ISBN 1-882295-37-4, 2003
Alice James Books, $13.50
There is a liminal quality to the poems that make up Mary Szybist’s first book, Granted . They hover at the threshold of desire, moving back and forth between both spiritual and romantic ardor, between what has been granted and what has been taken for granted within the confines of love and faith. Tethered at the lip of “impossible longings,” Szybist encounters concurrent moments of ecstasy, sensuality, and cynicism in her relationships with the self, others, the world, and God. Her poems express the genuine whole of her tangled feelings: “o sweet / burn I have always wanted / this pleasure, this end / —yet I intend to be gentle.” Such feelings have a precedent in the work of the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, who relied upon similar characteristics of paradox and irony, sexual realism, and an introspective psychological analysis of motive and faith. What the English critic Samuel Johnson described as the imagery of Metaphysical poetry, a kind of discordia concors, through which “ideas are yoked by violence together,” parallels the paradoxical condition of the poems in this collection: the (seemingly) impossible juncture of religious and sexual longing. Taking such a view as a means through which to explore the complicated and often violent process of this yoking, we watch as Szybist confronts the limits of human compassion by investigating its flesh and bone consequences.
There is an urgent fixation with the body in these poems, a desire to express spiritual ideas in physical terms, an impulse similar to 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 collusion between body and soul allows for a meditation on the boundaries of each, and a consideration that one may limit the potential of the other, and vice versa. An example of this can be found in the poem “Naked and Unashamed Are Two Different Moments.” Split into two sections, the first deals with a moment of nakedness that reveals the poet’s dilemma:
If I were a classical nude, the distance between my breasts
would be the same as the distance from my breasts to my navel,
from my navel to the division of my legs.
I accuse myself of transgressing.
What is it to drag a body
through the lush anger of atonement!
Here, the contemplation of the body leads to its transgression. Beginning with the tactful composition of the “classical nude,” Szybist ends at the logos of female sexuality, the “division” between her legs. Throughout the poems in this collection, the body is continually reduced to its pure physical state, inhabiting a leaden existence that cannot possibly allow for any spiritual transcendence. Instead, Szybist is left to reprimand the body as any good repentant would, leading it over and over again through the “lush anger of atonement.” Even the body of Christ brings with it an intimate physical longing that cannot be ignored:
Always in the arms of something, the god is always
swaddled like the infant. The cloth on his hips.
Sometimes I believe I am transgressing.
When I consider the body in the manger
I feel it in my face: I must look the same way a hunter looks
when he decides to take an animal he has never seen before.
Szybist is unapologetic in her ravenous viewing of the Christ child in his manger, an animal she “has never seen before,” but must possess nonetheless. Again, the author believes she transgresses as she considers the corporeal vulnerability of such a figure (“the god,” the “cloth on his hips”) and the point at which the conflation of innocence and sexual longing converge. Considering the body of Christ just as she has considered her own body, Szybist realizes that both must end in a violation of the sacred in order to accurately portray their shortcomings.
Employing various methods of composition throughout these poems, Szybist is most successful when she incorporates the lush ornamentation of the dash, interrupting sequences and thoughts before their culmination in any definitive answer to the paradoxical question she continues to raise, “what separates self from the flutter / of longing.” Such sustained disruptions contribute to the restrained and reserved tone of the book, a tone both sure and passive in the face of its subject(s). The image of the mouth and its lips recur throughout Szybist’s poems, a testimony to the difficulty of utterance when the author is faced with the constraints of the body. The next best thing to godliness is to assume the voice of one, or, if all else fails, to take that of Adam, as in the poem “Swamp,” in order to fill the “lust for the influential phrase.” Szybist doesn’t shy away from speaking from God-like figures (she has poems from the perspectives of Jesus, Mary, and the Archangel Gabriel), but the more stunning poems in this debut highlight the author’s own struggle and appetite for the consummation of faith and love, while relishing their ultimate failure:
When I am tired of being human, I try to remember
the two stuck together like burrs. I try to place them
central in my mind where everything else must
surround them, must see the burr and the barb of them.
There is courtship, and there is hunger. I suppose
there are grips from which even angels cannot fly.
Even imagined ones. Luciferin, luciferase.
When I am tired of only touching,
I have a mouth to try to tell you
what, in your arms, is not erased.
Aimed at wresting a precarious unity from the scattered remains of an existence that has become “tired of being human,” these poems successfully articulate the intimate relationship between the poet and the sacred. Acknowledgment of the body’s dilemma propels Szybist beyond the complacency of its limits, and on into the next moment of belief, “to continue past the moment I say I am thirsty / and continue past the moment.”