The following review appeared in The Burning Bush #9, Spring 2003.
The Burning Bush, c/o Michael Begnal, 3 Newcastle Road, Galway, Ireland.
Mairéad Byrne, Nelson & the Huruburu Bird, reviewed by Michael S. Begnal
A back cover blurb by one Alan Dugan succinctly describes this collection "Mairéad Byrne is an Irish poet in America. She's not an immigrant. She's just here. She writes with love and fury about what's right and wrong about Ireland, plus some swipes and kisses at America..." Nelson & the Hun~buru Birds is a compendium of three unpublished full collections, distilled into one book, which leads me to wonder: If she was going to have a book published, why not publish one of these collections first, then (hopefully) release the others succeedingly in due course? Are these simply the best poems from each of the three, or were they chosen because they were felt to interact with each other in some particular way? Minor points, to be sure, but it did make me curious about where Byrne sees this volume in the scheme of her overall work.
But whatever about that Nelson & the Huruburu Birds is a pretty damn good book in itself. It is more immediately accessible than many readers of the Wild Honey imprint will be used to. In a way I missed having to struggle with the intricate texts of Healy or Scully, but at the same time it was nice to be able to relax a bit and simply soak up the lush imagery and the idiosyncratically observed details of life and memory. "Lying Awake with the Windows Open" is a perfect example of what Byrne is capable of: "I heard shiny green / leaves load with raindrops and spill. / I beard the town grumble deep in its throat. / I heard darkness congregating in clumps / like infantry at ease, the nervous gear- / shifts of drivers circling for cigarettes." Elsewhere, in "The Pools," the darkness is described thusly "I am talking about dusk, / how it bit like ink into blotting
paper; / night was a big soaked wad. / It was spongy as that. / I could chew it." Yeah!
A lot of Irish people, understandably, know America only through the medium of television or film, even though Saint Brendan is rumoured to have discovered the place. Byrne's "The Irish Discover America" captures that moment of arriving, the juxtaposition of reality and media image: 'We hit land and suddenly / everyone has an American accent. / How did I get here? / I traveled the few inches, thousands of miles, / in my own skin boat, my currach, my Boeing. / For the first time I look at the outside world." A very Irish feeling, I think, finds expression in "Commercial Street": "This is not home and I don't have to stop / to pass the time of day or night with you / or anyone. I'm free of that, home too..."
Ireland does figure prominently here, however, in childhood reminiscences like "Cycling to Marino," or in the "found poem" "Briathra Comónta sa Teanga/ Common Verbs in the Language" (says the note: "I found this partial list of Irish language verbs on a table in the staff smoking room in Newpark Comprehensive School, Dublin..."). (Byrne is quite fond of found poems, including several others such as a page from a Christie's catalogue, and screen directions from John Huston's film script for The Dead.) But her most sustained and penetrating view of Ireland is in "The Pillar," a long major poem that was previously published by Wild Honey as its own pamphlet. Sizing up Ireland's post-colonial complexes back through young eyes of 1966, the year Nelson's Pillar was blown up by the IRA, Byrne gives us a revealing portrait of a country bogged down in its own history-. "The Pillar had shot its wad / and we stood in its spume / knee-deep in rubble / not knowing to take credit or what."
The latter section of Nelson & the Huruburu Birds is wet with streams of consciousness, and I was occasionally reminded of the early Ferlinghetti. This is a great book from a poet whose primary talent is description, and the ability to paint, in 'words, the everyday revelations that lay people are often immune to.
(€12.95/$12.95/£8.9, Wild Honey Press, 16a Ballyman Road, Bray, Co. Wick-low, Ireland / www.wildhoneypress.com)