Sunday, April 24, 2011

Mairéad Byrne’s The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven

Mairéad Byrne sent me her latest book The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven (Publishing Genius, 2010) a while back, and foolishly I let it sit for a long time in the pile of books that I have been letting build up for ages now. Somehow I assumed it would be tough to read, and it is 208 pages, and I’ve just been so busy, etc., etc. Bad choice, and how wrong I was, because I could have been talking about this one, recommending it, rereading it, for so much longer, because it’s that good that you’d want to. On the other hand, I get to right now experience that jolt of discovery, having read the whole thing in a day, and am still in the mode of enthused response.

The poems herein first appeared on Byrne’s blog Heaven (thus the title of the book), and so the question arises, why a book, can’t these poems just all be read online? Well, the reason why a book, or one reason anyway, is because this book is a great little object, an excellently-designed artifact in itself, with a sharp cover (by Stephanie Barber) and layout. On top of that, it has one of the best back cover blurbs ever, supplied by Luke Kennard, who ends by saying, “…it’s a beautiful, angry, generous collection and if you don’t like it you’re a fucking idiot.” Yes indeed.

Personally, I like books better than the internet. I like the feel and smell of them, and am interested in their construction and structures. The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven is divided into sections, rough thematic chapters — “Calendar,” “Everyday Lunacy,” “Found,” “Interviews,” “Numbers,” “War,” etc. Byrne is an experimentalist of sorts, though I realize a term such as this may be restrictive. Her work is actually very wide-ranging, from short imagistic poems like “Fall” (“Now when I come home at night/ I take my pate off/ & watch the gold & auburn trees/ surge & blow”) to imagined interviews with a figure like the poet Charles Reznikoff, to found poems, to political poems (there are a number of anti-war pieces here with titles such as “Rubble,” “Baghdad,” “Headlines”), to the surreal poems of the section “Everything Is Unlikely.”

I suspect that Reznikoff is important for Byrne, because the found poem is to the fore in this collection (as has been the case in other of her books). In this regard, I also see an affinity to the work of Caroline Bergvall, not only in the manipulation of found texts (be it through erasure, addition, collage, cut-up), but in Byrne’s similar interest in the interplay of languages and cultures. “An Educated Heart” is a play on the poem’s title phrase in several different languages (I can see Spanish, Irish, German, French, and Chinese, but I think there are others), sometimes rendered phonetically. “Mount Pleasant” celebrates the neighborhood of the same name in Providence, Rhode Island, which seems to be the location of a number of Latino businesses (e.g. Tiende y Panaderia Guatemalteca) existing alongside places like Family Dollar and Print-It Plus. Byrne herself is Irish, having immigrated to the United States “for poetry,” as her bio note at the end of the book proclaims.

As I stated above, I was initially under the mistaken assumption that this would somehow be a difficult book. And in fact I do happen to like difficult poetry, so that would have been just grand too. As it happens, this collection is quite substantial and by no means trivial, but there’s a whimsicality to it, a conversational feel, which allows the reader to enter into Byrne’s poetry with ease. Her work includes much in the way of personal detail, yet it is not “confessional.” It is humorous but never trite. It is experimental but not hermetic. It is of the world, of life. Byrne’s poem “Donald Hall Would Hate Me” is a sort of manifesto, an ars poetica, and articulates her own approach to poetry better than I can at the moment:
Donald Hall Would Hate Me

if he knew me
I don’t want to be great

it takes me 10 minutes
to write a poem

sometimes
& then

I want to whisper or
shout it about
town

My poems are usually brief
they resemble each other
they are anecdotal
they do not extend themselves
they make no great claims
they connect small things to other small things

I LIKE SHORT!

I just want to kick the leaves
& have done

Part of me in a way feels like I should be doing a more in-depth, disciplined “criticism” of this collection — I don’t want to give this short shrift — but right now I really just want to say how much I liked it. And you probably will too.

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