Book Monster meets Mary Szybist

Book Monster is a Korean retailer specializing in used and remaindered books. The first U.S. outlet, just off the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, takes its interior design cues from Barnes & Noble and W.H. Smith. It’s the kind of bookstore suited to an international airport concourse: enlarged caricatures of recognizable authors on the walls giving the false impression that the staff, paid by the hour, knows something of the stock. Yet aisles are accessible, shelves hold unexpected gems, and prices are reasonable – which makes me wonder how long Book Monster will hold out against Santa Monica’s steep rents.

One unexpected find: Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine. As of a week ago, I’d never heard of Szybist. It’s only recently that I returned to reading poetry with some regularity – it’s as though I’d slept for thirty years. I bought the book for its cover: a richly red header bar above the blue, gray, rose, safron, green, and terra cotta of Botticelli’s Annunciation. You could frame this cover and hang it from a wall to dignify a room.

It turns out that the cover does tell the book: Szybist builds her work around the theme of Annunciation, a word that appears in nine of forty-two titles. The immanence embodied in those nine poems suffuses into the rest of the collection, so that I looked everywhere both for signs of divine presence and for signs of its ominous absence. The two were not always easy to distinguish: sometimes spirit was artfully concealed, so that I mistook distance for disappearance.

Szybist’s God is merciful, but His mercy is not ours. His gulls peck and pull the skin from living whales (this suggested by a news item), a mercy for the gulls, not so much for the hapless whales. In another, a small girl unselfconsciously eats the eyes out of the fish on her dinner plate. In still others, torturers scoop eyes out from the skulls of Cathar heretics, a mother drops her children from a high Oregon bridge into the unseeable depths below (one lives, one dies), and girls must unwillingly endure men whispering in their ears. The deaths and disfigurations are real, and there’s no hint of mercy in any of them.

Mercy instead comes from the poems themselves, most achingly in “The Cathars, Etc.” whose narrator must go to her blinded husband, tormented as a heretic in a Languedoc village, his lips and nose cut from his face. She must take him back: and she does. In “Night Shifts in the Group Home,” a psychotic woman climbs into bed for the chaste company of the 24-hour caregiver. The caregiver overmastered by exhaustion and maybe compassion, relents. This isn’t the first time the lonely woman has sought company, but her jerking legs and body keep the caregiver awake throughout the night. In such poems as these, mercy is not a quality patched together from surrender or pity. It’s a quality built on foundations of acceptance and endurance. Mercy is a discipline.

The word “incarnadine” is new to me. Cognate with “carnation,” it denotes rich magentas and pinks. However, though red and rose infuse the cover art, it is Szybist’s use of blue that I find most striking: the blue of the sky in a jigsaw puzzle a group of girls work to assemble; the fruit in “Here, There Are Blueberries;” the iridescent wings of Fender’s Blue Butterfly; the “bluish-pink plates” beneath “pillowy cupcakes” in “Conversion Figure.” Since my first reading, I’ve flipped through the pages and have found the warm crimsons promised on the cover. Still, for me, it’s Szybist’s blues that burn radiant and sharp-edged, more so than the rest of her palette, incarnadine or not.

Szybist deploys a range of poetic architectures, each suited to a particular idea. Some of the poems are concrete: the lines radiating out like spokes from a star in “How (Not) to Speak of God;” the sculptural sentence diagram in “It Is Pretty to Think;” the timestamped stanzas in “Too Many Pigeons to Count and One Dove.” Others have little apparent structure but, when recited aloud, tell the time with metronomic regularity. She arranges yet other poems in stanzas of three lines each, rich with rhyme, slant-rhyme and percussive alliteration. She builds images with economy: the “sticky clouds” in “Conversion Figure;” the “opulent sadness” of “To You Again;” the “dove-gray air” in “Annunciation in Nabakov and Starr.”

This was not – for me, at least – a collection whose sequence much mattered. Though I read the poems in order, I moved at random among my favorites when rereading. The effects were the same. In some strains of Christian and Jewish thought, God is immanent everywhere all at once. The future is never unborn and the past is never dead. Divine will holds each successive moment equidistant, each sustained by love and will. Szybist has arranged this collection intentionally, but has retained the synchronicity native to the idea of a created world.

Incarnadine reminds me in some ways of Carolyn Forché’s The Country Between Us: witnessing, witnessing, witnessing – without flinching, without blinking, without turning away. A relentless announcement that the world is here and that each of us lives in it.

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