The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven by Mairéad Byrne, Publishing Genius, 2010, 5.5×7″, 208 pages, Perfect bound. http://publishinggenius.com
I once heard California poet Brenda Hillman bestow the advice that moving to San Francisco to be a poet is as poorly lucrative as moving to Ireland to be one, as reputedly, both the Bay Area and the Emerald Isle boast a high number of poets per capita. And so I wish I could hear Mairéad Byrne read, in her Irish accent, the first sentence of her biographical note for the collection, The Best Of (What’s Left Of) Heaven, just to hear her Irish humor in the statement, “Mairéad Byrne emigrated from Ireland to the United States in 1994, for poetry.”
Dually an acknowledgment of her Irish roots and a recognition that sometimes, one must leave one’s roots to pursue and develop an art, the statement epitomizes Byrne’s collection in its subtle irony and dry humor, cut with an undercurrent of realism. And yet it is precisely these qualities that root Byrne in Irishness and make her work stand out among poets writing in America as rare for possessing both frankness and charm.
Divided into thirteen sections, with the section titles noted only on each page’s outer corner, as if in a day planner, the poems are grouped mainly by type and topic, such as “Found” poems and “War” poems (a topic that here includes divorce). With an inclination toward the vernacular that is reminiscent of Patrick Kavanagh, and a preference for the everyday that was most notably introduced by James Joyce, Byrne displays a fluidity with a range of styles and source material.
Poems are presented as one-liners, number sequences, interviews, and jokes, and can even be purely visual. “Audience”—which is perhaps a visual representation of a small and scattered audience—is a handful of black dots scattered on the page. Several poems of the “Interviews” section read like sketch comedy, such as the hilariously dramatic responses of “Red Skelton Interviews Joseph the Carpenter” and the interviewer-pulling-teeth scenario of “Excerpt from an Interview with Charles Reznikoff” (the objectivist poet), in which the interviewer (“MB”) humorously deflects an obtuse answer by showing Reznikoff the church and steeple finger game played with children.
Byrne’s use of the refrain as a stylistic vehicle is often humorous, as well. In the poem “Nerves,” which lists various nouns such as “Piped music in the bank” and “The thought of Dickens!,” Byrne follows each with the line, “Aaagh!”—with variations in how many times the letter “a” is repeated in its spelling—Dickens receiving two more than piped music. In the poem, “The Middle,” concerned with reaching middle-age and middle-income status, the exaggeration of the refrain “Whew!” seems humorously ironic—”middle-age” sounding far from desirous as a label.
Repetition in Byrne’s hands also instills beauty and depth. The surety of the repeated line “of course,” from the poem of that title, is given more weight when a revelation comes that leaves everything in the speaker’s life unsure. In “Tedium,” the speaker’s repetition of the words “I park the green car…and go in the red door,” in order to fetch her child, helps to obliquely approach the topic of divorce and the separation of a family by allowing a reader to go deeper into it without experiencing the severity. In a similar manner, the loose repetition of words that Byrne uses in the poem “Gesture” enables it to unfold in a way that seems like a scene is delicately being created. Alternately, Byrne’s use of repetition in the collage-type war poems brings a heaviness to something usually conveyed in a straight reported fashion. Her experiments with typeface size in these poems is striking—the smaller fonts in them seeming to signify something spoken or “heard” more quietly, and with reverence.
