neil leadbeater

No Don’t by Elena Karina Byrne

no dont

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.


Atlantis, an Autoanthropology by Nathaniel Tarn


By Neil Leadbeater

In this literary memoir and autoethnography, anthropologist, poet, essayist and translator Nathaniel Tarn reflects upon a life lived in many different cultures. Now in his ninth decade, it is a work that has been over thirty years in the making, giving us a truly remarkable summation of a lifetime’s achievement.

Something of the modesty of the man speaks to us in the title for Tarn hesitates to call it an autobiography per se. In it, he eschews the empirical ‘I’ for he has lived such a full life that he has ‘never (yet) been able to experience the sensation of being only one person.’ The dedication: ‘To all my (m)others’ and some of the quotations that preface the book are worth repeating here because they point the reader to the way in which Tarn has chosen to embark upon his project: ‘I is a throng of voices’ (Janet Rodney: The Book of Craving) and ‘No, one wasn’t just one. One was ten people, twenty, a hundred. The more opportunities life gave us, the more beings it revealed in us…’ (Joseph Roth: Right and Left). Instead, Tarn assumes the position of narrator, referring throughout to this person or persons called Tarn, as if he were a fictional character. This shifts the perspective, making the narrator examine his life as a subject of study.

The book is organised into a series of ‘throws’ rather than chapters. The full significance of this choice of word is explained later in the text (think of the potter and his wheel). Each ‘throw’ follows a particular theme which weaves its way into the overall tapestry of the book, following more or less in chronological order.

Before embarking on his distinguished literary career, it is necessary to remind ourselves that Tarn had been an anthropologist for thirty years, beginning with studies at the Musée de l’Homme, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes and the College de France, Paris, in 1949-50, continuing with work at the University of Chicago (including fieldwork in Guatemala), 1951-53; the London School of Economics and the School of Oriental and African Studies (S.O.A.S.), in 1953-58; fieldwork in Burma in 1958-59; and teaching at the S.O.A.S. in 1960-67.

Reading between the lines, we get a real sense of the tensions that built up and the decisions that had to be made when Tarn came to realise that he could no longer inhabit simultaneously the world of anthropology and the world of literature. There had always been the hope that poetry and fieldwork could continue in parallel but something had to give. Resigning from ‘the best southeast Asia job in the world’ in 1967, Tarn changed tack and worked for a couple of years at Jonathan Cape, publishers, London, breaking new ground by pursuing literary connections with the Americans before re-entering academia in the United States and, after teaching at Princeton, teaching comparative literature at Rutgers from 1970 to 1984.

On one level this is a book about people and places. Among many of the world’s major artists and intellectuals, he knew André Breton, René Char, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Margot Fonteyn, Günter Grass, Pablo Neruda, Charles Olson, Octavio Paz, Henri and Nō Siegel and Claude Lévi-Strauss.

As an anthropologist, Tarn has travelled widely to places in Guatemala (special mention should be made here of Lake Atitlán, which became a kind of spiritual home to him with overtones of a lost Eden), and South East Asia. Reading about these and other places, one gets a sense of how privileged and grateful he feels for having seen them before the tidal wave of mass tourism took over and changed their character forever. In 1959, for example, when he first saw the Taj Mahal in India it was with, at most, a dozen other people. Twenty years later, he shared it with several hundreds.

From the world of literature, we read of Tarn’s associations with the British, the Europeans and the Americans. In Britain, there is an account of Tarn’s membership of ‘The Group’, an association of British poets that included Peter Redgrove and George MacBeth that used to meet at the home of Edward Lucie-Smith, his work with the publishers Jonathan Cape and, by extension, Cape Editions and Cape Goliard Press, his inclusion in volume 7 of the hugely influential Penguin Modern Poets Series and the publication of his first full-length poetry collection Old Savage / Young City. After emigration to America, we read of his assimilation into American life and his meetings with leading luminaries such as Edward Dorn, Robert Duncan, Eliot Weinberger and Charles Olson. 

On another level, the book is about far more than this. At its heart, it is an exploration of poetry: what it is and how it comes about within the mind of the creator. There are insights into the visionary poetry of Wordsworth and Blake, the need for the poet not merely to give pleasure but crucially to become part of the very spin of the world in motion. It is also about the many different sides of Tarn: Tarn the traveller who has an insatiable interest in other cultures, especially in religions and symbolic systems, primarily but not exclusively, classical, Mayan and Buddhist, Tarn the avid collector (of textiles, ceramics, postage stamps and books), Tarn the ornithologist (trips to Cape May and Hawk Mountain to watch the raptor migrations, magnificent sightings in Alaska, birding in New Guinea) and Tarn the botanist (he has a particular love of roses)…and this is by no means all. ‘Completion,’ he states, ‘is not a word that ever should come near this book.’

Following ‘retirement’ there are accounts of trips to countries as far flung as Bhutan, Indonesia, China, Japan and Ecuador to soak up the culture. We read of his insatiable enthusiasm for visiting museums and cultural monuments and the need to experience one’s past.

Tarn’s views on the way in which historical artefacts are displayed for the public’s consumption, consumer bourgeois culture, his horror of human exploitation and the impotence of institutions to do anything to stop it, his prediction that ‘the planet will survive by the skin of its teeth.  The human race will not,’ and the fact that too few understand that the conservation of nature and of culture are indissolubly linked: ‘you cannot save one without the other’ are all argued vigorously and stated with conviction. Although, at times, the writing is introspective, his style is always engaging and often conversational with a good dose of humour.

