Incarnadine: Poems

Incarnadine: Poems

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by Mary Szybist

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Winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Poetry

* An NPR, Slate, Oregonian, Kansas City Star, Willamette Week, and Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year * Amazon's Best Book of the Year in Poetry 2013 *
In Incarnadine, Mary Szybist restlessly seeks out places where meaning might take on new color. One poem is

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Winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Poetry

* An NPR, Slate, Oregonian, Kansas City Star, Willamette Week, and Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year * Amazon's Best Book of the Year in Poetry 2013 *
In Incarnadine, Mary Szybist restlessly seeks out places where meaning might take on new color. One poem is presented as a diagrammed sentence. Another is an abecedarium made of lines of dialogue spoken by girls overheard while assembling a puzzle. Several poems arrive as a series of Annunciations, while others purport to give an update on Mary, who must finish the dishes before she will open herself to God. One poem appears on the page as spokes radiating from a wheel, or as a sunburst, or as the cycle around which all times and all tenses are alive in this moment. Szybist's formal innovations are matched by her musical lines, by her poetry's insistence on singing as a lure toward the unknowable. Inside these poems is a deep yearning—for love, motherhood, the will to see things as they are and to speak. Beautiful and inventive, Incarnadine is the new collection by one of America's most ambitious poets.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this highly anticipated second book from Szybist (Granted), love poetry and poetry of religious faith blend and blur into one transcendent, humbled substance, in which a beloved is asked, “Just for this evening, won’t you put me before you/ until I’m far enough away you can/ believe in me?” Also blended and blurred are the biblical and the contemporary, the divine and the self, as in “Update on Mary,” a quiet pun on the author’s name and that of her namesake, in which “It is not uncommon to find Mary falling asleep on her yoga mat when she has barely begun to stretch.” “Annunciation” poems spread throughout the book discover god in all sorts of unlikely places, such as beneath the clothes of a cross-dressing man: “And when I learned that he was not a man—/ Bullwhip, horsewhip, unzip, I could have crawled/ Through thorn and bee.” Finally, though, whether or not readers are attuned to the religious content, these are gorgeous lyrics, in traditional and invented forms—one poem is a diagrammed sentence while another radiates from an empty space at the center of the page—which create close encounters with not-quite-paraphrasable truths. This is essential poetry (Feb.)
From the Publisher
Praise for Incarnadine:

"Poetry readers in the know have been waiting a decade for this book. . . . Szybist is a skeptic who thinks a lot about faith, a believer in doubt, though as a series of 'Announcement' poems attest, she finds God all around—in everything from the distracted discourse of former President Bush to the sound of 'a vacuum / start[ing] up next door.' . . . More than anything, though, Szybist is a humble and compassionate observer of the complicated glory of the world and humanity's ambivalent role in it, as inheritors and interlopers." —Craig Morgan Teicher,

"Szybist persistently tightens the association between revelation and destruction, presenting the other side of an unspoken loss that seems to lurk in the decade Incarnadine emerges from: a loss of faith, urgency, purpose, love, inspiration." —Slate

"[Incarnadine] is deeply felt and well-crafted, layered in content between the literal, the here and now, the might-have-beens, as well as iconography. Stark at moments, shrouded in others, Szybist utilizes form to push at and hold the stories told and the images explored in this rich and moving work." The Oregonian

"Pulses with its titular rosy glow. . . . Incarnadine paints a portrait of its author—longing for motherhood, questioning the divine, watching patterns of sunlight through her curtains and playing with her words. In her letter-style poem 'To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary,' she puts it simply: 'What I want is what I've always wanted. What I want is to be changed." —Willamette Week

"Szybist's long-awaited second collection is a mirage of inventive, intense, dichotic poems." —Library Journal

"Love poetry and poetry of religious faith blend and blur into one transcendent, humbled substance. . . . Whether or not readers are attuned to the religious content, these are gorgeous lyrics, in traditional and invented forms—one poem is a diagrammed sentence while another radiates from an empty space at the center of the page—which create close encounters with not-quite-paraphrasable truths. This is essential poetry." —Publishers Weekly

Praise for Mary Szybist:

