Friday, November 22, 2013

Poetry Friday: Mary Szybist, National Book Award Winner

Mary Szybist, 2013 Winner of the National Book Award for Poetry
Mary Szybist was named the winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Poetry last night at a ceremony in New York City, for her second book, Incarnadine.  I watched the entire event on CSPAN/BookTV (from red carpet interviews through the actual presentation of medals) and Szybist's acceptance speech was one of the highlights of the evening. Overcome with emotion and fighting back tears, she said in accepting the award, "When I find myself in a dark place, I lose all taste for poetry." But she went on to say, "There’s plenty that poetry can’t do, of course, but the miracle is how much it can do ... how much it does do."

For those of you who don't yet know Szybist's work, which is remarkable for its intelligence, its precise focus and its heart, here's a poem for you to savor. This particular poem embodies what Szybist's best poems are all about: moments when the domestic and the spiritual overlap and set off harmonic reverberations. On the other hand, I sometimes think it's the near silence of Szybist's poems - the whispered quality - that appeals to me.

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

Szybist has published only two books - her first, Granted, published ten years ago, and the NBA winner, Incarnadine, published this year, which (as Szybist describes it) "moves through several re-imaginings of the iconic Annunciation scene between Mary and the angel Gabriel." In his review of Granted, poet Joshua Kryah compares Szybist's work to that of John Donne, citing their similar impulse to "express spiritual ideas in physical terms," and he says that Szybist echoes "Donne’s insistence that the soul is made up of blood and bones, that 'all that the soule does, it does in, and with, and by the body.'"

The National Book Foundation has a website at which it has posted all the nominated authors reading from their work (thank you, NBF!) Here is a link to that - and if you don't have time to listen to the entire presentation (it's very long) then just catch Szybist reading one of her most haunting poems, titled "So and So Descending from the Bridge." It begins on the video at 2:00: 02, the two-hour mark (like I said, the entire evening session is long - but if you have the time to watch it all, you'll see George Packer and George Saunders and 18 other fine writers reading from their nominated books, including all the nominees for Young People's Literature - Kathi Appelt, Gene Luen Yang, Tom McNeal, Meg Rosoff, and Cynthia Kadohata, who was named the winner for her book, The Thing About Luck.)

The Poetry Friday round-up today is being hosted by  Katya Czaja over at Write. Sketch. Repeat. Head over there to see what other people have posted.


  1. I look forward to reading Incarnadine, but I fear it may be a while before we librarians get those orders in and the publisher prints up a new batch to meet the demand. I also look forward to listening to the awards ceremony. Thanks for the link and happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

  2. Given how long the book was on the longlist, and then on the shortlist, it's a shame the publisher (Graywolf?) isn't ready with a new printing ready to send out....

    And Diane, Happy Thanksgiving to you, too! In fact, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! We have 20 people around the table this year - and it really is a case of the more the merrier. I LOVE THANKSGIVING!

  3. What an exquisite poem. Thanks for sharing more about Mary's work!

  4. Jama, belated Happy Birthday wishes to you! And Happy Thanksgiving!

  5. Thanks so much, Julie, for introducing me to this talented poet! I definitely see what you mean about the "whispered quality." And add to that, the space between the lines which is anything but silent.

  6. Wow. Thanks for sharing this poem and the link. To me it feels like a held breath. I feel like I know that moment at the sink.

  7. I've ordered Mary's book from the library and can't wait to read it. I've only read a few of her poems, but I'm thoroughly intrigued. Thanks, Julie.

  8. Wonderful post, Julie. I'm excited to read Szybist's work. Once again, I'm reminded how important a setting can be in the poem. I love all that's overheard in the small moment of the speaker peeling pears. While we do ordinary things in ordinary kitchens, the world shifts.