By Jack Chelgren | Associate Editor
Time and again, Seattle Arts & Lectures has proven itself to be among the best curators of poetry in a city replete with outstanding literary organizations. The opening of the 2015-16 Poetry Series, a reading by Mary Szybist and Robert Wrigley co-sponsored by this publication, came as an emphatic confirmation that SAL’s terrific programming isn’t going anywhere. In two quite distinct idioms, Szybist and Wrigley delivered poems threaded with tradition yet attuned to the contemporary, mining the self and the social for revelations about the ways we live and think.
Ben Mish of The Bushwick Book Club and Left Hand Smoke opened the night with two sprightly songs responding to pieces by Szybist and Wrigley. The young writer Elena di Maria followed, reciting a searching, psychological poem written with the mentorship of former Washington State Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken in SAL’s Writers in the Schools Program.
Then Szybist, whose newest book is Incarnadine (Graywolf Press 2013), began her portion of the reading not with one of her own poems, but with an anonymous seventeenth century madrigal, the more effusive ancestor of Robert Frost’s “For Once, Then, Something.” She admired the poem, she said, for the way it “models an attitude toward mystery” and “the difficulty and complication of encounter.”
Incarnadine finds the author drawn to one mysterious encounter in particular—the biblical Annunciation. Szybist turns the scene into a poetic form, refracting various situations, persons, and voices through its fraught and stormy lens. She is most enthralled by the Annunciation’s consequences for Mary, whose tragic aspects reverberate in “Annunciation Under Erasure.” Vocalizing the angel Gabriel, the narrator cautions, “be afraid Mary / The Holy / will overshadow you.” The Virgin responds only with silence.
Roping a tremendous array of sources into a remarkably compact poetics, Szybist’s work studies the personal and ethical enigmas lurking in a variety of relationships. In “So-and-So Descending from the Bridge,” she grapples with the story of a Portland mother who threw her two children off a bridge—a perfect foil, Szybist noted, for the Annunciation. “Why I imagine her so often,” she writes, “empty-handed // as the houseboats’ distant lights / rise and fall on the far ripples— / I do not know.” If we can say that the Annunciation is the blood of Incarnadine, then quiet unknowing such as this is its breath—and listening to Szybist read is like watching the breath spiral and dissipate in cold air.
Wrigley’s was, broadly speaking, the lighter, louder half of the evening. First up, he presented an “obligatory nature poem,” a nod to his putative and rather unwarranted classification as a nature poet. What the piece turned out to be was a sharp, gritted-tooth paean to the corpse of an elk, testifying to the writer’s immense empathy, and his related ability to cull seemingly dissonant feelings—horror, dignity, tragedy—from a single, striking object. In its emotional pluralism as much as its attention to a dead animal, the poem recalled Charles Baudelaire’s “Une Charogne” (original with translations here), where the narrator perceives his lover’s mortality in a putrid carcass. Baudelaire, Wrigley, and Szybist all explore encounters with the threatening and ineluctable in their work, foregrounding unfathomable spaces within the self and its ties to the world.
For a writer whose most recent book, in homage to Robert Burton’s 1621 compendium, is called Anatomy of Melancholy and Other Poems (Penguin 2013), Wrigley delivered a decidedly cheerful set—the message being, perhaps, that melancholy can have a sportive side. “First Person,” a poem inspired by H. W. Fowler’s critique of the “false first person pronoun,” “one,” exemplified the reading’s playful seriousness by using that pronoun in lieu of “I” to recount the narrator’s daydreams. Unsurprisingly, the conceit produces a number of sonic traffic jams. “One thinks of the one one loves,” says the narrator, “and knows that she will startle / to see one’s bloody face and shirt.” Intentional clunkiness usually betokens sarcasm, but here, by the final lines, the gimmick has turned semi-serious: “the one one loves will not understand at first, / when one insists that one must never be / the last one / to die.” Wrigley achieves bathos and pathos simultaneously, waging his grammar polemic while advancing a self-conscious meditation on love and death.
Near the end of the night, Wrigley read a new piece called “A Fine Boy,” inspired by the work of the late C. K. Williams. Orbiting around a recollection of the narrator sitting in a car with his father, the poem traces the tenderness and trauma of their relationship. “And I wasn’t anyone,” says the narrator, “just a fine boy, whatever that meant,” adding later, “I still do not know exactly who I am.” In a situation of intense emotional imbalance refracted through memory, Wrigley shows the narrator’s very self growing indistinct. A kindred fascination with what happens to us in charged, overwhelming exchanges animates the ending of Szybist’s “The Troubadours Etc.”:
Just for this evening, won’t you put me before you
until I’m far enough away you can
believe in me?
Then try, try to come closer—
my wonderful and less than.
In the freighted encounters of father and son, lover and partner, angel and young woman, the boundaries of each individual are muddled. In much the same way, when reading a poem, we shapeshift and conform to the things that we find. It’s easy to forget that literature is itself a kind of encounter, one that changes us.
Earlier in “The Troubadours Etc.,” Szybist writes of the eponymous performers that “The spectacular was never behind them.” The line could just as well apply to contemporary poetry. With the ongoing torrent of new work and critical hype juxtaposed against the backdrop of an inarguably narrow readership, it’s easy to grow cynical about the state of things. Yet Szybist, Wrigley, and Seattle Arts & Lectures offered powerful reassurance that poetry today is nothing to despair of, that a great deal of great work is (of course) still being published, and that opportunities to go out and be changed by literature remain as profuse and available as ever.
For reviews of Incarnadine and Anatomy of Melancholy by Kevin Craft and Paul Lindholt, click here.
Read two poems by Robert Wrigley here.
The Seattle Arts & Lectures Poetry Series continues with a reading by Linda Pastan on November 10, 2015.