Mary Szybist At The Hill Center

9781555976354Ron Charles, the Washington Post book editor, remains a good, if somewhat charmless host for these conversations with poets at the Hill Center. I’d seen Edward Hirsch earlier in the year and I’ll gladly see more in this series.

Szybist was given more opportunities to read her poems than Hirsch was and she has a wonderful voice for reading her own poems, emphasizing their gem-like (though not precious) qualities. She really is an amazing writer of poems. And though Incarnadine is a clear whole – with the theme of the Annunciation tying everything together – it’s best to be read slowly, one poem at time, over the course of a week or more. Slow reading, as it were. Their lapidary nature demands a gentle pace. When I tried to read them too quickly, I almost felt as if I were suffering from eye strain. Charles made a wonderful point when he compared her very carefully poetic style (this sounds bad; it sounds precious; but it’s really not at all) to John Donne and the Metaphysical Poets. Donne is especially relevant because of the deeply religious – the deeply Catholic – nature of her writing, despite having rather suddenly lost her faith as an adolescent (though, when I asked, she admitted that she still sometimes goes to Mass with her husband). Dickinson, too. Unlike Linda Pastan, Szambist does have that erotic, lapidary quality of Dickinson (though is less elliptical).

In addition to writing for slow reading, she spoke slowly and carefully in response to questions. Almost tentative. Which I can relate to (it’s something I can tend to do and it frustrates the heck out of my wife).

If I have a complaint about the collection, and I am not sure that I do, it is that it is almost but not quite a concept book. The ones that break from the concept, such as the gentle love poem (after a fashion) to an (the) octopus, are wonderful, but why not make the whole book so closely interwoven as ninety percent of it already is?

In any case, a new (to me) poet has not so affected me since I read Fanny Howe (and the two are connected by their sometimes diffident but also deeply ingrained Catholicism). So… two thumbs up?

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