“Mary Szybist’s poems are about religious and sexual longing and about suspicion of religious and sexual longing . . . She has a gift for music, a gift for aphorism, a gift for being haunted.” —Robert Hass


“Mary Szybist’s lovely musical touch is light and exact enough to catch the weight and grind of love. This is a hard paradox to master as she does.” —Kay Ryan


“Mary Szybist’s great poetic gifts confront the limits of human compassion, delving into some of its agonized consequences. Her work’s ambition is the creation of a free human in the midst of the seemingly endless tetherings of desire.” —Jorie Graham


Library Journal
Szybist's long-awaited second collection (after the National Book Critics Circle award finalist Granted) is a mirage of inventive, intense, and dichotic poems. Reincarnations of the biblical Mary appear and reappear, creating a game of who's who for the reader. Lines seem to emerge from a dark place—"Sleeper, still untouched by/ gravity, invisible/ for the stone, I cannot"—and, once on the page, the words pace between two realities reminiscent of a heaven and a hell. At times overly emotive, Szybist has a tendency to demonstrate the opposite of what her lines decree—she is in a way noting herself even though she offers this question: "I wonder what I am, that anyone should note me." VERDICT The lyrically solid Szybist is never static, but her poems work best for the emotional reader, the one who wants to be told how to see the mystery.—Annalisa Pesek, Library Journal

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By Mary Szybist

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2013 Mary Szybist
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-330-8


    The Troubadours Etc.

    Just for this evening, let's not mock them.
    Not their curtsies or cross-garters
    or ever-recurring pepper trees in their gardens
    promising, promising.

    At least they had ideas about love.

    All day we've driven past cornfields, past cows poking heir heads
    through metal contraptions to eat.
    We've followed West 84, and what else?
    Irrigation sprinklers fly past us, huge wooden spools inthe fields,
    lounging sheep, telephone wires,
    yellowing flowering shrubs.

    Before us, above us, the clouds swell, layers of them,
    the violet underneath of clouds.
    Every idea I have is nostalgia. Look up:
    there is the sky that passenger pigeons darkened and filled —

    darkened for days, eclipsing sun, eclipsing all other sound
    with the thunder of their wings.
    After a while, it must have seemed that they followed
    not instinct or pattern but only
    one another.

    When they stopped, Audubon observed,
    they broke the limbs of stout trees by the weight of the numbers.

    And when we stop we'll follow — what?
    Our hearts?

    The Puritans thought that we are granted the ability to love
    only through miracle,
    but the troubadours knew how to burn themselves through,
    how to make themselves shrines to their own longing.
    The spectacular was never behind them.

    Think of days of those scarlet-breasted, blue-winged birds above you.
    Think of me in the garden, humming
    quietly to myself in my blue dress,
    a blue darker than the sky above us, a blue dark enough for storms,
    though cloudless.

    At what point is something gone completely?
    The last of the sunlight is disappearing
    even as it swells —

    Just for this evening, won't you put me before you
    until I'm far enough away you can
    believe in me?

    Then try, try to come closer —
    my wonderful and less than.

    Annunciation (from the grass beneath them)

    how many moments did it hover before we felt
    it was like nothing else, it was not bird
    light as a mosquito, the aroma of walnut husks
    while the girl's knees pressed into us
    every spear of us rising, sunlit and coarse
    the wild bees murmuring through
    what did you feel when it was almost upon us when
    even the shadows her chin made
    never touched but reached just past
    the crushed mint, the clover clustered between us
    how cool would you say it was
    still cool from the clouds
    how itchy the air
    the girl tilted and lurched and then
    we rose up to it, held ourselves tight
    when it skimmed just the tips of our blades
    didn't you feel softened
    no, not even its flickering trembled

    Conversion Figure

    I spent a long time falling
    toward your slender, tremulous face —

    a long time slipping through stars
    as they shattered, through sticky clouds
    with no confetti in them.

    I fell toward earth's stony colors
    until they brightened, until I could see
    the green and white stripes of party umbrellas
    propped on your daisied lawn.

