I recently came across Mary Szybist’s poems and felt drawn to them as one feels drawn to a painting that raises more questions than it gives answers. She is fascinated with the Annunciation for several reasons, one of them being what it has brought to women’s lives — sometimes in negative forms.
Mary Szybist’s poems help me enter a dimension, both foreign and fascinating, possibly the realm of imagination, where traditional images are broken open to reveal a mystery that was there from the start. It takes a daring faith maybe, which leads to a new encounter with Mary, where she and I can talk woman to woman.
Ignatian spirituality has accustomed me to enter a scene, either becoming an actor in it or remaining a spectator. The two poems I chose invite me to become a spectator to a scene we all know, familiar then and suddenly so unfamiliar. Before I say anything more, here are the poems.
Annunciation: Eve to Ave
The wings behind the man I never saw.
But often, afterward, I dreamed his lips,
remembered the slight angle of his hips,
his feet among the tulips and the straw.
I liked the way his voice deepened as he called.
As for the words, I liked the showmanship
with which he spoke them. Behind them, distant ships
went still, the water was smooth as his jaw —
And when I learned that he was not a man —
bullwhip, horsewhip, unzip, I could have crawled
through thorn and bee, the thick of hive, rosehip,
courtship, lordship, gossip and lavender.
(But I was quiet, quiet as
eagerness — that astonished, dutiful fall.)
Annunciation Overheard from the Kitchen
I could hear them from the kitchen, speaking as if
something important had happened.
I was washing the pears in cool water, cutting
the bruises from them.
From my place at the sink, I could hear
a jet buzz hazily overhead, a vacuum
start up next door, the click,
click between shots.
“Mary, step back from the camera.”
There was a softness to his voice
but no fondness, no hurry in it.
There were faint sounds
like walnuts being dropped by crows onto the street,
almost a brush
of windchime from the porch —
Windows around me everywhere half-open —
My skin alive with the pitch.
Mary Szybist. “Annunciation: Eve to Ave” and “Annunciation Overheard from the Kitchen,” from Incarnadine. Copyright © 2013 by Mary Szybist. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, http://www.graywolfpress.org.
“The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.”
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
The scene to which Incarnadine continually returns—the Annunciation—has long been a site of ‘fine invention,’ especially in the hands of artists like Simone Martini and Sandro Botticelli; it portrays a human encountering something not human; it suggests that it is possible for us to perceive and communicate with something or someone not like us. That is part of what I find most moving about the scene: how it plays out the faith, the belief that that can happen—and can change us.
Later on she explains,
Fra Angelico portray the Annunciation by means of displacement and disproportion: the space is at once interior and exterior, indoor and outdoor, open and closed… What artists like Fra Angelico realized in paint, I wished to realize in words. By creating disjunctions that swerve between the carnal and the sacred, the mythic and the quotidian, I aim to create spaces receptive to heterogeneity and difference.
As a final excerpt, I would like to mention this
I love the paintings that do not simply represent Mary’s response to the angel as placid acceptance but rather portray Mary’s confusion and even terror in the moment and suggest that it is combined with the ambiguities of bodily desire—eros of various kinds. It is the more complex and ambiguous possibilities in this encounter that interested me from the start.
May these poems lead you into a world of beauty and wonder, where Mary is there to greet you and guide you.