D’eux and Other Sorrows by Laurie Byro, Cowboy Buddha Publishing, LLC, Benton, Arkansas, 80 Pages, $14.98, Available on Amazon
On The Wings of Sorrow, a review of D’eux and other Sorrows by Laurie Byro
by Michael Fallon
D’eux and Other Sorrows by Laurie Byro is a very well designed and attractive book with a beautiful cover and illustrations by the poet’s husband, Michael Byro, rendered in a pointillist style, most of which are based on or inspired by the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh. D’eux means “the two” and refers to the first two tragedies in this book, those of Vincent Van Gogh and Isadora Duncan. It is fortunate that the book is so visually appealing given Byro’s subject matter and the fact that she requires much of her readers; especially if they are not very familiar with the many historical figures and events she refers to in her poems.
Byro’s ideal reader is someone who especially shares her interest in art and literary history. Many of the poems are drawn directly from the lives– and some even from the actual correspondence– of Vincent and Theo Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Isadora Duncan the Shellys, Frida Kahlo, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and other historical figures, as well as from mythology, songs, and fairy tales. However, there is no notes section in the book to help readers understand contexts, identify persons, provide pertinent facts, historical background, etc. that individual poems refer to or are based on. This collection actually relies on the reader’s willingness to search the Internet for this information.
Consequently, it is essential in understanding Byro’s poems that her readers do a bit of research to familiarize themselves with the often tragic lives of the artists, poets and other personages who populate this book. Most of this biographical material is easily found on the Internet, and it is well worth the look in order to meet this sometimes difficult but often fascinating and luminous book halfway.
The book opens with poems inspired by the lives of Vincent and Theo Van Gogh, which often quote directly from the brothers’ correspondence as well as from Paul Gauguin and other associates of Vincent’s. The point here is to imagine the interior voices of Vincent and Theo Van Gogh and of Vincent’s models and other associates, to paint Post- Impressionist interiors of these subjects with language and imagery, and to evoke these beautiful and often troubled souls by an act of imagination. However, Byro often examines not only how tragic characters like Vincent Van Gough and Isadora Duncan see the world and themselves, but also how others perceive them, and thus we see them from both inside and outside.
In the first poem in the first section, “The Other Vincent,” Byro begins to probe the compelling tragedy of Vincent and Theo’s lives. A little research revealed a fascinating fact I did not know before– the artist had an older brother, the first Vincent, who died, stillborn, a year to the day before the artist–and second Vincent– was born. It is also interesting to discover that brother Theo and his wife also had a son they named Vincent, in the artist’s honor, who was born about six months before the artist’s death. The poem begins in Vincent’s voice:
Theo, I never told you or our parents that the other Vincent, the one
who was born dead whispers to me from the dark cloak he wears as he
grows tall like a shadow on the days I am alone. When I look out
at the Rhone, he walks toward me carrying his armful of stars.
Obviously, Vincent is haunted by the other Vincents:
Oh the sooty overcoats of crows, of brothers/ there are brothers to spare, angels
For Vincent, the artist, the other Vincents are turned into crows, but are also simultaneously, angels. They keep Vincent company and he loves them– but they also at times, sadden, trouble, and oppress him– as if he were haunted by his own dead selves. It may be that Vincent thought, in a sense, that half of him was already dead and the newly born Vincent was destined to replace him.
The very next Poem, “Raven,” is another poem in Vincent’s voice, but I find this poem difficult and obscure. Some lines, again describing the crows, get out of focus, and I just cannot follow them…. I was/raised on them as charity and they could be like that: chariots, drawing me out of my breath, all mistakes/ left behind….
Though when Byro describes a crow as, a tiny clump of madness, the poem comes back into focus again.
Other poems, based on Gauguin’s life and some of his correspondence, serve to contrast Gauguin with Van Gogh. We see the two artists through the eyes of the women they paint. Gauguin comes off as an exploiter of women, some of whom are prostitutes, but also of his Polynesian models. By contrast, Vincent, who also paints prostitutes, comes off as much kinder, even befriending Sien, a pregnant one, whom he supports and shares his bed for months without any demands that she make love to him.
Most readers will guess beforehand that the poems, while exploring the world from Vincent’s unique point of view and portraying his internal struggle with madness, are preparing the foreground for and gradually leading up to Vincent’s suicide. Vincent holds on to his madness, which may be linked, inextricably and tragically, to his artistic genius. In the beautiful, fascinating poem “Crows” Byro convincingly channels Vincent’s voice as if she were a medium. Here Vincent replies to a Dr. Gachet, who has been treating him at an asylum:
Dr. Gachet, you tell me my crows are thieves and dirty scavengers,
that you will rid me of my obsession with them, If you are to cure me
of my madness, kindly leave the birds out. They are my truest friends.
