Laurie Byro, Wonder. Reviewed by Shawn Nacona Stroud

Wonder

Laurie Byro, Wonder, Little Lantern Press, 2016. 33 pages, $7.50. ISBN: 978-0-9933357-0-9. Reviewed by Shawn Nacona Stround.

In the poems of Wonder poet Laurie Byro expertly weaves life and fantasy into a multifariously detailed tapestry. Observing the tapestry from a distance one would think with such poems as “Courage,” “The Flying Monkeys of OZ Retire,” and “Tin Man,” that they were reading poems based solely on The Wizard of OZ…a story so iconic it has become ingrained in American culture. However, as you step closer to the tapestry and really begin to study it, the hidden details of Ms.Byro’s life experiences begin to emerge. Thus, the work of Ms. Laurie Byro as I have come to know her; since our first encounter in a poetry workshop in 2006, is a poetry that’s in constant integration of subject and soul to create a new working whole. Her poems are always accessible, but not necessarily easily accessible. Ms. Byro’s poetry can be read and understood without knowing the author, or so the reader would assume. But this reader maintains that the poetry is better understood once you’ve known the author.

In Wonder, the poet spins her fairytale into three sections, the first of which borrows the title of the book. Right off, you can tell the voice in these poems is drastically different than the voice of Luna, her previous book, whose poems are no less startling in imagery and nature, but more unconcealed in subject. The opening poem of this section is titled “Courage,” invoking in its title the desperate need of The Cowardly Lion to acquire the courage that he lacks:

It was the spirit of the lion gnashing
his teeth, biting through a new leash.

In the first two lines the poet carries the OZ imagery on, but there is a darkness to these lines if you observe carefully. Here, the first end stopped line and the preceding enjambed line work together. In the first line the verb gnashing reveals inner conflict. We read this line as the soul of the lion thrashing with inner turmoil before pushing onto the next line. The second line reveals anger, the gnashing of teeth, the chewing of a new leash to break free. The subject is confined, trapped, yearning to break away. In the following lines the poet begins to fuse herself into her subject matter with:

All day at work, the trees leaned into the road
lonely as fishermen. Inside a leather bound book,
stories swarmed and became bees.

Here, the word usage and imagery are telling. Trees leaning into the road and the image of the lonely fishermen give it a state of mind that is withdrawn, introverted, the subject is not even able to concentrate in the work environment for the conflict about her. She picks up a book and the words become bees. The bee imagery is significant as they are beautiful but dangerous and even deadly. This imagery also engages our auditory response…a buzzing clamoring sound that consumes other sounds. I see the poet , at her Library job, stewing over current events in her life. It is in her nature to fight, but has she the courage to? She is certainly gnashing at what is restraining her. If I know the poet, I would have to say this is also probably, in part, her gathering the courage to get on with it, a desire to be free of a current state of being. The next section invokes The Bible, Judges: 14:14 and the riddle Samson wages to his thirty philistine guests: And he said to them, out of the eater came something to eat, and out of the strong came something sweet:

Samson stuck his hands into a carcass
licked honey off his fingertips. A Lion
crawled off into the forest to die. Between
his ribs, a hive pulsed like a young heart.
Bees strolled each white bone, wanton
as a railroad track. The summer we turned
twenty, we followed the train all the way
through the small towns of New York State.

Here the bee imagery carries over as it does throughout the poems in the first section of Wonder. The poet accomplishes this through using the image of Samson plunging his hands into the lion’s belly. In the Bible Samson gives some of the honey to his mother and father, but he does not tell them where he discovered it. The imagery here is stark, the hive pulsing between the lion’s ribs like a honeycombed heart, the bees buzzing as they crawl along the bones the poet describes as “wanton as a railroad track”. The bees , their clamor, act as a device to transport the reader back in time to when the poet was twenty, the speaker following a train through the small towns of New York State with an unnamed companion, I would say a lover, perhaps.

The train hummed like a bee in the ribs
of that old story. I wondered if you could
hear the trains whistle from where you are,
whether you were tucking a sleepy body
into bed. I pictured you sitting outside
on a new love’s freshly painted porch.
You’d be moving your black queen three spaces
forward, contemplating your next move,
eyeing her last rook.

For me this strophe is where the poem solidifies. It is as though the whole poem has built up to this climatic moment. The bee imagery carries over here as well, the train hums with the sound of a bee in the ribs of Samson’s story. The poet reflects if he can hear it too wherever he is. I think this line is where we really get a good dose of what emotions the subject has going through her:

into bed. I pictured you sitting outside
on a new love’s freshly painted porch.