Poetry is so central to Tarn’s world that, towards the end of the book he declares that its title is also known to its author as Atlantis: An Autoanthropoem. It is here that he poses the question as to why so many young people want to be poets and concludes that it is because it is the only means whereby one can create ‘world’. As Tarn sees it, ‘Poetic liberation is the oldest liberation movement there is. Anyone can join. Anyone should.’

You can find the book here:

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.



Inculpatory Evidence: The Covid 19 Poems by Eileen R. Tabios


By Neil Leadbeater

Inculpatory evidence has, in its title, a legal reference frame which underscores the gravity of the subject-matter. Tabios presents the evidence. It is up to us, the readers, to draw our own conclusions.

The cover photograph of the author wearing her mask is a sombre reminder of just how contagious this virus is. Traditionally, masks were worn by actors as a means of transferring the wearer into a different character. More recently, they are considered to be a form of deception, a facade that obscures the truth. With regard to the present global pandemic we view them as a necessary part of everyday living. The covering over the nose and mouth is not without a cruel irony for we are short of breath due to polluting and dangerous pathogens and we are muted in expressing the truth because certain sections of society are fuelling us with misinformation, the so-called “fake news” that endangers us all. Wearing masks, we all lose a little of our facial identity and, to those who are hard of hearing, and who rely on lip-reading, our means of communication.

Four poets and translators have collaborated on this volume of ten poems by Eileen R. Tabios. John Bloomberg-Rissman has written an afterword and commentary on them, Natthaya Thamdee translated them into Thai and Susan M. Schultz provided useful feedback subjecting one of the poems to her Oulipian N+7 process in which a writer takes a poem already in existence and substitutes each of the poem’s substantive nouns with the noun appearing seven nouns away in the dictionary. This added a surreal touch to what many of us feel is a surreal situation. Some notes about issues that arose in the course of translating the poems into Thai are included at the end.

John Bloomberg-Rissman gives a chilling factual account of events (from November 2019 to June 2020) relating to the spread of Covid 19, the nature of the virus, and the attempts that are being made to curb its spread. His essay focusses on the complete denial, by certain sections of the population, that there is any need to take any precautionary measures, such as the wearing of masks and social distancing, at all. The account then widens to incorporate other global issues that are equally serious, if not more so. He lets the keepers of the Doomsday Clock sum it up: “Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers – nuclear war and climate change – that are compounded by a threat of multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond.”  Will we never learn? It seems that a proportion of the human race is hard-wired to self-destruction.

The ten poems in this volume employ a range of different styles appropriate to their subject matter. Two poems, for example, are written in the reverse hay(na)ku form (a sequence of tercets comprising lines of three words, two words and one word each) and there is also a poem written in couplets, and a list poem. In others, there is some experimentation with the way the lines are presented on the page, the size of the typeface and, in one poem, one or two words are typographically represented by a strikethrough to give an additional meaning to the text. Several poems are dated by month and year of composition. Interestingly enough, the year 2020 is adjusted to 2563 in the Thai translation to accommodate the Buddhist calendar which is 543 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar.

In the opening poem we are reminded, among other things, of the power of the word and how a single word, (corona), when it suddenly acquires a new meaning can change our perception of it forever, and that poetry has the power to foretell, to warn, of things to come.

The subject matter in this volume goes wider than Covid 19: ‘Regret’ focusses on the environment, ‘Triggered’ on hunger, ‘Not My First Mask’ on xenophobia and racism and ‘What I Normally Would Not Buy’ on panic buying, consumerism and survival. This is not just physical survival but also survival from domestic abuse.

Tabios uses food in this collection as a metaphor for survival. Food, in its various forms, appears in at least seven of the ten poems. We cannot survive without it. Witness the panic buying that took place as soon as news of the outbreak spread. Maslow was right when he included it within his hierarchy of basic human needs (although he seems to have overlooked toilet paper altogether).

Deception is another theme that weaves its way through this collection: things are not necessarily what they look like or what they seem to be. In ‘Sudden Asian Prepper’ Tabios uses references from hair colouring and make-up to illustrate her point about the deeper issues of deception, not just those that are follicle or skin-deep, but ones to do with race, misinformation and denial.

dye for turning

hair blonde,


for double-lidding eyes,

Eyelid tape and other similar products are hugely popular in places like Korea where having “double eyelids” is considered to be ridiculously desirable.

Despite the gravity of the subject matter there is dark humour at work in some of these poems. Take ‘Faith in the Time of the Coronavirus,’ for example, which opens with these lines:

The President proclaims

-nay, guarantees! –





I respond faithfully


with an item I’ve never experienced:

a box of 100 MREs*

My tastebuds cringe –

[*Meals Ready to Eat].

‘Kapwa on Covid’ opens with a quotation from Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’. So much depends upon that word. If we can stem the virus, if everyone can adhere to social distancing, if there is another wave, if an effective vaccine can be found, if the virus mutates…different trajectories will ensue. There was a framed copy of Kipling’s poem in our home when I was young. I used to read it often and I can still recall the opening line: ‘If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs…’ In it, the speaker advises his son about how to perceive the world and life’s challenges so that he can both learn from his experiences and resolutely overcome barriers. It is something we all need to do in these difficult times.


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 publications 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),  Punching Cork Stoppers (Original Plus, 2018) and Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019).  His work has been translated into several languages.