Laurie Byro, The Bloomsberries and Other Curiosities, Kelsay Books, 2017, ISBN-13: 978-1945752667, 72 pages, $14.00
I don’t know when my mother became hooked on Virginia Woolf but she developed her affection in plenty of time for the 1981 Virginia Woolf Centenary. She read the novels, then the essays, then moved on to the letters and diaries. Her collection was impressive by the time she put her own stones in her pockets in 1986. My father, ever the Leonard to my mother’s Virginia, did his part by reading all of Leonard Woolf’s books, then Harold Nicholson’s books, and collecting their letters and journals. Was she a Virginia longing for her Vita? I assume so. I picture my mother still, on a summer afternoon with her long legs flung over the arms of the sofa, a book open beside her written by the woman who had traveled a similar path of mental illness. As I have worked to get to know her after my mother’s death, I have absorbed and added to the collection. I know the grounds of Sissinghurst, I can imagine the kitchen at Charleston, and I can hear the printer for the Hogarth Press clattering away. I disdain Ottoline, desire Carrington, and always love Virginia. So, imagine my delight, reading The Bloomsberries and Other Curiosities while traveling on a train, to find myself in company with my Woolf-pack!
Ms. Byro’s opening set of poems has her stepping into the souls of different members of the Bloomsbury Group—Virginia Woolf, Clive Bell, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Lytton Strachey, Vita Sackville-West, Dora Carrington, et al.—and bringing their words to life. Take these insights, for example, in “A Casket for Roger Fry” which characterizes Fry’s love for Vanessa—
My kingdom, all my paintings for this touch.
The days and nights dissolved upon our tongue.
She brought me garlands, rain and snowy kisses.
I filled the night with us and all our wishes.
Or “What Duncan Thought” as Duncan Grant speaks from the grave—
Lytton called me “Puck”
in our merry band of buggers, Vanessa, “The Fairy Queen.” But this
I believe as I once wrote from a Bazaar at Smyrna “the camels,
the cries, the colors, the mysteries.” That note from Turkey
could have been a postcard summing up my life. I would
have traveled forever with that chap. We passed through strange
and shaggy interludes, then he breathed no more. Lytton never lived
to hear the Beatles.
Or this glorious passage from “Leonard Woolf’s Heaven” as Leonard, like my father, trying so hard to save his wife from herself—
Like my love for Virginia,
the jungle surged forward and blotted the walls of their huts.
It made our lives less important for the whole. My love-breath
was hot and heavy, an animal thrashing through shrubs and bushes,
trees. The disorder of the jungle was like madness, thorns
and creepers suffocating rice-fields and healthy soil. If it had
not been for love, we would have hardly mattered. If it had not been
for me, she would have sacrificed herself sooner than she did.
Here, I feel I know Lytton so well from my own reading that I hear him as Ms. Byro did as he settles into his afterlife, planning his pleasures—
I am free to wander, at least until Carrington arrives.
Ms. Byro and I know, as does anyone familiar with this history, that Dora Carrington hated the name “Dora” and always used “Carrington” as she was a feminist, way ahead of their time, between in the period 1907–1930.
Several of these poems had me gasping aloud (on a train, I might remind the reader)—they are so effective at breathing life into those dry bones. Certainly, I never met any of these people myself. It just seems like I know these voices so well thanks to constant reading and re-reading, enjoying the rivers of books about this bunch of creative friends in the decades since the 1980s, and my participation in academic groups devoted to Virginia Woolf. These poems are an accomplishment indeed! Ms. Byro begins with a foreshadowing of Virginia’s death in “Virginia’s Constellations” about how Virginia traveled the River Ouse long before she took her life and how Li Po drowned in a boat while trying to embrace the moon. Here is a teaser—
The silent river spilled
no secrets about temptation or regret. The woman who navigated
these waters held a compass that could turn her boat around,
change to any direction. She planted her long legs solidly
on its wooden floor, a book open and faced down
beside her written by a man who’d traveled similar waters.
“Leaving Monk’s House” also references her suicide. Is she alive or a wandering spirit? It matters not, what matters is that we are in that house, imagining Virginia’s despairing voice as she muses—
The girls will have the table set
on its splintered French farm wood,
each sparrow weaves its ribbony nest
with the scraps from the table. Leave me,
in peace, Apostles, I shall say as I scrape
my boots free of silt and leave them outside
the door. The dented leather barks its own
tale. Tonight, we’ll redeem ourselves
with a stingy, goodnight kiss. The flowers
are hushed, then silenced in their sticky blue-
If the reader is not familiar with the Bloomsbury Group, these poems are a great introduction to that coterie of artistic friends. They should be read aloud, and perhaps even as a kind of play, imagining an evening gathering of the group. I have become a thing that wants these poems!
The final poem in this section is chilling as these characters are out for an evening returning to their “Charleston Farmhouse.” Here is a snippet of the poem to get a whiff of that fox sensing the danger perhaps of their extraordinary lives.
The fields were covered in star-frost as we returned
at day-break. Red wings with their crimson feathers
parted the dark. Suddenly a pair of foxes startled
the horses. One of our group alerted the others by
waving his hand. Forever, a long time ago, I remember.
Now none of them are alive, not the foxes,
nor the man who hushed the crunch of star-frost, nor
And then—the Curiosities! Also informed by literature, the fertile mind of Ms. Byro journeys over seas and through varied landscapes, entertains and interacts with grandmothers, lost loves, feathered friends, and nomads. In these poems, the wit sparkles, the passion warms, and there is a frankness that acts like a projectile, making the reader sit up, re-read, and reflect. Even though these are new writings for me, I could not escape a sense that, as I read them, something I had forgotten was coming back to me. I know that woodcock, “dead dropped from an envious ocean wind.” I might be that woodcock and “my feet are twigs come to a mysterious end.”
These are poems to savor, perhaps one per morning, before facing the day. I know I will savor them in that manner.
© Laurie Byro and Lorienne Schwenk
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.
Lorienne Schwenk is a member of the International Virginia Woolf Society, an organization devoted to the scholarly study of the work and career of Virginia Woolf. The society aims to facilitate ways in which all people interested in Ms. Woolf’s writings—scholars, critics, teachers, students, artists and general readers—may learn from one another, meet together, contact each other, and help one another. Ms. Schwenk tells us: “I live in Cambria, California surrounded by calla lilies, orange poppies, and redwoods, a freezer full of last summer’s produce, four cats, 5,000 books, and Fred—my sine qua non. Trained at Bauman College of Nutrition, I see my work as a Natural Chef and Nutritional Mentor as an extension of a lifetime of gardening and cooking for myself and others. Health and our role in it have always fascinated me. I am intrigued by the mysteries of the body and how it works, the causes and prevention of ‘dis-ease,’ and the interplay of nutrition, spiritual well-being, community, environmental factors, and daily life in wellness and wholeness. It is a great honor to be a part of my clients’ journey to optimal health. Lastly, I sing! I sing while I cook, while I garden, and any chance I get.” See Ms. Schwenk’s website at http://www.thesingingkitchen.com.