Towards the end of the poem, Vincent goes on to say:
……………………………………………………………………. …My angels are freaks, unaware
of their perfect bodies and lovely souls. What if they come to me as a murder
of crows? If my lovers are chaste and still as petals, who are you to turn me
into a sane man? I shall cut off my other ear so as not to hear you scold me
into mediocrity. You and Theo will nag me to death. You are wrong to think
I am invisible to the universe. I am Vincent. I need no other name.
For Vincent, his madness provides a vision on the world inseparably bound to his identity and to his art. Here we see clearly how and why Vincent’s tragedy is inevitable. On July 29, 1890 Vincent shot himself in the abdomen with a pistol, and it took two agonizing days for him to die. His brother Theo died six months later. Byro imaginatively recreates, skillfully explores, and illuminates this tragedy.
The second section of D’eux is focused on the famous dancer, Isadora Duncan. Again in, “The Familiar” as in some of the earlier poems, I’m stumped. I can’t be sure who is speaking, who is being spoken to, and exactly to whom the pronouns refer.
You weren’t certain of the hour she screamed mercy
Under a gibbous moon. A homely wrinkled piece
Of sin—the hobo-light winked as you straightened a fist,
Saying it’s a boy. Now you are gone to another
Loitering angel. She is a sylph like mist that rises….
It seems to me that the poem is about Isadora Duncan and her lost children, a son and a daughter who died tragically, drowned in the Seine, but so far it isn’t clear to me, though I find the words and the imagery intriguing. Hopefully, it will yield to understanding with more patience and effort.
Byro goes on to explore Duncan’s life, love affairs, marriages, and spectacularly successful career; and of course, her double-barreled tragedy, the loss of the children and the freak accident of her own death. Of the poems in this section, my favorites are the poems which memorialize the loss of Duncan’s children, Patrick and Deirdre, the beautifully written, “Seine” and “Deidre Beatrice Craig.”
In “The Seine” Byro writes in the voice of the river, which is both mother and nurturer as well as the murderer of children and welcomer of suicides:
My kingdom is speed and light: my mansion, rocks tumbling, glass settling in.
Romantically, I love each bride: weeds for hair, moss for eyes, shells for spine.
I am Ophelia rising. April is the suicide month, nine months after summer.
You must know I delight in the play of children. I am eternally their mother,
I am grateful and restless….
And the poem closes:
………………………………………………….. ….When I am not weary of being
held accountable, I taunt their mother: Patrick, Deidre,
L’Incannue de la Seine.
Of course, Patrick and Deidre are Duncan’s drowned children, but few of us are likely to know the meaning of the last name listed here, “L’Incannue del la Seine.” Here again, Byro sends us to the Internet. We must literally search for the end of her poem. But a successful search will end in pure illumination. The French phrase literally means “the unknown woman of the Seine.” She is the stuff of legend and her death mask has inspired many works of art and literature and can be found in many French galleries and households. As the story goes, her drowned body was recovered from the Seine and since she had no marks or wounds, she was thought to be a suicide. The coroner found her face so beautiful that he made a plaster cast of it, copies spread all over France. But the young woman was never identified and so her face eternally haunts us, “the unknown woman of the Seine.” What an inspired detail with which to end this tragic poem— unforgettable because the poet made us reach for it! (Be sure to try googling L’Incannue de la Seine.) This is but another example of the rich rewards of exploring the wonderful source material for this collection of poems.
“Deirdre Beatrice Craig” is written in the voice of Duncan’s drowned daughter. The poem begins:
Mama, I held Patrick’s hand tight just as you taught me when crossing
The street because the water was cold and I was scared. The river
Rushed over us like a blurry dream. The fish swimming past
Were angels. Though I could not speak. I mouthed to Patrick:
“Don’t be afraid.” I thought, “We are going to a beautiful place where
Mermaids will comb and braid my hair. We will never worry….”
The poem is laid-out beneath a two-page illustration of a reclining woman, face hidden In her encircling arms, in obvious grief. Here Isadora’s daughter speaks to her mother from the netherworld of drowned children, a mother’s grief is transformed into the ghost, the voice of her lost daughter.
A poem titled, “A Red Scarf” closes this section. This poem memorializes the freak accident that ended Duncan’s life. It is written in the voice of the red scarf she wore on the day of her death that, caught in the spinning hubcap on the rear wheel of Duncan’s own car– jerked her backwards, out of the back seat– with sudden, terrific force and strangled her to death: It seemed/ like a kind of destiny…. It seemed like/ I made a pact with a silent assassin. And I was/ summoned somehow to always be with her. It is now almost impossible to imagine Isadora without her bright red scarf.
