Laurie Byro, La Dogaressa & Other Poems, Cowboy Buddha Press, 2018, ISBN: 978-0-9994795-0-6, 62 pages, $14.98.
Whenever I begin a new book of poetry, I indulge in some pre-reading ceremonies. First is an appreciation of the volume as a hand-held work of art: binding, cover art, font, and arrangement of poems. La Dogaressa, written by Laurie Byro, published by Cowboy Buddha Publishing, is an elegant small volume, 5” by 7” on fine paper with a refined font, easy to carry around as you contemplate her poetic examinations of famous people, items such as cigars and trinkets, silver bed head, paint cans, and all manner of birds and animals. The table of contents reveals a seductive assortment of titles. All in all, it is a book that calls to you and makes you eager to read. It’s important that it is such a lovely volume because I promise you will be carrying it around with you and re-reading it quite a few times.
Some consideration of the title is important. What does it promise me about the contents? In the case of Laurie Byro’s La Dogaressa, consideration of the cover art and the title were enticing. Although the title is Latin, the Venetian equivalent of a duke, La Dogaressa makes me think of a canine, but surely that figure on the cover is a cat swathed in robes. A dip into Wikipedia reminds me that Doge was the title of the rulers of Venice for some centuries. Consorts were styled Dogaressa. So we are presented with a nice jumble of possible meanings.
At any rate, Doge/dog to cat or a cat swathed in robes makes an interesting cover touching on transformations for literature of change. The first poem, La Dogaressa, is a pantoum, a lovely incantatory form to begin this elegant volume of mysterious poems. La Dogaressa charts transformation from “a Jewess in a town of Catholic ghosts” to simply “I,” ignoring taunts, eating “Warhol” soup and crackers. “Cruel kids” become children. Dead kittens, originally thrown by the cruel kids, are allowed to carry out a final good chore, nourishing flowers with their soft striped bodies. You cannot pin particular meanings through the changes, but you are left with a better impression than you began with. Trophies or bones for wicked children are transformed into mulch for flowers from “kittens … like rain petals.”
Part one contains, along with poems to cigars, trinkets, silver bed head, paint and paint cans, poems invoking Peggy Guggenheim, Ezra Pound, Isadora Duncan, Yoko Ono, John Holms, and James Joyce.
“Ezra” encapsulates the essence of Ezra Pound’s life, captures its goofy dedication to truth, in brilliant comparisons beyond the scope of a prose account. According to Byro, he was kept in his 6 x 6 wire cell because his poems were so dangerous that the United States government was afraid they “would escape and sneak out into the free world, growling and hissing,” consequently denying him paper and pens in fear of his “old man’s body goose-step(ing) straight to hell.”
In her poem, Isadora Duncan dances barefoot in the rain with blood dripping off her toes. Yoko Ono writes little poems and places them in branches where they “buzz like bee-filled flowers.” Byro writes of incidents that might well have happened if the authors of these acts had thought of them.
Referencing everyone’s childhood fantasy of toys coming alive to have their being while the rest of the world sleeps, in “The Collection at Midnight,” a painting by Klee allows its chandelier neon colors to swirl off the canvas, Chagall’s “Rain” causes others to shriek away in horror while Mondrian (ever the bore) causes no disturbances unless you count suffocating in the “white on white cage he seems to delight in,” all poems exemplifying the nightmare of ekphrasis getting its revenge.
When we arrive at Part Two, we step into a place largely populated by cows, chows, scorpions, moths, rabbits, foxes, birds and bees, along with their human and ectoplasmic companions.
Foxes seem to fascinate Byro (as do other creatures, such as finches, snow bees, ravens, larks, and owls, even unto porch birds and angels). She begins the second section with “A Fox As Fey Totem,” for D.H. Lawrence, followed by a quartet of fox poems. When we read “What Makes the Fox Chase His Own Tail,” we are reminded of the kitsune, the magical foxes of Japanese folklore, when the kitsune reach their one hundredth birthdays, they can begin shapeshifting, a trick that makes describing them very difficult. These magical foxes love to take human forms. They tend to go for shapes that command maximum respect— an elegant young woman or a wise old priest. If they’re in a troublemaking mood, they can present themselves as humans they want to emulate or disgrace: a rich and powerful ruler or a rude and foolish person who deserves to be humiliated.
Accordingly, “What Makes The Fox Chase His Own Tail” gives voice to the well-known horror of fur pieces made of whole foxes, with synthetic eyes and nose, their little feet with claws and tail that “circle(s) a woman’s shoulders.” Byro’s foxes go through their transformations—a thief, a mermaid’s red hair, a caboose, a sly poem, the blood before a broken vow, all from the skulker that “tears the night with his keening.” Readers will never see an urban fox slipping around their garbage can in the same way after they have seen them with Byro’s eyes that see transformations everywhere.
This book is and is not an easy read. On first reading, one is tempted to read poem after poem for their gorgeous and intriguing images. A second reading allows the reader to begin to slip into the poet’s mind, a mind that looks at the world and sees a shifting transmogrified place full of magic and meaning. As one re-reads, it becomes apparent that Byro is not an easy poet. You no sooner decide she is a marvelous writer about famous people than you think she is the finest writer about animals you have ever read. Then, you read “The Aging Magician Speaks to His Reflection” or her addresses to mythical figures such as Penelope and Icarus and you realize she is definitely a fox figure of a poet, a shape shifter in her imagination.
One thing is sure. Laurie Byro obviously sees the world in many different ways. As you read and re-read these poems, you will see the world in a different way. Who knows? Maybe the next time you read these poems, the words will have shifted around on the pages and been transformed into totally new meanings. Anything can happen when Byro begins to write!
© Laurie Byro and Tree Riesener
Laurie Byro has had 5 collections of poetry published, most recently La Dogaressa (Cowboy Buddha Press). Two collections had work that received a New Jersey Poetry Prize. Her poetry has received 54 Interboard Competition honors including 10 First Place awards as judged. In 2018, she was nominated for 4 Pushcart Prizes and she facilitates Circle of Voices in NJ Libraries for the last 18 years.
Tree Riesener is the author of a collection of short fiction, Sleepers Awake, winner of the Eludia Award, now available on Amazon. For information about this and his other books (The Hubble Cantos (Aldrich Press), EK (Cervena Barva Press), and Angel Fever (included in Triple No. 5 from Ravenna Press), please visit him at Tree Riesener at my listings on Amazon. His new poetry collection will be Quodlibet (Ravenna Press), forthcoming in mid-2019. Visit him on Facebook and Twitter.