The weather keeps some people away, but not everyone. Inprint executive director Rich Levy introduces Mary Szybist and Kevin Young as the readers for the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series in Cullen Theater at Wortham Center. Szybist has won a National Book Award, Young an American Book Award. I see some of my current students in the audience: I am happy they have come. You don’t get a double billing like this every day. Each poet has a theme it seems: Mary, ascension, Kevin, grief. There are difficulties with both, yet also acceptances. You don’t have to resolve everything in order to understand it better. Sometimes understanding it better is as good as it gets.
Szybist reads from Incarnadine, which won the National Book Award. Before you even open the door to her poetry, you think of crimson, the red that is more luminous than cherry red, the red of Botticelli’s angels, the red of the Virgin Mary. Szybist is preparing you for what is her obsession: the strangeness of the annunciation, the anticipatory moments not only of the biblical Mary, but of our own every day lives, in which “dutiful” acquiescence has profound consequences. Her poems circle around the scene of the Annunciation—but do not linger there, taking the notion of expectancy to every realm, both immediate and imaginative.
Before you even open the door to her poetry, you think of crimson, the red that is more luminous than cherry red, the red of Botticelli’s angels, the red of the Virgin Mary.
She reaches the podium, her voice calm, but not in that way that is so soft-spoken that you want to give up. Her poetry is about questions, but she knows what she is about. She quotes W.H. Auden: “Poetry is the clear expression of mixed feelings.” Who can argue with this? One of the poems she reads is “Girls Overheard While Assembling a Puzzle,”—the puzzle of the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation. Suddenly, we are all rookies trying to puzzle out the mystery of it—of everything maybe—and we puzzle it out too, with incredulity: “And are we supposed to believe/she can suddenly/talk angel? Who thought this stuff/ up?” Indeed, who thought this stuff up? No wonder we have to jigsaw it, puzzle it back together, connect some sort of cosmic dots.
Also, there is the anticipation of big things, like the Annunciation, but that is an event that seems remote from us, churchified, mystic. Still, Szybist reminds us we have similar emotions—we can imagine them at least. In “Invitation,” the reader realizes that we might not be visited by angels, but may pledge allegiance to more worldly beings: “Without you my air tastes/like nothing. For you/I hold my breath.”
Szybist uses the mystery of the Annunciation as “a lens for reseeing contemporary encounters,” and that is exactly the effect of her poems: a way to entertain that the template of the Virgin Mary’s submission can be acknowledged but not necessarily replicated or idealized in the contemporary world. Szybist’s poems engage with that next step, but her hopes have a wry wistfulness. In her epistolary poem, “To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary,” the most vivid request is “Tell me you believe the world is made of more than all its stupid, stubborn, small refusals, that anything, everything, is still possible.”
Kevin Young, who teaches at Emory, reads from new poems, and I like that he begins with the unexpected like that, doesn’t start with a familiar hit. This makes sense: he is interested in “speaking differently” as music does, loves jazz and blues, studies, as Rich Levy explains, “Modernism’s debt to black culture.” Young tells us that “Jazz is not a noun, but a verb,” and I believe he thinks the same of poetry.
Young tells us that “Jazz is not a noun, but a verb,” and I believe he thinks the same of poetry.
He shocks me with his new poem, “Anthem,” declaring, “Life is a near-death experience.” That is the power of the poet: you knew that already, but not quite in those words. You wish you had thought them up yourself. He talks about the challenge of the occasional poem, tells a story of doing poems based on the news for NPR, poems in which he is “not supposed” to put in anything personal, or opinionated. The way he says it is funny, the absurdity of the premise entertaining in itself. How do you do this when the news is focused on Trayvon Martin?
Young is subtle, but accessible: “People have to breathe where they live.” For him, living can be in the thick of grief, as when thinking about the loss of his father, or in the wonder of his son’s birth, or in nature, with cows, or egrets, or in a psychological space, such as oblivion. His collection, “Book of Hours,” is both retro and nontraditional, with familiar themes (death, birth, and rebirth), but a lucidity that can only be likened to music. His images are concrete, his dusks easily visualized, his funeral homes picturable. Yet simultaneously his abstractions are manageable, and we can comprehend, as in a poem like “Bereavement,” how “by dusk” the grief-stricken, whether man or animal, “seem/ to unremember everything.”
But maybe what hits me the most is his appreciation for the ironies of language itself: “Cleave can mean ‘to sunder’ or ‘to meet’.” Such contradictions parallel our own, particularly when in the extremes of grief or joy, or even the coming back from both.
Just as Szybist reads a poem to a dead friend (“you must be a little alive still”), longing for the possibility of what she calls the need for “imaginative resuscitation,”
Young imagines talking to his father after his death, in which his dad reports “being dead was a little like living, only longer.” He notes the ironies of our hospitals being named “Mercy,” the callousness of “bereavement specialists.” Young makes you sit up a little straighter, pay attention. Like his father, we can keep all sorts of material things, but we are leveled a little bit by the simplicity of the lines, reminded that his father “kept everything but alive.”
In the Q and A, poet Kevin Prufer asks about form, function, even titles. Szybist is interested in the “Annunciatory space,” and you leave hoping you may have one, even if you don’t know what follows it. She talks about the paradoxes of life, and how expressing its mystery is often a question of form: “every form allows a new form of thinking.” Prufer is right when he points out that she uses multiple forms in her collection: there is no one way to contain the variations of her interests: the letter, the prose poem, the dance of thinking in the villanelle, the concrete poem that emphasizes what is absent. And then she gives it to us as brightly as a crimson Christmas present: the epiphany of what all these poems point to, which is not uncommon. She is interested in “the complication of trying to be transformed,” the luminousness of it unable to distract us from its concomitant difficulty, the elided, inevitable suffering that ensues.
Kevin Young ends on a wonderful riff on the impossibility of titles—you have to abandon them sometimes. He is as honest as the music that means the most to you, and I realize that although he is writing about his father, his wife, his son, it always comes back to the sound of the language. He says, “Err on the side of music,” and one can only hope for such a presence of the lyric in the ordinariness of our mistakes.
I drive out into the cold rain, winter in Houston. I suppose I should be sad: those strange visions of the Virgin Mary, with her red and blue robes—the magnitude of what was asked of her lingering in my head, the grief of death and loss so palpable in so many poems. But you can’t be that sad: imaginative resuscitation has happened, transformed trauma and death into the music of the lines, the cathedral of the poem, a kind of soaring.