Poet Mary Szybist: Whose version of Mary am I holding?

Hail
Mary who mattered to me, gone or asleep
among fruits, spilled
in ash, in dust, I did not
leave you. Even now I can’t keep from
composing you, limbs & blue cloak
& soft hands. I sleep to the sound
of your name, I say there is no Mary
except the word Mary, no trace
on the dust of my pillowslip. I only
dream of your ankles brushed by dark violets,
of honeybees above you
murmuring into a crown. Antique queen,
the night dreams on: here are the pears
I have washed for you, here the heavy-winged doves,
asleep by the hyacinths. Here I am,
having bathed carefully in the syllables
of your name, in the air and the sea of them, the sharp scent
of their sea foam. What is the matter with me?
Mary, what word, what dust
can I look behind? I carried you a long way
into my mirror, believing you would carry me
back out. Mary, I am still
for you, I am still a numbness for you.*

I can’t remember the first time you frightened me. Just like I can’t remember a time in which you did not hover in my consciousness, floating over the saints from my childhood books. It was as if you oversaw the orderly sameness of their stories: courage, suffering, heroic death.

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How many times did my mother kiss her fingers and touch them to your lips when she passed you—your silent, small image on holy cards tacked up in her hallways.

•••

You’d been mute in me when I walked into the Ufizzi Gallery in Florence. Simone Martini, Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci: their Annunciation paintings hanging just a few meters from each other—and you in each of them, facing your angel. Between the two of you, the painters imagined different shapes of distance. In Martini, Gabriel leans toward you as you lean back: between you, the background’s monochrome gold is broken by the stems of olive branches, lilies—that radiance is splintered into pieces. In Da Vinci, Gabriel seems a long reverential way away from you, his shadow stretched between you over an intricate expanse of spring meadow. In Botticelli, you reach down to take Gabriel’s hand—a distance between you of, say, an infant’s body. In no version has Gabriel yet crossed that space. In no vision does the annunciation happen all at once. They all imagine you in a small space of time in which no one gets to touch you. No visible guiding hand gets to touch you.

•••

The painters must have felt their distance from you as they touched you into visibility. No one painted you with a distinctively memorable face. But they all imagined you as unafraid of the stranger before you.

•••

Growing up with the name Mary was not, for me, an experience charged with possibility. I didn’t so much feel like a Mary as I did a failure of Mary. Despite your many titles (Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of the Sea) you floated in my mind as a singularity. My images of you were so similar they were not distinguishable. I knew there was more than one Mary in the Bible, but you were the one who was held up to me, the one who haunted me—you, the Mary, immaculate Mary. I felt like a tragic falling-off.

It’s true I imagined you as silent, as beautiful and beloved, and those qualities, through the habit of thinking of you, became related to each other. Maybe I still half-believe I must be quiet to be loved. I think of this sometimes, trying to cajole young women into class discussions. They still don’t speak out loud in my classroom in proportions even close to their male peers.

What difference would it have made to me if a fuller range of Marys had been present to my dream life? What if Mary Magdalene had been present to my day-dreaming life?

Lately, when I close my eyes at night and try to give myself over to dreams, voices turn in my mind and accuse me: “You just want to re-make the church in your own image,” they say.

But, Mary, who doesn’t do that?

And who does and doesn’t get to do that?

•••

Most devotional poetry makes me feel physically nauseated within a few lines—those poems where reverence bears a heavy relation to deference. Deference, for example, to the link between “holy” and “virgin.” To imagine holiness as the absence of touch, is to imagine it, I fear, in stillness, in silence. I want to feel the holiness in touching the bodies of those I love. Many of the poems that matter to me—by George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Lucille Clifton—do have a sense of reverence, but it is reverence as deep respect or awe. Clifton imagines in “island Mary” that you don’t quiet your wonder: you worry for

another young girl asleep

in the plain evening

what song around her ear?

what song still choosing?

In Clifton, to enter your voice is to enter this mystery: we don’t choose most of what hovers in our ears—or understand how it shapes us, chooses for us.

To imagine holiness as the absence of touch, is to imagine it, I fear, in stillness, in silence.