    From above, you looked small
    as an afterthought, something lightly brushed in.
    Beside you, blush-pink plates
    served up their pillowy cupcakes, and your rosy hems
    swirled round your dark head —

    I fell and fell.
    I fell toward the pulse in your thighs,
    toward the cool flamingo of your slip
    fluttering past your knees —

    Out of God's mouth I fell
    like a piece of ripe fruit
    toward your deepening shadow.

    Girl on the lawn without sleeves, knees bare even of lotion,
    time now to strip away everything
    you try to think about yourself.

    Put down your little dog.
    Stop licking the cake from your fingers.

    Before today, what darkness
    did you let into your flesh? What stillness
    did you cast into the soil?

    Lift up your head.
    Time to enter yourself.
    Time to make your own sorrow.

    Time to unbrighten and discard
    even your slenderness.

    Annunciation in Nabokov and Starr
    (from The Starr Report and Nabokov's Lolita)

    I simply can't tell you how gentle, how touching she was.
    I knocked, and she opened the door.
    She was holding her hem in her hands.

    I simply can't tell you how gentle, how calm she was
    during her cooperation. In the windowless hallway,
    I bent toward her.

    She was quiet as a cloud.
    She touched her mouth with her damp-smelling hand.

    There was no lake behind us, no arbor in flame-flower.
    There was a stone wall the dull white of vague orchards in bloom.

    When she stood up to gather the almost erasable
    scents into the damp folds
    of her blue dress —

    When she walked through the Rose Garden,
    its heavy, dove-gray air,
    dizzy with something unbreathable —

    There was something soft and moist about her,
    a dare, a rage, an intolerable tenderness.

    How could I have known
    what the sky would do? It was awful to watch
    its bright shapes churn and zero
    through her, knowing

    her body looked like anyone's body
    paused at the edge of the garden.

    Heroine as She Turns to Face Me

    Just before the curtain closes, she turns
    toward me, loosening
    her gauzy veil & bright hair —

    This, she seems to say, this
    to create scene, the pure sweep of it,
    this to give in, feel the lushness,
    this & just a little theatrical lighting
    & you, too, can be happy,
    she's sure of it —

    It's as if I cut her heart-whole from the sky,
    rag & twist & tongue & the now terrible speed
    of her turning

    toward me like the spirit
    I meant to portray, indefatigable —

    see how bravely she turns, how exactly true to the turning,
    & in the turning

    most herself,
    as she arranges herself for the exit

    withholding nothing, unraveling
    the light in her hair as her face

    her bright, unapproachable face
    says only that
    whatever the next scene is,
    she will fill it.

Update on Mary

Mary always thinks that as soon as she gets a few more things done and finishes the dishes, she will open herself to God.

At the gym Mary watches shows about how she should dress herself, so each morning she tries on several combinations of skirts and heels before retreating to her waterproof boots. This takes a long time, so Mary is busy.

Mary can often be observed folding the laundry or watering the plants. It is only when she has a simple, repetitive task that her life feels orderly, and she feels that she is not going to die before she is supposed to die.

Mary wonders if she would be a better person if she did not buy so many almond cookies and pink macaroons.

When people say "Mary," Mary still thinks Holy Virgin! Holy Heavenly Mother! But Mary knows she is not any of those things.

Mary worries about not having enough words in her head.

Mary fills her cupboards with many kinds of teas so that she can select from their pastel labels according to her mood: Tuscan Pear, Earl Grey Lavender, Cherry Rose Green. But Mary likes only plain red tea and drinks it from morning to night.

Mary has too many silver earrings and likes to sort them in the compartments of her drawer.

Someday Mary would like to think about herself, but she's not yet sure what it means to think, and she's even more confused about herself.

It is not uncommon to find Mary falling asleep on her yoga mat when she has barely begun to stretch.

Mary sometimes closes her eyes and tries to imagine herself as a door swung open. But it is easier to imagine pink macaroons —

Mary likes the solemn titles on her husband's thick books. She feels content and sleepy when he reads them beside her at night — The Works of Saint Augustine, Critique of Judgment, Paradigm Change in Theology — but she does not want to read them.

Mary secretly thinks she is pretty and therefore deserves to be loved.

