Sunday, June 08, 2003
Nelson & the Huruburu Bird
I spent a good part of my day off from The World of Prose browsing Mairead Byrne's collection Nelson & the Huruburu Bird (Wild Honey Press). It is like a slap in the face from a cold river: a thoroughly enjoyable plunge into a mind of fluid muscle, that leaves you tingling and alive. Byrne writes an erotic poetry that pleasures in everything: riding on a bus, the bureaucratic language of academic course-speak, alphabets, children, and streets, streets, streets: in this case especially the streets of Dublin and the streets of America. It's difficult to characterise the charms (by which I mean, literally, a kind of magic, en-chant-ments) of this work; I feel that I have to fight off the dimunitions which attend so much discussion about "women's" writing, writing which concerns itself with the mundanity of the everyday, which speaks about life, fertility, childbirth, change. This is not small poetry, but as big as it gets; it looks at everything with a kind of Whitmanic democracy and explodes it open into coruscations of semantic pleasures. It is far too anarchic in its generousness to be framed in a metaphor of domestic needlework. Byrne's is an imagination which sees that
Gloves sprout on sidewalk, grass,
like sudden marrows after rain,
they're shocked and shocking …
or parodies the competitive notions which underlie so much writing in the poem Thoughts on the Olympic Sentence Team ("75. You have to remember that the indefinite articles on the Olympic Sentence Team were absolutely the best, competitively speaking. But there was very little reward in working with them.") But it is also an imagination which is capable of employing a direct address which can take you aback:
Yes, I am happy here, I'm happy.
The people in the next apartment moved
before I met them. Now the painter's in.
I smell his cigarettes and thinners, catch
the jolting sound of radio…
And most especially in Grooming, a poem which begins with brushing a child's hair, using that childish neologism, "smoothen", to such serious and beautiful effect:
I brush with your father's silver brush,
which you love, for its smoothens the surface,
asks no questions, like his hands, hurriedly
settling, before lighting a cigarette.
and finishes in Paradise. (Oh, I say to myself, you just say that; why do I puddle around the edges? But of course it is never that easy.) And what can I say about The Pillar, which towers over this book, with its grand and intimate ambitions? I'm sure I’ll think of something one day.
I guess the word which glances up at me all the time as I continue to leaf through this collection is wit: it is wit which turns these surreal phrases, a formal wit which undermines presumptions about what is literary and what is not, what is proper and what is not. It is a wit which seems as close to the archaic definitions listed in the OED ("to have congizance or knowledge of; to be aware of; passing into the sense") as the more conventional "quickness of intellect or liveliness of expression; talent for saying brilliant and sparkling things, esp in an amusing way". Profundities felt in the deep caverns of the body, dazzled over with light. A big river.