Poetry As Soul-Making – The Poems of Mary Szybist

Mary Szybist (1970 - ) National Book Award Winner

Mary Szybist (1970 – ) 2013 National Book Award Winner

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
colour 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 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.

Mary Szybist from Incardine, Graywolf Press, 2013

Imagine this: a book of poems that constellates around the iconic moment in the Christian scriptures called the Annuciation – the proclamation of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to the son of God. And imagine that this book was nominated for the 2013 American National Book Award. And imagine it won!


The Annunciation (1898) by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1856-1937)

Well, no need to imagine! Incardine, just the second book of poems written by the 43- year-old American poet Mary Szybist (She-bist) , assistant professor of English at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon ,  has accomplished all this and more.

The poems in Incardine do not simply retell  the Annunciation again and again.Her approach is much more subtle than that.  She manages to bring her own unique and contemporary take on the story and interweaves it directly and indirectly in her poems as you can see in the epigraph poem to this blog post.

I think it is a deft touch in the epigraph poem to have modern girls (Mary’s age I imagine) telling the story through putting a puzzle together. As if the virgin birth wasn’t enough of a puzzle! And, of course, that’s the point!

In spite of the conventional Annuciation scene painted by Bottecelli as featured on Incardine’s cover there is nothing conventional about the poems in Incardine either in their content or forms. And as you can see in the poem above even her line breaks are unconventional.

In an interview with Shara Lessley for the National Book Award, Szybist asks: What counts as the sacred now? What kind of encounters are we witnessing? And what are those encounters engendering? By offering a multitude of Annunciation possibilities, I wish to unsettle and, to some extent, take leave of the old story, even as I found new uses for it.”

Here is an unsettling example in an erasure poem where Szybist has taken words out of Luke’s version of the Annunciation in the Christian Gospels and adds a surprising ambiguity and mystery. What a great way to see the story anew, to give it more layers of meaning.

Annunciation under Erasure

 And he came to her and said

                          The Lord is

           in      mind

                      be afraid Mary

The Holy
              will overshadow you



            nothing         be impossible

And Mary said

And the angel departed from her.

Mary Szybist, ibid

Many other poets and great painters have told the story of the annunciation. But what I particularly appreciate are the tellings that are much more complex, ambiguous and give us a flesh and blood Mary, who is not simply some compliant pushover! Poets like Denise Levertov and Luci Shaw remind us Mary could have said no. American poet Jean Murray-Walker profiles a woman called Delores, who did say no. And Oscar Wilde reminds us that in other great old stories and myths the God didn’t bother sending a messenger, he came himself and took what he wanted .

It is so revealing that Szybist says that the poem that most haunted her in writing her book was W. B. Yeats poem Leda and the Swan. She says: By emphasizing the terror of the event, the brutal indifference and power of the god, he suggested something about the character of the era that unfolded from it. There are is a real sense of that terror in her poem Annunciation as Right Whale with Kelp Gulls:

Annunciation as Right Whale with Kelp Gulls

The gulls have learned to feed on the whales…
The proportion of whales attacked annually has
soared from 1% in 1974 to 78% today.


I tell you I have seen them in their glee

diving fast into the sureness of her flesh,
fly into the softness of

her wounds— have seen them

peel her, have seen them give themselves

full to the effort and the
lull of it—

Why shouldn’t such sweetness
be for them?

For they outnumber her.

For she is tender, pockmarked, full

of openness. For they

swoop down on her whenever she surfaces. For they

eat her alive. For they take mercy on others and show them the way.

At high tide, more gulls lift from the mussel beds and soar toward her.

For they do sit and eat, for they do sit and eat

a sweetness prepared for them

until she disappears again into the water.

Mary Szybist, ibid

Szybist,  in her poems takes on the challenge, in an exemplary way, that every poet faces  when they use a myth , or an iconic story, directly or indirectly, in a poem. Telegraphed by the poems title, the echoes of the biblical Annunciation, in the poem (God impregnating a mortal woman) adds something even more ominous and disturbing to a modern news story. The gulls become even more sinister as they echo and contrast the swooping of the angel coming to Mary. This contrast adds to the horror in this poem from the impact of environmental change on our planet.

In her National Book Award acceptance speech Szybist said: I think often of the words of Paul Connelly who said ‘I believe it is not arguing well but speaking differently that changes a culture. Poetry is the place where speaking differently is more prevalent’. She adds: speaking differently is what I aspire to…

Speaking differently is what Szybist does based on this collection. In her acceptance speech she also adds a lovely reflection on the nature of poetry:

 There’s plenty that poetry cannot do but the miracle, of course, is how much it can do, how much it does do. So often I think I know myself, only to discover in a poem a difference or an otherness that resonates. Where I find myself as Wallace Stevens once put it ‘more truly and more strange’. It is what some describe as soul making. I count myself among them. Amen to that!


In two poetry  retreats I led in late October and November this year I assigned the challenge of taking a well known story and incorporating it into a poem. And for the assignment I used examples of poems using the Annunciation  theme. It was during my preparation that I discovered Szybist had written a whole book based on the theme but I was only able to find it  after the retreats. I am glad I did and I recommend it wholeheartedly!

Other great examples of poets who take on this kind of “translation” are the American Kasim Ali in his poem on Icarus called Confession, the U.K. Poet Laureate, Carol Ann  Duffy  in her poem Mrs. Lazarus; the Canadian poet Alden Nowlan (1933 – 1953) in his poem I, Icarus; and U.K. poet Jo Shapcott in her poem Mrs.Noah.

To make the so-called writing adventure more layered I offered writers the chance to make this an Ekphrastic poem – a poem inspired by a work of art. I offered them three choices of Annunciation paintings to pick and provide a specific context for their poems.. The most popular is the one that introduces this post – The Annunciation ( 1897 -98) by the Black-American painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner.


  1. Posted December 22, 2013 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    Thanks Richard:

    I’m looking forward to seeing Mary Szybist at the Festival of Faith & Writing in Grand Rapids come April. Are you coming?


  2. Richard
    Posted December 22, 2013 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    Dear Don! Merry Christmas! And thank you for another year of Kingdom Poet posts! I know how much work that is! Every week without fail! Is the Faith and Writing Festival the one sponsored by the College out of Madison? All best to you and your family. Richard

  3. Rosemary
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    Thank you for another wonderful post, Richard, and for introducing me to this author. One of the great gifts of the year has been this site. I look forward to reading many more posts in 2014.
    Blessings and light.

  4. Richard
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Rosemary: One of my delights in writing my blog is receiving comments back out of the silence of the internet! Thank you for the gift of your comments during 2013. And I hope to keep the blogs coming more frequently in 2014! Merry Christmas and all good fortune with your poems in 2014. All best, Richard

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