Mary tells herself that if only she could have a child she could carry around like an extra lung, the emptiness inside her would stop gnawing.

It's hard to tell if she believes this.

Mary believes she is a sincere and serious person, but she does not even try to pray.

Some afternoons Mary pretends to read a book, but mostly she watches the patterns of sunlight through the curtains.

On those afternoons, she's like a child who has run out of things to think about.

Mary likes to go out and sit in the yard. If she let herself, she'd stare at the sky all day.

The most interesting things to her are clouds. See, she watches them even by moonlight. Tonight, until bedtime, we can let her have those.


    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.

    Annunciation as Fender's Blue Butterfly with Kincaid's Lupine

    The endangered Fender's blue butterfly associates, not
    with common lupines, but with the very rare Kincaid's


    But if I were this thing,
    my mind a thousand times smaller than my wings,

    if my fluorescent blue flutter
    finally stumbled

    into the soft
    aqua throats of the blossoms,

    if I lost my hunger
    for anything else —

    I'd do the same. I'd fasten myself
    to the touch of the flower.

    So what if the milky rims of my wings
    no longer stupefied

    the sky? If I could
    bind myself to this moment, to the slow

    snare of its scent,
    what would it matter if I became

    just the flutter of page
    in a text someone turns

    to examine me
    in the wrong color?

    Girls Overheard While Assembling a Puzzle

    Are you sure this blue is the same as the
    blue over there? This wall's like the
    bottom of a pool, its
    color I mean. I need a
    darker two-piece this summer, the kind with
    elastic at the waist so it actually
    fits. I can't
    find her hands. Where does this gold
    go? It's like the angel's giving
    her a little piece of honeycomb to eat.
    I don't see why God doesn't
    just come down and
    kiss her himself. This is the red of that
    lipstick we saw at the
    mall. This piece of her
    neck could fit into the light part
    of the sky. I think this is a
    piece of water. What kind of
    queen? You mean
    right here? And are we supposed to believe
    she can suddenly
    talk angel? Who thought this stuff
    up? I wish I had a
    velvet bikini. That flower's the color of the
    veins in my grandmother's hands. I
    wish we could
    walk into that garden and pick an
    X-ray to float on.
    Yeah. I do too. I'd say a
    zillion yeses to anyone for that.


    If I can believe in air, I can believe
    in the angels of air.

    Angels, come breathe with me.

    Angel of abortion, angel of alchemy,
    angels of barrenness and bliss,
    exhale closer. Let me feel
    your breath on my teeth —

    I call to you, angels of embryos,
    earthquakes, you of forgetfulness —

    Angels of infection, cover my mouth
    and nose with your mouth.

    Failed inventions, tilt my head back.

    Angels of prostitution and rain,
    you of sheerness and sorrow,
    you who take nothing,
    breathe into me.

    You who have cleansed your lips
    with fire, I do not need to know
    your faces, I do not need you
    to have faces.

    Angels of water insects, let me sleep
    to the sound of your breathing.

    You without lungs, make my chest rise —

    Without you my air tastes
    like nothing. For you
    I hold my breath.

Entrances and Exits

In the late afternoon, my friend's daughter walks into my office looking for snacks. She opens the bottom file drawer to take out a bag of rice cakes and a blue carton of rice milk that comes with its own straw. I have been looking at a book of paintings by Duccio. Olivia eats. Bits of puffed rice fall to the carpet.

A few hours ago, the 76-year-old woman, missing for two weeks in the wilderness, was found alive at the bottom of a canyon. The men who found her credit ravens. They noticed ravens circling —

Duccio's Annunciation sits open on my desk. The slender angel (dark, green-tipped wings folded behind him) reaches his right hand towards the girl; a vase of lilies sits behind them. But the white dots above the vase don't look like lilies. They look like the bits of puffed rice scattered under my desk. They look like the white fleck at the top of the painting that means both spirit and bird.

Olivia, who is six, picks up the wooden kaleidoscope from my desk and, holding it to her eye, turns it to watch the patterns honeycomb, the colors tumble and change —

Today is the 6th of September. In six days, Russia will hold a day of conception: couples will be given time off from work to procreate, and those who give birth on Russia's national day will receive money, cars, refrigerators, and other prizes.

