Even for avid readers of all genres, poetry can sometimes feel a bit…unapproachable. But the poems of Portland-based writer Mary Szybist read more like a letter from an old friend, familiar and inviting. They float by like a snippet of overheard conversation. Words both lovely and sad flow from line to line in an experience akin to following the lines of force within a painting.
Szybist's newest collection, Incarnadine, pulses with its titular rosy glow. Recurring themes of love, faith, motherhood and aging are grounded in precisely realized settings. We see Mary, folding laundry and watering plants, avoiding conversations with God. And while Szybist continually returns to spiritual topics, it is with curiosity more than reverence—a search for middle ground between believing and not believing.
Szybist turns proclamations from angels into personal revelations, with several poems crafted in the form of an annunciation. She pulls text from the Starr Report and Nabokov's Lolita to create a portrait of "intolerable tenderness." In "Annunciation Under Erasure," select words are pulled from the angel Gabriel's original annunciation to Mary that she will give birth to the son of God, turning the blessing into a warning: "…be afraid Mary, The Holy will overshadow you, therefore be nothing, be impossible.…"
It is not only her choice of words but their construction that makes each poem a unique experience. "It Is Pretty to Think" is presented in the form of a diagrammed sentence. "Girls Overheard While Assembling a Puzzle" is exactly what it sounds like, but Szybist creates an abecedarium with the overheard phrases. In "How (Not) to Speak of God," each sentence radiates out from a center point. What could end up confusing and pretentious instead manages to be smart and charming.
Ultimately, Incarnadine paints a portrait of its author—longing for motherhood, questioning the divine, watching patterns of sunlight through her curtains and playing with her words. In her letter-style poem "To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary," she puts it simply: "What I want is what I've always wanted. What I want is to be changed."
GO: Mary Szybist appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., on Tuesday, Feb. 12. 7:30 pm. Free.