I’m not much of a person for poetry.
I can really enjoy a poem, but sometimes I feel like I just don’t get it. Now, I don’t get this feeling when I read a nonfiction title on a subject I know nothing about (examples: any sort of math, evolutionary biology). And I enjoy being stretched in my fiction reading, to go outside of my own comfort zone and frame of reference. I don’t go through my days thinking about what a dope I am. So why is poetry so intimidating?
Honestly, I have no idea. But when I do read poetry, my only critical frame of reference is something Emily Dickinson once said about how she knows a poem is a poem: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I may not have the ability to appreciate every technical nuance in a poem, but I can still experience that frisson of recognition that all great art inspires. It’s an almost chemical reaction in my brain from the play between the words on the page and the ideas they represent. I may not quite know how to explain it, but I know it’s poetry.
“Incarnadine” by Mary Szybist is a book that will scalp you completely. Her poems are fairly straightforward; most are free verse, but they can be quite inventive in their form. “It Is Pretty to Think” is a diagramed sentence (grammar nerds rejoice!), but it is a feat far beyond what you may imagine when you hear the phrase “diagramed sentence.” “Notes on a 39-Year Old Body” is a magic act where two epigraphs are rearranged to form the body of the poem, glamoring the words into something that is quite literally greater than the sum of its parts. “Close Reading” is a poem about artistic criticism, and is both a poem and an analytical “close reading” of the same poem.
Szybist takes as her recurring theme the biblical Mary, focusing particularly on the Annunciation and its many representations in art. The poet’s fascination has to do with the veil that is parted the moment when the divine meets the mundane. Szybist explores how the divine can be terrifying, a part of many forces that lie outside our own control, and what this means for fragile flesh.
A number of poems retell the story of the Annunciation: from the point of view of the ground beneath Mary’s feet, by using excerpts from the Starr Report and Nabokov’s “Lolita,” or through erasure alone. In “Update on Mary,” Szybist talks about herself, but she’s been talking about another Mary for so much of the book that it takes a minute to recognize who she’s talking about. Other poems take on broader questions of religion, such as “The Cathars Etc.” and “How (Not) to Speak of God.” But in “Here, There Are Blueberries,” for example, religion seems entirely beside the point; the book really isn’t a collection of religious poems.
There is so much I enjoyed about this book that I quickly placed it in my list of favorite books for this year. I’m surprised, because I usually spend so much time being scared of poetry, and I guess for me the lesson learned here is to keep an open mind. Read outside what I usually do — I may even like it! If you’re a poetry buff, or if you’re like me and barely dabble, I would love to hear what you think of “Incarnadine.”
• “Incarnadine” by Mary Szybist was published in February by Graywolf Press. It retails for $15.
• Adam Jones manages Inklings Bookshop. He and other Inklings staffers review books in this space each week.