“There is courtship, and there is hunger”: Mary Szybist’s “In Tennessee I Found a Firefly”

IncarnadineA couple weeks ago, I reviewed Mary Szybist’s new collection, Incarnadine, which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry last year. This week’s poem, “In Tennessee I Found a Firefly” is from her first collection, Granted (2003).

I was hooked on this poem from the first two lines. The first sentence assumes the “firefly” of the poem’s title as its subject, retaining the punch of the initial verb: “Flashing in the grass; the mouth of a spider clung / to the dark of it” (1-2).  I love the phrasing of “the dark of it,” suggesting both the transitory darkness of the insect’s flickering light and also the permanently dark portions of its body, with a suggestion of private, dark spaces.

The co-incidence of hunger and desire, violence and beauty appears in Incarnadine, too, but I like this poem’s particular study of the minute, physical world, “the burr and the barb of them.”

You can read the full poem here.



Recommended Reading: Incarnadine, by Mary Szybist

The poems in Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine* consider the collision of the ordinary and the otherworldly (as figured in the Annunciation) from a multitude of angles. With their varied forms and fierce fragility, the poems gracefully explore the relationship between the spirit and the body, motherhood and childlessness, discovery and loss, violence and desire, the sacred and the secular.


What surprised me most about the collection was the striking range of forms that Ms. Szybist employs. Incarnadine includes a poem in terza rima, a concrete poem (lines densely radiating from a circular negative space, appearing like a sun), prose poems, a poem composed with pieces snipped from Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography and Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, a poem as a diagrammed sentence, an abecedarian, near-sonnets, hymn-like structures — all in seventy-two pages.

This formal variety enhances the collection’s fresh approach to the subject of the Annunciation; the scene is replayed in new contexts many times over. For example, in “Annunciation in Nabokov and Starr,” excerpts from Lolita and The Starr Report fill out an annunciation account from the angel’s point of view, while later, in “Annunciation: Eve to Ave,” Eve explains her bewilderment at the discovery that the man who brought her news was not a man at all. After this poem’s especially playful diction, the last lines rise to the surface in all their parenthetical heaviness: “(But I was quiet, quiet as / eagerness–that astonished, dutiful fall.).”

As the book goes on, and the annunciations stack up, they become more and more ensnared in violation, which, it appears, is the underside of this particular adumbration; spirit does not instantiate in flesh without violence.

Ms. Szybist’s verse is elegant, sometimes deceptively simple, and poised, balancing darkness and transcendence, incarnadine and cerulean. Highly recommended reading. 

Incarnadine won the National Book Award for poetry in 2013

*My thanks to Graywolf Press for sending me a review copy of Incarnadine.