Laurie Byro, Luna, Poems by Laurie Byro, Aldrich Press, 2015. ISBN 10: 0692496599, ISBN 13: 9780692496596, 118 pages. Price $17.00.
When High Modernism came to America it was transformed into a more personal, down-to-earth style, taking what it needed from Pound’s Imagism, Eliot’s disjunctive narratives and the free-association of Surrealism. Evolving through the prosaic imagery of Moore and Bishop, Frost, the subjectivity of the New York School and Robert Bly’s Deep Image, informed by women’s new rights and self-awareness, new American poetry became an examination of how subjectivity functions in the American environment. Note how Byro explores landscape in “Southeast Lighthouse Stairs, Block Island”:
From the north the winds lie long and light slants
differently this time. I stick October into a socket of bone,
readjust its broken arm. I howl beside the goldenrod
along these cliffs, startle finches into flight. Ragged
feather dusters of cattails rove between their shoulders.
The air is yellowed with dust. I carry all of her there, a mosaic
of stones and fragments of bones, a skeleton key
with no door to open. She is the lazy strain of lost shells,
the deep green and copper rust of the body. Climbing
down nine flights of stairs, sometimes chasing the light
I lay her down among the tall grass. She is the flinty spark
off a match I cannot strike….
The poet’s “I do this, I do that” narrative serves as a fine example of Byro’s investigation of how perception acts in the American landscape. Her speaker notes how differently the light slants on Block Island since her last visit, how the wind is from the north. Why is this important? What does it matter that finches take flight?
This hiker is on a serious mission, judging from the measured, cautious movement of her observations. (Byro uses pacing effectively as an expressive element.) She is trying once again to solve a missing person’s case, one she cannot close despite repeated attempts to gather evidence, to add up clues. Obsessively she focusses first on goldenrod, to the cloud of their pollen, to cattails, to the tall grass where she lays the mystery down.
In Luna, Byro continues to employ the anthropomorphic conceits she used with such intensity in The Bird Artists, unwilling to abandon her interrogation of the pathetic fallacy because of the answers it may yield.
…the tide sweeps
the beach. It picks through stones with crooked fingers of salt.
Questioning the prejudices of earlier aesthetic norms can sometimes show the way out of an impasse. Can the perception of human qualities in non-human things reveal truths about the invisible but powerful underworld of one’s own psyche? And if so, how?
Romantic poetry elevated subjectivity to primacy as a literary subject. Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria became a guide for using symbols to illustrate the self’s journey to transcendence. Brenda Hillman, in a 2006 lecture at UC Berkeley titled “Cracks in the Oracle Bone: Teaching Certain Contemporary Poems” noted “In poems, the meanings coincide with the rhythms of someone thinking them…Modernism brought an interest – through Freud but not only through Freud – in the mind’s psychological processes, which inspired artists to incorporate images reflecting mental processes.”
Free-association techniques used to reveal irrational connections in those undergoing analysis found its way into modernist poetry, facilitating confessional poetry’s depictions of personal dramas. American moderns like Robert Bly, Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, Plath and Sexton took the emotional lives of their speakers as their main subject, a choice that often produced a hothouse air of self-obsession in their work. Another current in American poetry had the exteriority of Pound’s Imagism as a source. Bly, whose poems are sometimes marred by sentimentality, called Pound’s outward-oriented descriptions “Picturism” for their lack of personal emotional context. But that is exactly what some rock-ribbed American writers found desirable in a drier, more outward-facing approach.
In “Passing By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Frost’s narrator is lured by the dark depths of the forest, often a symbol, like the sea, for the unconscious, but he opts for the real world of hardscrabble New Hampshire daily life, and the promises he has to keep. Willam Carlos Williams, after a wild trip into hallucinatory French Surrealism in Kora in Hell, made the everyday life of a New Jersey working-class town his poetic symbol in Paterson:
Sniffing the trees,
just another dog
among a lot of dogs. What
else is there to do?
As American literature evolved into the Twenty-First Century, some poets managed to find a happy medium between exteriority and subjectivity by interrogating their American environments for correspondences between the external world and their affective lives. Modern approaches to the psyche became grounded, touching base with the American landscape, as here in Byro’s “Virginia Sings Back To the Stones In Her Pockets:
I must get the details right. How stones warbled
to her from the garden for a fortnight or so. Troublesome,
intrusive, they trilled while she weeded anemones. Beneath
the ease of roots and thrust of new growth, they ingratiated
themselves to her prodding callused fingers. They knew
her sister was the lucky one, the one who skimmed flat-brimmed
lake stones with the children. This one lay on the couch
with her eyelids peeled back, mushroom capped stones rattling
in the crèche of her eye sockets. Stones were faithful
as vowels; they didn’t let her down….
Perceiving human emotion in non-human things mirrors the narrator’s emotional state because it is acknowledged by the self as a projection of the inner life on the outer world. This is the poetry of self-awareness. Objects of perception mirror the mental state of the perceiver by virtue of attracting its notice, thereby making the hidden world of the unconscious partially visible.