I suppose because Duncan was such a flamboyant success, such a free, independent woman, so original, and ahead of her time— because she soared so high for so long— That it makes a kind of romantic sense that she was also destined for the arc of tragedy. Byro successfully engages us and so we share in Duncan’s triumphs, her struggles, and her griefs.
The “Other Sorrows” section of the book embraces a great variety of persons, most of their lives tinged with tragedy: Among them, the sorrows of the mythical Icarus, Cleopatra, Frida Kahlo, Sura Hughes (the murdered child of Ted Hughes and Assisa Weivill, the woman for whom Hughes Left Sylvia Plath), Sarah Bernhardt, Tess of the D’Urbervilles. And even in “The Girl From the North Country Speaks,” a character from a Bob Dylan song. In many of these poems the suffering voices address us or those who were the source or cause of their sorrows. Again, many poems require some research. Many are interesting and powerfully moving. Some are opaque and difficult but may eventually yield to understanding. This is a book to keep on the shelf and go back to from time to time; it plainly has a lot to give even if it doesn’t always give it easily.
These lines from the last poem in the book, “George In Grackles,” possibly in the poet’s own voice, seem to sum up the mood and tone of the book quite well–though I have no idea who George Leblanc is. There are so many on the internet, who knows which George is the George? (In this case, as in some other poems, certainly a note which identifies George would help the reader.)
I am waiting for news of George’s death. A dragon will get to him
Eventually. As I walk in Silence, I know all men, at some point
In their lives, are faced with unimaginable sorrow. I do believe
Sorrows are winged, I do believe they are dark angels….
And here the poem closes… There are too/ many of them to shoo away. I leave a few behind to sip our tears.
D’eaux and Other Sorrows is not for the lazy reader. Certainly part of the adventure of reading it is in exploring the biographical contexts and discovering the often luminous details on which the poems depend. Still, I think the reader’s experience would be enhanced with some carefully selected notes at the end of the book.
Laurie Byro has made beautiful, moving poems out of heartbreak and tragedy. Sometimes she gives voice to those whom literature or history has muted or silenced: the models of famous painters, the brothers and sisters of the mythical and famous and their lost children. Sometimes she more thoroughly explores and illuminates the sorrows of great artists and poets.
The effect of Byro’s book of sorrows is similar to witnessing several acts of a tragedy on the stage. At the core of this book are three grand tragedies, those of Vincent Van Gogh, Isadora Duncan, and the cascading catastrophe of the Hughes and Plath story ( including the deaths of Hughes’mistress Assisa Weivill and their daughter, Sura). This is the stuff even of opera. We empathize, enthralled by the beauty and the drama, grateful too–that so far–fate has spared us.
© Laurie Byro and Michael Fallon
Laurie Byro has had 5 collections of poetry published, most recently La Dogaressa (Cowboy Buddha Press). A 6th collection is due out in 2019, D’eux and Other Sorrows(Cowboy Buddha Press). Two collections had work that received a New Jersey Poetry Prize. Laurie stopped competing when she achieved 55 Interboard Community honors including 10 first places as judged. She has been regularly nominated for a Pushcart Prize for poems published in magazines and anthologies including 2017, 2018 and 2019. Laurie has been facilitating Circle of Voices in NJ Libraries for the last 20 years.
Michael Fallon is a poet and essayist and lives in Baltimore, Maryland with his wife, Ruth. He is Senior Lecturer Emeritus at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) where he taught creative writing, literature, and composition for more than thirty-five years. He has been an editor at Puerto del Sol, a founding editor at theMaryland Poetry Review, and President of the Maryland State Poetry and Literary Society. Fallon won fellowships in Poetry from the Maryland State Arts Council in 1988 and 2009. His essays have been published by The New England Review, the Broadstreet Literary Review, The Concho River Review, The Razor, and on Literary Hub: The Best of the Literary Internet, as well as in many other literary journals. Fallon’s poems have appeared in The Antietam Review, The American Scholar, The Oyez Review,The Loch Raven Review, Illuminations and numerous other magazines as well as in anthologies, on CDs, and have been broadcast on Public Radio. He is the author of four books of poetry: A History of the Color Black, Dolphin-Moon Press, 1991; Since You Have No Body, Plan B Press, 2011; The Great Before and After, BrickHouse Books, 2011; and Empire of Leaves, Singing Man Press, 2018.