In prose, narrative forms the body, while in poetry it is language: The word made flesh. How appropriate then that Mary Syzbist should use a similar transmutation — the annunciation of Mary, wherein she learned she would carry the son of God — as the gateway to her second collection, “Incarnadine,” winner of the 2013 National Book Award for poetry.
Not since Adrienne Rich’s early work has a collection thought so deeply about the permeable barrier between the spirit and the body, and motherhood.
Syzbist is neither a theologian nor an unwavering believer. Raised aloft by doubt and risk, “Incarnadine” reads like the book of a woman searching for something more. Szybist listens and watches, feels the signs of something greater. The journey starts on the ground: “how many moments did it hover before we felt/it was like nothing else,” she writes in “Annunciation (from the grass beneath them).”
Syzbist writes lucid, delicately precise lines that grow more steeply enjambed as she falls into her subject. Several poems here brilliantly evoke the vertigo of dropping from on high. “Conversion Figure” updates the moment of a conception to a garden party, the poet hovering above like a satellite, watching a soul plummet into the body of an unsuspecting woman:
“From above, you looked small/ as an afterthought, something lightly brushed in./ Besides you, blush-pink plates/ served up their pillowy cupcakes, and your rosy hems/ swirled round your dark head.’’
Incarnadine means, literally, a bright crimson color, like that of the heart. Syzbist follows the pulse of this shade into the wilder pools of desire, which, in her feminist reading, is an emotion equal parts request and projection. “Annunciation in Nabakov and Starr” splices phrases from the Clinton impeachment report and “Lolita” into a poem that orbits the way we imbue a young woman’s body with meaning. “It’s as if I cut her heart-whole from the sky,” she writes in another poem, “Heroine as She Turns to Face Me.”
“Incarnadine” achieves its greatest intimacy in private spaces. How and what we receive — the ways we deal with experience — shapes identity. “Incarnadine” dramatizes the poet rejecting faith, failing at it, and then worrying what this says about her as she tries again. “What is the matter with me?” Syzbist wonders in one poem. The desire for spiritual ravishment, she discovers, is an almost erotic yearning. “Without you my air tastes/like nothing,” she writes in “Invitation.” “For you/I hold my breath.”
Juxtaposing these poems of spiritual longing, with a powerful sequence on motherhood, “Incarnadine” maps the scars of failure from one to anothe . It rescues the notion of a lack from the sting of the word failure. “Notes on a 39-Year-Old Body” borrows a detail from Natalie Angier’s “Woman” to riff on the fact that, “Most internal organs jiggle and glow and are rosy pink./ The ovary is dull and gray.” It is gray from scarring.
“So-and-So Descending from a Bridge” boldly telescopes into the mind of a woman who threw her two children off a bridge in Portland, Ore. “I think that she will never sleep as I sleep,” writes Syzbist, “I who have no so-and-so to throw.”
For a book about the annunciation, “Incarnadine” bravely challenges the notion that motherhood is always an addition, a gift, a holy sacrament. Several poems orbit abortion, while others raise the question of when motherhood ends, if ever. “Ghost,” Syzbist writes in one of the book’s frankest poems, “what am I/if I lose the one/who’s always known me?”
The poet’s mother eventually dies, and Syzbist discovers in grief the peculiar transmutation of loving what is no longer flesh. Sitting in the almost heavenly backdrop of Bellagio, Italy, looking at bronzed water and an orange villa, she wonders “if I am/capable of loving you better/or at all from this distance.”
Distance, in love and faith, is the hardest thing. During a homily at morning mass in the Vatican guest house last month, the pope said that visions of Mary were not the way to collapse that distance. “Mary is not a postmaster of the post office,” he said, “sending out messages every day.” In this extraordinary book, Mary Syzbist shows that if she were merely a woman, who lived once, that would have been more than enough.
John Freeman, the author of “How to Read a Novelist,” is working on a book about American poetry.