Marianne Moore famously recommended that poetry offer readers “imaginary gardens with real toads.” Byro’s ars poetica shares that goal. The inner life, though hidden, reveals itself in what it notices in the real world of physical facts:
…I searched for her among the starfish,
behind the sandy dunes all the way to Provincetown
and back. This earth has no use for mysteries. When I finally
caught her in my arms, a butterfly needing no net, I bargained
with the lilacs, the heart-shaped leaves, the bees to let her
(“Fruit of the Dead”)
While Byro’s poems contain flights of mythical fancy, here and there she borrows the voice of a wolf, of a horse, of Ophelia, but Byro is not cosmic poet. Her moon and stars are solid rocks in physical space, but are no less radiant with significance for all their materiality. Almost as if her narrators need to touch base with the natural world to keep from sinking into the dark unconscious, they catalog the world around them, as if assuring themselves that despite being in thrall to strong emotions, they are still conscious, still rational:
…those gorgeous heart-broken blue skies,
dunes made flat by keening, we find a winter sun that cannot be
extinguished, a reveler’s red flag. Afterwards, the roofs hold down
all breath that crosses the bedrooms as the dreamers turn towards
one another. Afterwards as Lazarus knew, as his sisters figured out,
the youngest with her yellow hair that gathered perfume to summon
the feet of an angel, afterwards, they would wake into another life.
Icicle-stars melt, weeping, as Jesus did for his friend. Afterwards,
I rise in a doorway and listen for snowy-wings, brave songbirds
chattering miracles. The Village gets another chance while the earth
turns and sighs and the moon burns blue as a teardrop. Meanwhile,
flowers and winter bees and insects without a song will escape
into darkness. Afterwards, owls will spin their feathers
like a crochet skein, sweep the sky as the earth rises and falls,
gathers its breath into a near finished shawl.
While connected illogically, associations in Byro’s poems are never random, no matter how arbitrary their arrangement may seem. Her speakers are as meticulous as Sherlock Holmes in the way they examine each piece of evidence that reveals more of the mystery, which rather than metaphysical is rather their own feelings: passion, pain, grief and hope, a reason to rejoice of just to go on searching.
Many of the poems in Luna are memories, their narrators trying to find metaphors in the outside world that may reveal the subjective importance of the recollection. And, because the process of searching is foregrounded, the rhythm developed as image after image is explored expresses the psychic mood of the speakers. Is it slow and meditative, urgent and driven, resigned, hopeless?
I am the spark off a candle; I climb a dull vine.
Swift overpasses, I carry a green wreath, add
pine-cones, feathers to my pack. A tom-boy’s
striped snake, beautiful, still intact to show you
when you wake. A bell will ring in a village
I do not know. A woman will bend and sift
dirt through coiled fingers, hair glinting
The pace here is rapid, excited. The speed of perceptions reveals the internal mood. In other poems, the movement from image to image is sluggish, depressed, as here, in “Dreamworking”:
…I want to be
married to slowness, the watchful minutes as we
disentangle logy lies, legs that can’t get up and leave.
Shadows that could make Plato’s creatures breathe.
The dark fact of me loved or not. You are miles gone,
coaxing me back into a reflection off train windows.
We miss the plaintive lowing of cave animals that hide
in yellow dust…
This is a contemporary version of Romanticism, the self at the center of the mystery, but informed more than ever by the the physical world in all its sensual detail; a box full of geraniums, heart-shaped leaves, four fine blackbirds. The order and speed in which images concatenate in the narrator’s perceptual field, as well as the diction and vocabulary used, provide the poem’s expressive meaning. Every image matters, every color, texture, temperature, chiaroscuro and every word choice reveals the speaker’s psychology. This is not Eliot’s formal device of an “objective correlative” for a narrator’s psychic state, it is the living psyche in the process of discovering itself by virtue of what it sees, hears, tastes, touches.
In Laurie Byro’s Luna, stones, bones, sand and soot, fire, wind, tables and plates assert their physical reality as they simultaneously mirror the inner world of her speakers. The poems are alive with turtles, scorpions, coyotes, scuttling crabs. Rarely do we come across a generic bird in Byro’s poems; her menagerie includes specific rooks, cardinals, mourning doves, finches. And human bodies: arms, necks, fingers, ribs, knuckles, pulses, snores, a cheek with a violet birthmark. Her speakers live in a tangible world that provides information about her narrator’s place in it, and that place exists midway between the dark magic of the unconscious and the sensual reality.
As Hillman describes it: “You make some sense of things as if you were your own deviner of signs, as if the cracks in the oracle bone were details brought from this world into this world.”
© Laurie Byro and Diana Manister
Laurie Byro has been facilitating the “Circle of Voices” poetry discussion in New Jersey libraries for over 16 years. She is published widely in university presses in the United States and is included in the anthology St. Peter’s B List (Ave Maria Press, 2014). Laurie garnered more InterBoard Poetry Community (IBPC) awards than any other poet, stopping at 50. She had two books of poetry published in 2015: Luna (Aldrich Press) and Gertrude Stein’s Salon and Other Legends (Blue Horse Press). A chapbook was published in 2016 Wonder (Little Lantern Press) out of Wales. She received a 2016 New Jersey Poet’s Prize for the first poem in the Stein collection and a 2017 New Jersey Poet’s Prize for a poem in the Bloomsberries collection. Laurie is currently Poet in Residence at the West Milford Township Library, where “Circle of Voices” continues to meet.
Diana Manister writes literary criticism for The Modern Review; Forum, The College English Association Journal; BigCityLit; and About Contemporary Literature.com. She is a member of the International Critics Association and the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and writers. Her poetry has been published in Four and Twenty; Maintenant, a Dada Journal, Vols. 5, 6, 7, 8; Big Bridge; The Ozone Park Journal; The Sheepshead Review; The New Post-Literate; Ygdrasil; and various anthologies. Her poem “Hubble” was set to music by composer John Raeger and premiered in Oakland and San Francisco in 2013, performed by the Piedmont Choirs conducted by Robert Geary, and in Helskinki, Finland, in 2014.