I'VE RECENTLY DEVELOPED a pretty serious writer crush on local poet Mary Szybist. I can't imagine who wouldn't fall for her resonant work after attending one of her readings: Her soft, unhurried delivery is intimate and incantatory, her discussion during the Q&A as articulate and thoughtful as any of her adroitly layered poems. I left with the need for more, and while I'm tempted to compare this to the urge to hear the same pop song over and over, that seems entirely at odds with Szybist's nuanced and intellectual projects.
Or perhaps not. Szybist, who teaches at Lewis and Clark College, writes poems that explore the sacred and the commonplace, and the often-thin border between. Her exquisite lines stick in the mind like any catchy refrain. Examples abound from her latest, the National Book Award-winning collection, Incarnadine, in which Szybist explores the biblical story of the Annunciation. She deploys a variety of forms, using signs, stories, and images from contemporary culture as well as biblical times. Take "Annunciation in Nabokov and Starr," which incorporates language from Kenneth Starr's 1998 report on the Clinton White House with Nabokov's Lolita, creating an uncomfortable encounter between the speaker and the young Virgin Mary. "There was something soft and moist about her, a dare, a rage, an intolerable tenderness," writes Szybist. We also see the calculated and evocative slippage between Mary the virgin, Mary the icon, and Mary the poet: "Mary always thinks that as soon as she gets a few more things done and finishes the dishes, she will open herself to God."
Szybist's language similarly traverses a space between plainness and transcendence. Her poems are most affecting where lines of rich lyricism are suddenly punctuated by a well-timed rhetorical gesture. After meditating on skies darkened by once-commonplace passenger pigeons, the speaker in one poem says, "When they stopped, Audubon observed,/they broke the limbs of stout trees by the weight of their numbers./And when we stop we'll follow—what?/Our hearts?"
These are pertinent questions for love-struck readers like myself. When I asked about her next project, Szybist said, "I don't expect poems to come fast or easily. I think of Whitman's noiseless patient spider and how, to explore its 'vacant vast surrounding,/It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,/Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.' The threads I've thrown lately haven't caught much, but I'm patient."
Me too. I'll be eagerly awaiting getting caught in her new web.
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