I DID NOT know a thing about Mary Szybist when I picked this off the shelf at the Tattered Cover in Denver last Labor Day weekend. Nice cover (Botticelli). National Book Award, hmm. Intriguing title. Graywolf Press. Okay, what the heck.
It turned out to be excellent. The annunciation to Mary is the book's main motif, handled in a cerebral-mandarin-feminist vein reminiscent (for me) of Lucie Brock-Broido, but a little warmer, more accessible, more poignant than that sounds (see "To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary" or "Entrances and Exits" or "Girls Overheard While Assembling a Puzzle").
It's a complicated moment, and Szybist sees it from a number of angles--the power of being acknowledged, singled out, chosen for a world-historical role, but also the sense that one is being commandeered, turned into a means rather than an end, not given a choice--think of "My Life had Stood--a Loaded Gun" seen through the iconography of Mary and Gabriel.
Remarkable formal ingenuity and variety--an erasure poem, a sonnet, a concrete poem, a poem that is a diagrammed sentence--and hardly any move happens twice.
What really hooked me, though--"On a Spring Day in Baltimore, the Art Teacher Asks the Class to Draw Flowers." I would not have thought, going in, that a poem looking at a teacher's sexual misconduct through the lens of Yeats's "Leda and the Swan" could possibly work, but this one was subtly devastating...if that even makes sense. Can devastation be subtle? Having read this poem, I would say yes.