•••

I don’t know what to make of it: the trend of women, especially young women, wearing chapel veils to Mass again. I continue to think of what Professor Karen Eifler said, when I wondered this aloud. We were sitting next to each other at a dinner. It was a warm September evening, and she looked out a large window into the darkening twilight that was slowly at work in turning the glass into a mirror. She said she thought about how, at the moment of the crucifixion, the temple veil was torn—that thin barrier separating humans and God was torn away. Why are women putting the veil back on themselves?

A public expression of “submission,” an experience of “authentic femininity,” “a way to be like Mary”—these are some of the things women say. But I don’t understand what it means to them. And I don’t understand, Mary, why the veil is being singled out as a way to imitate you. Do the Gospels call any more attention to your veil than, say, to Salome’s? How does the act of covering oneself speak to your example?

•••

I think of Corinthians 11:10: women ought to cover their heads “because of the angels.” I wonder if it’s true that this is a remnant from older, pre-Christian stories that featured gods and angels lusting after women—so the veil was a way of hiding from predators looking down from above.

•••

Sometimes I look at the icy lace whiteness of the veils and think of our thawing permafrost or our protective blanket of ozone riddled with holes. Sometimes I think the veil looks like a wish, a gesture that imagines life in a protective layer that can be lifted out of its drawer whenever it is needed.

•••

Almost daily something happens that makes me think of the gender-segregated retreat center episode of the series “Fleabag” and repeat it to myself like a good joke. Two sisters go to a women’s retreat, a silent retreat, where, to help them stay quiet, women are given day-long, repetitive cleaning tasks. Meanwhile the men, at their retreat, take turns screaming at a blow-up sex doll, and afterward, feeling a great deal better, enjoy loud conviviality at the bar.

It helps, this satire. I thought of it when a friend described to me how a crazy portion of his daily job as a judge consists of listening to men defend themselves for violence against women by blaming the women for provoking them—provoking them by speaking.

How is it that the speech of women is perceived as threatening by so many men?

I worry about aligning femininity with images of any kind of submission or silence. I worry about how your image is still made to do that.

•••

It was when I wandered into the Bible’s wilderness and read it for myself that I began to do more than picture you. To find you among the Bible’s juxtapositions, inside its bravado in placing different accounts side by side without any attempt to reconcile them, was to imagine you as a figure who could leap. To find you among the audacity of its collages was to feel you less tethered to your gauzy image on my mother’s holy cards.

Still, your scenes in the Bible seem strangely singular, isolated. They don’t proliferate, like other stories, in multiple versions, multiple Gospels. The Annunciation and the Visitation are told just once, and briefly, in the Gospel of Luke.

And so it doesn’t seem strange to me, my desire to write you, to re-write you, to magnify you and your scenes, to amplify them, to find more possibilities in them.

It was when I wandered into the Bible’s wilderness and read it for myself that I began to do more than picture you.

•••

The annunciation scene has often looked to me at first glance like an encounter between women. The feminine qualities painters often give to Gabriel aid this: delicate hands, sumptuous robes, hair loose and flowing. I know having a best friend since childhood named Gabriela aids this. I also realize that seeing it this way is also about my desire to see it this way. It’s about my own hunger for stories of women talking to each other.

Are you and Elizabeth the only women who talk to each other at any length in the New Testament? I can’t think of any other women who do.

It makes sense to me that it is in that intimate space of the Visitation—in a visit with a friend—that your voice emerges at length and takes space and you speak your Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord—”

But you don’t just speak about your soul. “He has put down the mighty from their thrones,” you say. My friend Eileen made the point: at the Annunciation you say yes. At the Visitation you explain why you said yes: “He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.”

You agree to bring into the world a life with the power to put down the mighty and fill the hungry. Your why matters.

•••

I still don’t know what to make of the climactic scene of Fleabag when the protagonist, in a literal confessional, is asked to confess something true about herself to someone she loves. Having moved through the journeywork of her character, we are prepared for intimate, personal disclosure. What we get (whether or not we believe her) is the admission that she just wants to be relieved of choices. She just wants to be told what to do.