A six-hour drive from where I sit, deep in the Wallowa Mountains, the woman spent at least six days drifting in and out of consciousness, listening to the swellings of wind, the howls of coyotes, the shaggy-throated ravens —

I turn on the radio. Because he died this morning, Pavarotti's immoderate, unnatural Cs ring out. He said that, singing these notes, he was seized by an animal sensation so intense he would almost lose consciousness.

Duccio's subject is God's entrance into time: time meaning history, meaning a body.

No one knows how the woman survived in her light clothes, what she ate and drank, or what she thought when she looked up into the unkindness of ravens, their loops, their green and purple iridescence flashing —

I think of honeybees. For months, whole colonies have been disappearing from their hives. Where are the bodies? Some blame droughts. Too few flowers, they say: too little nectar.

Consider the ravens. They neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. (Luke 12:24)

The men never saw the ravens — just heard their deep caw, caw circling.

Olivia and I look down on Duccio's scene. I point to the angel's closed lips; she points to his dark wings.

The blue container of rice milk fits loosely into Olivia's hand the same way the book fits into the hand of Duccio's Mary. She punches a hole in the top and, until it is empty, Olivia drinks.

It Is Pretty to Think

    Long after the Desert and Donkey
    (Gabriel to Mary)

    And of what there would be no end
     —it came quickly.
    The wind runs loose, the air churns over us.
    No one remembers.

    But I remember, under the elm's cool awning,
    watching you watch the clouds.
    Afternoons passed like afternoons,
    and I loved how dull you were.
    Given a bit of bark or the buzz
    of a bright green fly, you'd smile
    for hours. Sweet child, you'd go to anyone.
    You had no preferences.

    I remember the first time coming toward you,
    how solid you looked, sitting and twisting
    your dark hair against your neck.
    But you were not solid.
    From the first moment, when you breathed
    on my single lily, I saw
    where you felt it.

    From then on, I wanted to bend low and close
    to the curves of your ear.

    There were so many things I wanted to tell you.
    Or rather,
    I wished to have things that I wanted to tell you.

    What a thing, to be with you and have
    no words for it. What a thing,
    to be outcast like that.

    And then everything unfastened.
    It was like something was always dissolving
    inside you —

    Already it's hard to remember
    how you used to comb your hair or how you
    tilted your broad face in green shade.

    Now what seas, what meanings
    can I place in you?

    Each night, I see you by the window —
    sometimes pressing your lips against a pear
    you do not eat. Each night,

    I see where you feel it:
    where there are no mysteries.

To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary

All morning I've thought of you feeding donkeys in the Spanish sun — Donkey Petra, old and full of cancer. Blind Ruby who, you say, loves carrots and takes a long time to eat them. Silver the beautiful horse with the sunken spine who was ridden too young for too long and then abandoned. And the head-butting goat who turned down your delicious kiwi so afterward you wondered why you hadn't eaten it.

Here I feed only the unimpressed cats who go out in search of something better. Outside, the solitaires are singing their metallic songs, warning off other birds. Having to come down from the mountain this time of year just to pick at the picked-over trees must craze them a little. I can hear it in their shrill, emphatic notes, a kind of no, no in the undertone. With each one, it is like my body blinks — which, from a distance, must look like flickering.

Gabriela-flown-off-to-save-the-donkeys, it's three hours past dawn. All I've done is read the paper and watch the overcast sky gradually lighten. Breaking news from the West: last night it snowed. A man, drunk, tied a yellow inner-tube to his pickup, whistled in his daughter, and drove in circles, dragging her wildly behind ...

I know. But to who else can I write of all the things I should not write? I'm afraid I've become one of those childless women who reads too much about the deaths of children. Of the local woman who lured the girl to her house, then cut the baby out of her. Of the mother who threw her children off the bridge, not half a mile from where I sleep.


Excerpted from Incarnadine by Mary Szybist. Copyright © 2013 Mary Szybist. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Mary Szybist is the author of a previous poetry collection, Granted, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She teaches at Lewis&Clark College and lives in Portland, Oregon.

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