The inspiration for the poems in this collection shows a broad range of sources, as well, evident from section titles such as “War,” “Found,” and “Interviews” as mentioned, as well as “Everyday Lunacy,” “Numbers,” “Family,” “Poetry,” and others. These address topics such as gender discrepancies, extremely visceral instructions for skinning animals, parenting as a single mother, grammar, and the (Irish) colloquial and vernacular, such as in the poems “You Never Know (wheedling),” which reads, “Ah you never know./Sure you never know do you./You never really know./You never never know./Isn’t that the truth./You never know,” and “I Don’t Care (demoralized),” which almost seems to blurt: “I don’tcare/Iduncare./oin-care./ncare./uh.” The book’s “Providence” section seems a loose assemblage of poems observing place (Providence, Rhode Island), with the poems “Gesture” as mentioned above, “A Poem” (a touching observation of a father dropping his children off at school), and “Contemporary Bells” (describing “maddening” early morning church bells, with a versatility of phrasing similar to Eavan Boland’s) being the strongest of this section. The section “Dedications,” which follows “Providence,” begins with poems written to people viewed in passing, followed by poems in memory of those deceased—including activist journalist Brad Will, shot in Oaxaca while filming a teachers’ strike, and Darrell Grayson, executed in Alabama without DNA testing on his case. The latter poem, “Live Lines,” is arranged from Grayson’s own writings and reads as 32 blog posts made during the half hour prior to his execution, some of the lines selectively repeated. Byrne’s use here of this kind of structural trope is deeply resonant, and makes this poem one of the more moving ones of the collection.
Spanning 208 pages, the book transitions well between sections, and even whole sections, such as “Poetry,” read like comic interludes. “Everything is Unlikely” on the whole seems the most successful of the sections, as Byrne seems to excel at the type of prose poetry that it boasts, letting the fluidity of the poem’s form take her into deeper explorations of ideas, that culminate in an emotive poetic turn, as in a strict lyric. The title poem of the section begins by detailing bodily functions that seem “unlikely,” but ends with a more abstract kind of inquiry: “My whole life is unlikely. What is America? Why am I here? What happened to the other country? Where did my sisters’ houses go? Why am I here—in this house—in this world—which also holds a man screaming as other men saw at his neck with an inadequate knife?” The imaginative leap that distinguishes the ending of this poem is marked by a turn toward the self as well as a turn toward the ‘other,’ pulling the reader into a connection with the poem, the speaker, and finally, humanity.
Byrne’s strengths with such a range of material, and especially with the lyric prose poems of “Everything is Unlikely,” make it surprising that the volume does not start off as strongly. The lead section, “Calendar,” seems the least compelling of the book and is perhaps unfortunately placed. Its twelve poems—one for each month—mainly note color, temperature, and weather observations (again, Joyce’s everyday). The poems “Light in February” and “Light in April” each present a series of extremely terse and simple descriptions (“gold/golden/rose-gold/light gold light blue/light-grey/grey/high bright blue/golden blue,” etc.), which on one hand, invoke the thought that this is all that’s necessary to make poetry, but on the other hand, risk seeming haphazard, because there isn’t yet a sense of trust or connection established between the reader and the text. “State House, June,” and “State House, September” in the section also falter for this reason. As catalog verse, or “list poems,” although individual images seem interesting, there isn’t the feeling of them each being essential. The latter begins: “candle-flame against turquoise/pearl against lavender/mint against rose/breast-milk on mauve/metal against mackerel/yellowed lace on watered silk/graphite on glass/silhouette on pale blue/eggshell on streaked blue/grey cut-out against sky-blue/velcro on azure…” and continues as such. These poems certainly uphold tenets of language poetry “den[ying] the centrality of the individual artist” (“Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry,” 1988) and asking the reader to offer more toward creating the poem’s experience, but so little connection so early on makes it difficult to want to engage. In the “Found” section, on the other hand, Byrne’s list poems seem successful because they convey something about a human subject. They seem even more successful and capture more emotional reticence when they convey relationship, as in the poem “Of”:
She was a daughter of
She was the sister of the late
He was the companion of
He was the husband of the late
He was the father of
He was the father of the late
And brother of the late
She was the mother of the late
She was the sister of the late
He was the husband of
Such simplicity best shows Byrne’s strengths in form and style, and how the subtle observations (and ironies) of our lives can yield something both straightforward and touching.
Ashlie Kauffman is a freelance writer and an adjunct instructor at the Community College of Baltimore County. She has a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from New York University and a Master of Arts in fiction from the Johns Hopkins Advanced Academic Programs. Her writing recognitions include publications in Quarterly West and Washington Square, and an Independent Artist Award in fiction from the Maryland State Arts Council. She writes book reviews for the online literary journal jmww and interviews poets for jmwwblog.