I watched that episode with Gabriela as my old orange cat moved between us with a not-very-dulcet meowing that seemed to stand in for the feeling moving between us.

“It’s relatable,” I offered.

“It’s just not very interesting,” she countered.

I know what it is to want to put down the responsibility for making a muck of my life, to wish not to make, but to be made. But I think of my mother. I think of the terms by which she tried to be a good mother, a good wife: to not have a self with preferences or distinctions that mattered enough to be given voice or attention.

I wanted to know her preferences. I wanted to know her.

•••

When my mother was dying she asked me to keep talking to her after she was gone.

But here I am talking to you, Mary—using you as a silence into which to speak. You’re more than a set of expectations that has worked me over. You are part of how she lives in me.

I believed my undergraduate teacher, Joseph A. Brown, S.J., when he said that voices have the power to save others and the power to destroy them.

•••

I believed my undergraduate teacher, Joseph A. Brown, S.J., when he said that voices have the power to save others and the power to destroy them. I believed him when he said that the same is true of silence. My silence. I still believe him. I hear his voice in me like a good angel, reminding. And yet.

To rage in quiet. To grieve in quiet. I worry that my deepest inclinations are for quiet.

•••

Sometimes I look at the chapel veils and imagine them as shields. I imagine that their wearers are about to speak in ways no one expects—and that, among the faithful, their shields will let them stay and be heard.

•••

I love the possibility that the Bible may have been assembled as a grand peace-making gesture, an attempt to bring together communities at war by assembling a single book inclusive of all the different ways they tell the same stories. I love how the Bible’s stories are not smoothly blended but co-exist side by side. And I love, Mary, that your presence is part of it, that your speaking is essential to it. He will fill the hungry with good things. The rich he will send away empty. Before I read the Bible, I hardly thought of you as someone who spoke.

•••

Don’t we celebrate you, Mary, for making a choice? For saying yes—yes to being a co-maker with God?

Don’t we imitate you when we co-create life—biological, artistic, relational, communal? And when we care for that life?

Don’t we imitate you when we use the imagery and language that the dead have cursed and gifted us with to participate in the creation of meaning?

I like how Ada Limon says it: “I, for one, have never made anything alone, never written a single poem alone. We write with all the good ghosts in our corners.”

•••

When I went to Chartres to see a color, I found it was many colors: Chartres blues. It’s not just the moving sunlight that makes it multiple. The cathedral’s thick medieval glass holds the various materials of its making: dust motes, bits of leaves. Your glass image floats there, newly clean of the soot of centuries of pilgrims’ candle. Light moves through you again, through your glass tunic lightened by different densities of air bubbles into kaleidoscopic pale blue luminosities.

Whose version of you am I holding? I hold you as a voice and a silence.

I address you as a way of acknowledging the aftermath of you. I address you as a way to try to orchestrate how you persist in me.

•••

“To love a stranger as oneself,” Simone Weil says, “implies the reverse: to love oneself as a stranger.”

•••

At Chartres, there is a fragment of veil that looks like it would fall through my hands if I touched it. Kept in the cathedral behind bulletproof glass, it is disintegrating quietly. It is said to be your veil.

I’ve watched tour guides stand next to it and repeat its legend: how, in the spring of the year of our Lord 911, when Chartres was surrounded by Vikings, the Bishop saved the city by holding your veil high up from the tallest tower—

How it terrified. How that Viking army understood, and turned back.

I imagine your empty veil waving almost imperceptibly above the city, its gauzy colors nearly indistinguishable from an overcast sky.

Samuel Beckett called language a veil in which he wanted to “bore one hole after another...until what lurks behind it—be it something or nothing—begins to seep through.”

But when I write a poem, it is not to bore holes. It is not to use language for the hush work of cover. It is to take that veil from its stillness and shake it—to hold it among wind gusts, to wave it from the high windows—

It is not surrender.

Mary Szybist, “Hail” from Incarnadine. Copyright © 2012 by Mary Szybist. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minn. www.graywolfpress.org.

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