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

December 19, 2019
Posted in Blog
December 19, 2019 Editor

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

Please click on audio of post. NOTE: only main text read; no links, text markings, images, videos, footnotes, etc. read aloud.

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

Mary Szybist is a poet, professor and the author of Incarnadine, winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Poetry. She is the 2019 laureate of the George W. Hunt, S.J., Prize for Journalism, Arts and Letters, which is co-sponsored by America

December 13, 2019

WN: Though my tradition was sadly not grounded in Mary veneration, and therefore I’m very much an outsider, the poet’s ruminations beautifully touch on perennial themes of the human condition. She begins with an enigmatic poem.


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.

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?

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.

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.

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.”

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.

Please click on: Whose Version of Mary?

  1. [1]Please look at several articles as well on American/Western will to world domination by clicking on "Selected Articles: Western Aggression Backed by Western Media”. The series of articles is introduced thus:
    The Western allies never run dry of resources to support their global war of terror and aggression, ostensibly an integral part of their foreign policy. They dynamically legislate laws lest the people awaken. They have the unbending support of the corporate media, which skilfully distorts reality. When will they ever back down from their destructive quest for colonies? Read our selection below.
  2. [2]It continued:
    ‘For seven months, Tiger Force soldiers moved across the Central Highlands, killing scores of unarmed civilians – in some cases torturing and mutilating them - in a spate of violence never revealed to the American public,’ the newspaper said, at other points describing the killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians. ‘Women and children were intentionally blown up in underground bunkers,’ The Blade said. ‘Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed - their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings.”   The New York Times confirmed the claimed accuracy of the stories by contacting several of those interviewed.  It reported: “But they wanted to make another point: that Tiger Force had not been a ‘rogue’ unit. Its members had done only what they were told, and their superiors knew what they were doing. “Burning huts and villages, shooting civilians and throwing grenades into protective shelters were common tactics for American ground forces throughout Vietnam, they said. That contention is backed up by accounts of journalists, historians and disillusioned troops… ‘Vietnam was an atrocity from the get-go,’ [one veteran] said in a recent telephone interview. ‘It was that kind of war, a frontless war of great frustration. There were hundreds of My Lais. You got your card punched by the numbers of bodies you counted.’ Current likely Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry was also quoted giving evidence before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971.  He reported that American soldiers in Vietnam had “raped, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country. Nicholas Turse [later author of: Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam], a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, has been studying government archives and said they were filled with accounts of similar atrocities. ''I stumbled across the incidents The Blade reported,'' Mr. Turse said by telephone. ''I read through that case a year, year and a half ago, and it really didn't stand out. There was nothing that made it stand out from anything else. That's the scary thing. It was just one of hundreds.'' Yet there were few prosecutions.
  3. [3]Historian John Coatsworth in The Cambridge History of the Cold War noted:
    Between 1960, by which time the Soviets had dismantled Stalin's gulags, and the Soviet collapse in 1990, the numbers of political prisoners, torture victims, and executions of nonviolent political dissenters in Latin America vastly exceeded those of the Soviet Union and its East European satellites. In other words, from 1960 to 1990, the Soviet bloc as a whole was less repressive, measured in terms of human victims, than many individual Latin American countries [under direct sway of US Empire] ("The Cold War in Central America", pp. 216 - 221).
    What was true for Latin America was true for around the world: massive human rights abuses, assassinations, regime changes of democratically elected governments, etc., etc., etc. orchestrated by US Empire. Yet Americans invariably have wanted it both ways: to be seen as the exemplary "City on A Hill" that upholds universal human rights and democracy, while operating a brutal Empire directly contrary to all such elevated values, and a concomitant rapacious Empire market economy that takes no prisoners. This began of course even before the founding of the United States of America and continued apace, in its mass slaughter and dispossession of indigenous peoples, in its brutal system of slavery on which its obscene wealth in the textile industry in the first place was built. "The Land of the Free" conceit was a sustained con job on the part of America's leaders. It was also apotheosis of hypocrisy. American exceptionalism was/is true in one respect only: it was brutal like no other Empire in its eventual global reach.
  4. [5]
