scene, often using it as lens rather than icon. I wanted to re-make so that it might be used to invigorate new ways of seeing rather than constrict them. Blake said “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s.” I am not aiming to create a new system, but I am trying to write in that spirit.
Q: Which is your favorite poem in the book, and why?
A: I liked the way the sounds came together in “The Lushness of It,” the final poem in the book. Right now, however, “Holy” is my favorite because it is about my mother; I’ve just lost her to breast cancer, and one of the things I’ve always loved about poems is that they can be spaces to talk to the dead. I wrote it as a counterpoint poem to “Hail,” a poem addressed to “the mother of God.” I like the presence of a real mother in the book, one known and loved in the flesh. Which is to say, especially at this moment, I like the presence of my mother in the book.
A: With regard to teachers, no one has been more fortunate than me. I was lucky enough to study with with Charles Wright, Rita Dove, Gregory Orr, Stephen Cushman, Mark Edmundson, Clare Kinney, Herbert Tucker, Karen Chase, Margo Figgins and Dell Hymes.
Q: What are you reading right now?
A: I’m reading Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, Gwendolyn Brook’s Annie Allen, Lisa Russ Spaar’s Vanitas, Rough, Debra Allbery’s Fimbul-Winter, Christina Pugh’s Grains of the Voice, Heather Derr-Smith’s The Bride Minaret, Carl Phillips’ Silverchest and W. S. Merwin’s Selected Translations.
The following are three poems from Incarnadine:
Mary who mattered to me, gone or asleep
among fruits, spilled
in ash, in dust, I did not
leave you. Even now I can’t keep from
composing you, limbs and blue cloak
and soft hands. I sleep to the sound
of your name, I say there is no Mary
except the word Mary, no trace
on the dust of my pillowslip. I only
dream of your ankles brushed by dark violets,
of honeybees above you
murmuring into a crown. Antique queen,
the night dreams on: here are the pears
I have washed for you, here the heavy-winged doves,
asleep by the hyacinths. Here I am,
having bathed carefully in the syllables
of your name, in the air and the sea of them, the sharp scent
of their sea foam. What is the matter with me?
Mary, what word, what dust
can I look behind? I carried you a long way
into my mirror, believing you would carry me
back out. Mary, I am still
for you, I am still a numbness for you.
Spirit who knows me, I do not feel you
fall so far in me,
do not feel you turn in my dark center.
My mother is sick, and you
cannot help her.
My beautiful, moon-faced mother is sick
and you sleep in the dark edges of her shadow.
Spirit made to
know me, is this your weight
in my throat, my
chest, the breath heavy so I hardly
I do not believe in the beauty of falling.
Over and over in the dark I tell myself
I do not have to believe
in the beauty of falling
though she edges toward you,
saying your name with such steadiness.
I sit winding blue tape around my wrists
to keep my hands from falling.
Holy Ghost, I come for you today
in this overlit afternoon as she
picks at the bread with her small hands,
her small rough hands,
the wide blue veins that have always been her veins
winding through them.
Ghost, what am I
if I lose the one
who’s always known me?
Spirit, know me.
Shadow, are you here
splintering into the bread’s thick crust as it
crumbles into my palms, is that
you, the dry cough in her lungs, the blue tape on my wrists.
The dark hair that used to fall over her shoulders.
Fragile mother, impossible spirit, will you fall so far
from me, will you leave me
To think it
is the last hard kiss, that seasick
silence, your bits of breath
diffusing in my mouth—
The Lushness of It
It’s not that the octopus wouldn’t love you—
not that it wouldn’t reach for you
with each of its tapering arms.
You’d be as good as anyone, I think,
to an octopus. But the creatures of the sea,
like the sea, don’t think
about themselves, or you. Keep on floating there,
cradled, unable to burn. Abandon
yourself to the sway, the ruffled eddies, abandon
your heavy legs to the floating meadows
of seaweed and feel
the bloom of phytoplankton, spindrift, sea
spray, barnacles. In the dark benthic realm, the slippery nekton
glide over the abyssal plains and as you float you can feel
that upwelling of cold, deep water touch
the skin stretched over
your spine. No, it’s not that the octopus
wouldn’t love you. If it touched,
if it tasted you, each of its three
hearts would turn red.
Will theologians of any confession refute me?
Not the bluecap salmon. Not its dotted head.
Mary Szybist, "Hail," "Holy," and "The Lushness of It," from Incarnadine. Copyright © 2013 by Mary Szybist. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.