In late February, on a dreary night, I attended a poetry reading, featuring Mary Szybist and Kevin Young, an unlikely pair. It would have been easier to stay home. After all, it was midweek, pitch-black outside, and wet cold. Yet life’s promise is nothing if not contradictory, for this reading at Wortham Center in downtown Houston provided inspiration enough to carry me, and I daresay many in the audience, out of winter and into spring. Szybist read from Incarnadine, many of its poems focused on the Virgin Mary and the Annunciation. Young’s poetry, from his Book of Hours, reveled in the birth of a son and grieved for the loss of a father. Heaven and earth.
In “To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary,” Syzbist leans into the Virgin Mary’s troubling acquiescence to the news the angel Gabriel has given her: “I am looking at the postcard of Anunciación . . . I taped it to the refrigerator next to the grocery list because I wanted to think of you, and because I liked its promise: a world where a girl has only to say yes and heaven opens.” She follows later with, “All I see is a girl being crushed inside a halo that does not save her.” The speaker’s antithetical views are wrapped up in the longing for divine possibilities and the reality of Mary giving over her life, to serve only as a virgin vessel for God’s business. Szybist’s voice is low and calm, but the reading is electrifying.
Follow this with Kevin Young on stage, his voice rich and full, his presence imposing, impressive. He reads “Crowning,” about his wife giving birth to their son:
And I saw you storming forth, taproot, your cap of hair half in, half out, and wait, hold it there, the doctors say, and . . . [my wife’s] face full of fire, then groaning your face out like a flower, blood-bloom, crocussed into air.
This is real, this is visceral. On the surface, it is at variance with Szybist’s poetics, and yet Young’s work is every bit as galvanizing, and as devotional, as Syzbist’s. The wife’s face “full of fire” and the emergence of the son, his face a “blood-bloom,” portrays the reality of birth, even while Young also shows us a speaker awestruck by the moment of birth.
Whatever brought these two poets together that night (maybe it was just a happy accident), their readings and remarks made for an evening of contrasts and incongruities. That life in general is often a mess of contradictions, Young and Szybist demonstrated this in their poems, making startling connections. For several weeks after, my friends and I talked about what we had heard. What a difference they made one bleak night in a winter that had gone on too long.