  5. [4] The highlighted article about renowned whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg points to again what is utterly chilling, horror-filled, exponentially beyond immoral, American (hence the world's) reality: "Daniel Ellsberg: U.S. Military Planned First Strike On Every City In Russia and China … and Gave Many Low-Level Field Commanders the Power to Push the Button". [5]He has since written The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Of it we read:
    Shortlisted for the 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist for the California Book Award in Nonfiction The San Francisco Chronicle's Best of 2017 List In These Times “Best Books of 2017” Huffington Post's Ten Excellent December Books List LitHub's “Five Books Making News This Week” From the legendary whistle-blower who revealed the Pentagon Papers, an eyewitness exposé of the dangers of America's Top Secret, seventy-year-long nuclear policy that continues to this day. Here, for the first time, former high-level defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg reveals his shocking firsthand account of America's nuclear program in the 1960s. From the remotest air bases in the Pacific Command, where he discovered that the authority to initiate use of nuclear weapons was widely delegated, to the secret plans for general nuclear war under Eisenhower, which, if executed, would cause the near-extinction of humanity, Ellsberg shows that the legacy of this most dangerous arms buildup in the history of civilization--and its proposed renewal under the Trump administration--threatens our very survival. No other insider with high-level access has written so candidly of the nuclear strategy of the late Eisenhower and early Kennedy years, and nothing has fundamentally changed since that era.
  6. [6]A classic instance of this aligning with "just war" is the United States' "war on drugs" as subset of "war on crime", while at the same time the CIA was a major worldwide drug dealer in league with other drug cartels -- all done to enhance American Empire during the Cold War -- and continues to the present. The four-part series mentioned below connects American Empire drug dealing to the current War on Terror, in particular in Afghanistan. This of course is colossal hypocrisy as well. Worse: the series posits American federal government administrations over many decades as the Ultimate Drug Cartel, with Blacks, Latinos, and generally the poor directly being knowingly poisoned en masse. Then they have been primary targets of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and thereby become victims of America's too often savage prison system that oppresses and brutalizes them all over again... See: "The War on Drugs Is a Failure, So [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions Is All for It". A citation from the article reads:
    In June [2017], the History Channel aired a four-part documentary series called America’s War on Drugs.” The series asserts that the war on drugs was actually a war of drugs—and that the CIA was essentially a partner in spreading drugs and drug use. The series follows how the U.S. intelligence agency, in an obsession with fighting communism, allied itself with U.S. organized crime and foreign drug traffickers and includes firsthand accounts from many involved. In an interview with Truthdig columnist Sonali Kolhatkar on her radio program “Rising Up With Sonali,” the series’ executive producer, Anthony Lappé, explains why the CIA got involved:
    It’s actually a pretty mind-blowing story when you look at the extent to which the CIA was involved with drug traffickers and drug trafficking throughout the Cold War. … If you look at Cold War policy against the Soviet Union, we were locked in a global battle for supremacy, where we have lots of proxy wars going on. … We needed to team up with local allies, and often the local allies we were teaming up with were people who had access to guns, who had access to underground networks, to help us fight the perceived threat of communism. There are actually a lot of similarities between what drug traffickers do and what the CIA does.
    Lappé elaborates by saying the hypocrisy of the war on drugs has been evident from the start: Secret CIA experiments with LSD helped fuel the counterculture movement, leading to President Richard Nixon’s crackdown and declaration of the war on drugs. The series also explores the CIA’s role in the rise of crack cocaine in poor black communities and a secret island “cocaine base.” In addition the documentary makes the connection between the war on drugs, the war on terror and the transformation of Afghanistan into a narco state and contends that American intervention in Mexico helped give clout to Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the super cartels, making it easier to send drugs across American borders. Watch Kolhatkar’s full interview with Lappé by clicking here. Please also see the now classic: The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, by noted American historian Alfred McCoy. Of it we read:
    The first book to prove CIA and U.S. government complicity in global drug trafficking, The Politics of Heroin includes meticulous documentation of dishonesty and dirty dealings at the highest levels from the Cold War until today. Maintaining a global perspective, this groundbreaking study details the mechanics of drug trafficking in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South and Central America. New chapters detail U.S. involvement in the narcotics trade in Afghanistan and Pakistan before and after the fall of the Taliban, and how U.S. drug policy in Central America and Colombia has increased the global supply of illicit drugs.
    To be noted as well is Johann Hari's Chasing The Scream, which tells the tragic tale of America's long-standing offensive against drugs, and the way to end such a war worldwide -- that several nations are successfully embracing.


Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

3 + three =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Care to follow posts?

Get the latest posts delivered to your mailbox (unsubscribe any time):