By Neil Leadbeater
‘No, Don’t’ can be construed as a plea from the heart. It is something that the narrator is addressing to herself and to her readers. It is saying ‘No, you don’t have to capitulate, let anything distract you or throw you off course, especially fear, especially grief. The double negative adds emphasis to the plea.
Reading Byrne’s poems is the art-equivalent of looking at a collage. Quotations selected from philosophers, scientists, educators, artists and writers, are often used as launching pads for her texts. The texts themselves are embroidered with a collage of images, personal experience and playful language. This is what makes them multi-layered and complex and seemingly out of the box as far as linear narrative goes. The reader is invited to take a leap of faith between one sentence and the next and not to worry over how he or she got there. In musical terms, Byrne’s poems are more akin to a Lutoslawski symphony than a Bach fugue. To read them is to go on an exciting journey, never quite knowing where you are going to end up.
Unlike her previous collections, these poems are profoundly personal. The empirical ‘I’ makes its appearance in many of the poems in a move that is very much focused on the purely personal and subjective side of poetry. The contents are divided into two distinct sections. The first section is haunted by the loss of Byrne’s half-sister, memorialized in ‘Lynne’s Car Washed Violently Down Off The Cliff’ while the second section addresses more general issues that respond to the resurgence of hatred in America toward people of colour, immigrants, women, gay and trans communities and people in poverty.
The collection opens with a distant memory of Byrne, aged seven, being self-aware of her place in the omnipresent universe. Its unsettling title ‘During the Vietnam War’ is a reminder of just how fragile and threatening that universe can be. Lying on the wet grass and looking up at the sky, the mood is not so much of wonderment but defiance: ‘she was restless then & she was / glad she was not safe.’ Use of the third person personal pronoun lends the poem some distance.
‘Tomboy From The Art Room’ is set in the context of her growing up in an artistic family as a hyper-energized tomboy and is based on a dream about flying and being both a boy and a girl. An unsettling moment occurs in the second sentence which sets the tone for the remainder of the poem. Here she writes: ‘Can you see me riding that Native American horse saddle seat, / desert-out, with only oranges to eat, their white-waxed DDT skin flakes shining like / so many dead fish scales from my fingers…’ (The US banned the use of this insecticide in 1972). Another poem arising from childhood, ‘White Doll’ is equally unsettling. The sky is described as ‘a commotion / of high radioactive-white clouds’, the light at dusk is ‘inconsolable’, the Barbie doll sleeps on a bare floor ‘in knuckle-blue darkness’, the world is ‘drowning’ and ‘always in mourning’ and the house is ‘silent’.
Rain falls in torrents through several of these poems. In ‘Such Things In Animal Skin’ Byrne tells us that it was because of the rain that her half-sister died:
Her car, near the ocean, slid down a canyon and outside
mother-years passed over the continental divide
in the private garden stopped by snails and birds of paradise,
mocking birds mocking the grey darkness every summer since.
‘Cow Song’ is a poem that is based around herding calls used to call livestock down from the high mountain pastures in Scandinavia. Its tradition goes as far back as the Middle Ages when singers used to corral animals with a hypnotic melody known as a ‘kulning’ which can reportedly be heard by a cow that is 5 kilometers away from its caller:
I heard them, far-off, deep-calling
from behind death’s invisible floor door. Their wallow
metronome from the after rain mud was one giant body.
Arizona’s yellow arm length of light all
the way to my own body standing at the edge
of their field held me.
In Byrne’s poem, the singing becomes a grief song. A grief that refuses to move.
In the title poem, ‘No, Don’t’, Byrne is the child ‘sitting on the winding Escher stairs’, a reference to the Dutch artist’s work ‘Relativity’ which depicts a world in which the normal laws of gravity do not apply. Byrne’s poem is addressed to ‘the two of me’ the two who belong to two different sources of gravity. Her cry from the heart is asymmetric and there is nothing of comfort here, only bewilderment at the experience of being pulled in two different ways between fear and desire.
‘The Devil’s Auction: Twelve Nights of Discouragement’ is an ekphrastic poem based on a photograph of the film actress Eliza Blasina dressed as a horse when she appeared in a prose melodrama in four acts called ‘The Devil’s Auction’ which was first staged on Broadway in 1867. The poem was written directly from the photo image.
Two poems which caught my attention from the second half of the book were ‘The Future Is A Beast Prelude’ and ‘Eclogue In Herzog’s Orange & White’. In the former, Byrne uses language to play on the theme of time in all its shifting phases: in the title we have the words ‘future’ and ‘prelude’ and in the poem we have words and phrases such as ‘in the instant’, ‘life after death’, ‘episode’, ‘duration’, ‘day or night, yesterday or today’ and the adjective ‘metronomic’ – the ultimate keeper of time. The arresting opening ‘Violence / is commissioned in the instant…’ is just as arresting at the end: ‘Dead, Father still / opens the door for Mother in the dream, / half singing.’ The latter is a pastoral based on Werner Herzog’s diary ‘Walking on Ice’. In the foreword, Herzog says that he received a call from Paris informing him that his close friend, the German film historian Lotte H Eisner was ill and dying. Determined to prevent this, Herzog set off on a three-week walk from Munich to Paris in the depths of winter. The rain that has fallen on many of Byrne’s poems returns again. Byrne, using Herzog’s diary as a backdrop for her own grief, scents the poem with oranges. She tells us in a note that her father, who had been born next to fields of orange groves, ate endless oranges and drank nine glasses of milk a day and that her mother loved all the variations of the colour orange to the extent that she often experienced entire dreams in the colour orange. Italicized lines in the poem refer to extracts from Herzog’s diary while the references to oranges become an outworking of grief for Byrne’s own life after loss.
These poems show us the vulnerable side of our human nature against the backdrop of the ephemeral beauty of the natural world. They are brave poems, written with unflinching honesty, straight from the heart.
You can find the book here: No, Don’t
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His books include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014); Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017) and The Gloucester Fragments (Littoral Press, 2022). His work has been translated into French, Dutch, Nepali, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.