Critically Acclaimed Poet Graces City College’s Mission Campus
By Adina Pernell
Mary Szybist, the second guest in the City College Visiting Writers Series, is a critically acclaimed poet whose numerous awards and accolades include being a Pushcart Prize winner, and whose most recent book “Incarnadine” won the National Book Award for Poetry.
“Incarnadine” is a book of poems revealing the many sides of the biblical Mary, often told through the lens of ordinary women.
Its cover features a depiction of the Annunciation, where according to biblical lore, the angel Gabriel tells Mary she would give birth to the Son of God. Szybist admitted that the image “dominated her imagination.”
“I grew up with this scene of the Annunciation; with the name Mary, in a Catholic household. I went to the church of Annunciation and my best friend’s name was Gabriella,” she said.
John Isles, the City College English professor who hosted Szybist’s reading, welcomed her by projecting the Annunciation scene. “I am blown away by ‘Incarnadine,’” he said.
Isles introduced a poem from “Incarnadine” titled “Girls Overheard While Assembling a Puzzle.” Its surreal, maze-like construction reads like a puzzle in structure. It depicts two young girls contemplating the idea of the biblical Mary and the complexity of faith and religion.
“It is not a spectator’s sport. You are involved in it, putting the puzzle together of the poem as you read it,” Isles said.
From the book, Szybist read “Annunciation: Eve to Ave” along with other attendees. The poem challenges the idea of “bad Eve” verses “good Mary”—what Szybist called a “terrible dualism.”
The symbolism and imagery of Szybist’s poems leave a lasting impression, and many audience members were fans of her work.
“Her poetry does not let go. It is so committed to exploring an idea, like a mathematical proof; her poems continue to look at the world long after others have moved on,” said Cynthia Slates, coordinator for the City College Writer’s Certificate.
Later that evening, in a candid interview after the event, Szybist added insight into what “Incarnadine” meant to her.
“Well, it is the color red,” Szybist said. “And I came to the term though Macbeth, and about that moment as I described before when he had blood on his hands. And he is trying to grapple with his own guilt and wash that blood off his hands—that feels he could ‘the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red…” That sense of washing…”
Cullen Bailey Burns, an English department faculty member and poet introduced by Isles during the interview, asked for Szybist’s autograph.
Burns, a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award in poetry, most recently published a reflective volume of poems titled “Slip.”
The poignant moment of one poet getting another’s autograph only served to highlight the impact Szybist has had on the literary world.
Szybist continued after graciously signing Burns’ copy of “Incarnadine.”
When asked whether The National Book Committee’s quote that “Incarnadine” is “a religious book for nonbelievers, or a book of necessary doubts for the faithful” is accurate, she responded by saying, “that is my hope for what the book is.” “
“[‘Incarnadine’] wants to find a way to think about how religion might still be of use to us, even if it’s not through the lense of belief.”
Szybist’s casting of the biblical Mary is not an archetypal representation of the divinity of femininity.
“I’m interested in creating multiple and alternate versions of the figure of Mary. So part of what is so dramatic [and] so often repeated is that she is supposed to be all-pure. She’s supposed to be a virgin, and a mother,” Szybist said.
She paused and pursed her lips, creating a silence so pregnant with meaning that we both laughed at her statement before she continued.
“These are impossible ideals, right. And when women are measured against them, we fail,” Szybist said.
“And this has hurt women very much, internally and in our lives. So my ambition wasn’t to try and say ‘not this one, here’s the other.’ It was to try to put some chinks in that old idea by creating new ones.”
When asked which poem was most representative of “Incarnadine” as a whole, Szybist adamantly expressed her viewpoint of Mary’s personality as multifaceted.
“[In] ‘Incarnadine,’ I am interested in the world and how this mystery [is] grappled with in real incarnated ways. I sort of was playfully thinking, well what if I was to imagine it as a puzzle? I imagined what was putting the puzzle together. And what messages this kind of scene is sending to young girls especially? I was also thinking… in the Bible story, Mary would have been really young. We forget that. Mary would probably have been about their age.”
She spoke of the two young girls envisioning Mary and reflected on her creation of them. She looked off into the distance, as if she was seeing them.