This is a poem that is actively merging the poet’s past with her present. The “he” of the poem is the same love of the poet’s present, at work contemplating him over a leather-bound book. The poet wondering in her recollections if he could hear the train “from where you are” tells me that even in those memories there was a distance between the two. The image of tucking a sleepy body into a bed, I think was quite intentionally worded this way for the effect it has. Sleepy body into a bed has a dual interpretation…on one level it could mean some other woman’s sleeping body, but it could also mean a dead body. This is how our old and new perceptions of people merge when we reflect on them looking back into our past. The poet really hones in on her perception employing chess which also invokes Wonderland imagery to close the strophe. In the poem the lover was:

moving your black queen three spaces
forward, contemplating your next move,
eyeing her last rook.

The poet imagines him playing chess on the porch of a “new” lover. The poet paints him as one that conquers and takes until there is nothing left save a board of empty squares…someone who would take the last of something you had away from you. I imagine two subjects here, present and past. One jealous, shy, young, and suspecting, and the other older, reflecting, realizing her hurt and regret, and a strong desire for the courage to move on from it. The final strophe begins with the narrator confessing how she would carry sharp scissors as the sun set. I can see the speaker there in the dimming shadows of evening, cutting strands of her hair for the birds to make their nests. The poet calls them her “courage teachers” which tells us it was from nature, from the birds that she summons her courage. This brings us to the final three lines of the poem:

My courage teachers, when we were no longer
speaking, I walked along each railroad tie and listened
to finches or nuthatches, titmice or juncos.

The poem leaves us in conflict. The couple of the poem at this point are no longer speaking. The Narrator leaves us walking along the railroad line, listening to nature about her, learning, growing, and finding company and courage through the languages of the finches, nuthatches, titmice and juncos. There is an intense loneliness in this finality. The speaker, finally, is now fully detached from the association that jilts her.

The next section of the book is appropriately titled “Jabberwock” taking the reader to the core poems from the Wonderland theme. The poems of this section share much the same dark melancholy tone of the first section, but with titles such as “Hookah,” “The Chess Board,” “Pocket Watch,” and “Treacle,” it is clear the reader has been teleported from Oz to Wonderland. With the poems of this section the poet chameleons herself with her subjects a bit more effectively. The poems can be read and understood without knowing about the author, nevertheless, Ms. Byro’s presence lingers throughout this work. I come across her first in “Hookah” in the form of patriarchy and loss here:

at a wormwood picnic table. The length of blue insect, call him Caterpillar,
languishes and recedes. Wisps of gray smoke tubing,

the long corpse of your father. No character at the table has nibbled
the mushroom yet. Small and in awe, the procession of breath
leaves the body

And then here again in the poems climatic close:

…the flickering night fails. Your father’s mushroom eyes wither,
the forest is a door banged shut.

In her poem “The Chess Board” the poet goes as far as personifying herself and a chess board so that the two are one. For me this is the most personal of this sequence. The poem echoes the chessboard imagery in “Courage”.  If the poet is weaving a tapestry for us, this part is stitched expertly.

Feelings as a skirt rustles, the comforting hoofs
Of a horse. I am nothing if not a plateau of emotion.
It does not matter how things turn out.

All I am is hurry or absence. All I know is
Someone will win, and someone will lose…

The final section of the book is titled “The Gamekeepers Forest” and this is the least specific section for me in terms of title. A gamekeeper; of course, is an individual who is employed to both breed and protect game. This is the only section of the book that does not borrow its title from a well know story. However, the cover art of Wonder is a scene with Alice in Wonderland characters painted by artist Michael Byro, and it is from this, also containing a fox and a hare, that I suspect Ms. Byro was conjuring for the last section of her book. The poems of this perfectly fit the sections name with titles like “The Dream Fox,” and “Wintry Peacock”. These poems are familiar and fun for me because I did workshop several of them with Ms. Byro so there is that familiarity about them. In these poems Ms. Byro continues on through her kingdoms of fantasy and back into reality. The final poem, “Firebird” I shall share with you in closing.

Firebird

Before you, when I adorned white, when I left
for snowy mountains: my feathers melted
and became puddles. I was compliant, acquiescent—
absent of all color. I was called virgin, snowdrop:
I hadn’t acquired my love of stolen things.

Now all pieces of silver, all sequins, anything
shining and dazzling woos me. I have fallen
in love with the jade of your eyes. I’ll feather
our nest with rhinestones to reflect the stars.

I’ll camouflage my darkness with the coins
in your pocket. I’ll bring you each gum
wrapper, each glowing cigarette end. I’ll plant

our future in your attic and watch the glorious
spreading seeds that curl and lick around
our garden of poppies, red and flaming.

The poems are no less personal or profound as she moves us toward the end of our labyrinthine journey.

© Laurie Byro and Shawn Nacona Stroud

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.

Shawn Nacona Stroud lives in Springfield, Ohio, where he attends school full-time, working on his MBA. In his free time, he likes to spend time with his dogs, paint and write poetry. His poetry has recently appeared in Eunioa Review, Chronogram, Melancholy Hyperbole, Loch Raven Review, Up the Staircase Quarterly, and WINK: Writers in the Know.

Back to Main Loch Raven Review Site