Stride Magazine -

  NELSON & THE HURUBURU BIRD by Mairéad Byrne, 125pp, £8.95, Wild Honey Press, 16a Ballyman Road, Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland

A few months ago I stumbled across a review on the internet of Mairéad Byrne’s Nelson & the Huruburu Bird, and it sounded kind of interesting (which is not always the case when you read about books of poetry) and there was a long poem there ­ ‘The Pillar’ - which I read quickly and I thought it was really good, at least good enough to print off and read properly, sprawled on a sofa. Then I followed a few trails on the web and found an interview with the poet, and she sounded like a human being I could like (which is not always the case when you read poets) and I bought the book (an event in itself) and I wasn’t disappointed.

The first poem in the book ‘An Interview With Romulus and Remus’, while not being typical (there doesn’t appear to be a typical Mairéad Byrne poem, but I’ll come to that) it still points to some of the characteristics of Byrne’s poetry. She’s more interested in the interesting and invigorating idea (‘What did you think of the wolves? Did they excite you?’) than in the conventional notion of a well-made poem, for one thing ­ which is hardly in itself original, except that her ideas are interesting and invigorating, which may well be. There’s a recurring childlike simplicity in much of the writing (‘Did the wolves smell?’) and a winning wit (‘I don’t mean to cause a fight/ but did it ever strike you that Reme
/ might have been an equally good name?’) The poems sound great aloud: ‘Do you eat raw meat and tear it apart with your teeth’ (which seems like a dead easy line until you look at the assonance and internal rhyme and the music of it) but almost certainly sound even better with an Irish accent, which I can’t begin to do (especially when I write). There’s real spoken stuff (‘Hey- thanks for your time boys./ It’s been real.’) It’s a cracking start to the book, a poem that doesn’t try and say anything very important except that it takes you into areas of the imagination and, as a result, the world, you hadn’t been to before. A really cool poem. Byrne is an Irish woman living in America, and the cross over between languages and sensibility is, I’m sure, one of the elements that enlivens the writing. (I’m not exactly sure I know what I mean by this, otherwise I’d expand on it.)

There may be stuff in these poems I miss, what there may be of subtle and local points of the Irish background and upbringing, but there are nuns, it being Ireland, and some of it becomes clearer the more I read things over again. I have this thing about Irish writing, which is that I miss loads of what’s there because it’s Irish, and therefore foreign. I can’t let it bother me, I suppose. Occasionally Byrne pulls off the impossible: well, if not the impossible, the very bloody unlikely, as in, she writes a poem about being in hospital having a baby and I like it:

         My breasts spouted milk.
         My whole body swaggered ­
         casual about its great coup.
         It was so bloody glamorous!
                  (from ‘ Holles Street’)

Byrne strikes me as one of those poets who are very learned and also very wise, but who wear their learning and their wisdom lightly. A smashing poem called ‘Public Transport’ has her handing out (metaphorical) medals and gifts to the people who share the bus she’s on:

         Old woman, pushing your grandchildren to the shops,
         doing overtime and second duty ­ you get medals too.

         Dainty schoolgirl, you’re the cleanest thing I’ve ever seen,
         squashed in a corner. You’d swing your legs if you could!
         A miraculous medal to you!

The poem is a gorgeous, ebullient, exuberant celebration. And straightforward as hell. It sits alongside poems dedicated to “The Travelling People of Ireland”, poems which reveal and condemn how the travellers are treated by their fellow countrymen. These are lively poems, too: one is a list of names of guesthouses (that would refuse a bed to a traveller) and another makes ironic play of the phrase céad míle fáilte (one hundred thousand welcomes)
, apparently a catchphrase used by the Irish Tourist Board, but not directed at the travellers.

Oh boy, I’ve hardly begun. There are list poems: ‘An American Dream’ and ‘A Japanese Dream’ are alphabetical lists:

         A is for Accord
         B is for Bluebird
         C is for Civic

as are ‘The Sky’s The Limit’ and ‘The Native American’:

         C is for Cherokee
         D is for Dakota

There are found poems, and a continual delight in words. One of my favourite poems is ‘A Typical Irish Cottage’, which begins

         This is of Ireland
         the holy land of Ireland
         where the blue of the sky is the bluest blue
         and the white of the wash is the whitest wash
         and the gold of the thatch is the goldest gold…..

Reading aloud, you feel your mouth full of the words, and their life. This is true of all the poems. They are robust upon the tongue.

The poem that first attracted me to Byrne’s work, ‘The Pillar’, has in it much of the variety that’s a feature of this dazzling collection. In an interview (an interview well worth reading, at Byrne talks about her “various crops”: “short compact poems and loose billowy poems, lyric poems and concrete poems, found poems and worked poems, political poems and alienated poems, Irish poems and not-so-Irish poems, too-much-woman poems and not-enough-woman poems, poems about love and home, and experimental poems.” ‘The Pillar’ moves through most (perhaps not all) of these crops in its seven or eight big pages. It’s lyrical:

         Clouds scud, what else, in the gray sky, and yes,
         gulls hang all the way out, to the bay, I guess,
         the river neck, and the sky lets loose
         bannerfuls of rain, hail, snow, tumbleweeds
         of darkness, cold…..

it reminisces:

         Woolworths was a box of light. On the bright side
         looking out you could see the streaked street,
         plate glass doors like a fresco….

it strides along with tremendous vigour:

         Dwarfed by the buildings of what was Sackville,
         then O’Connell, stranded now, the hug of the crowd
         slackened, light-headed, wondering where’s me bus
         which side of the road am I on
, stunned to find life
         in the shape of big lit buses, tattered queues, going on;
         ready to plunge at the drop of a hat or a hand into a blue
         funk or stock taken, bearings found, Henry Street,
         the gorge chock-a-block, rain melting down its windows…..

(it’s almost impossible to stop quoting this bit, it strides on so along the street)

it incorporates something of the list poem:

         For he never went with Phipps to the Arctic Ocean
         He never chased the bear nor was the light-haired boy
         nor sailed to the East Indies nor saw two hundred floggings

(and this “nor” list goes on for another good six inches of poetry….)

of the found (sort of):

         for Baron Nile and Crocodile Viscount Pyramid
         Duke of Thunder and Burnham Thorpe
         Burnham Westgate Burnham Market Burnham Overy
         Burnham Ulph Burnham Norton Burnham Sutton
         Burnham Deepdene Burnham St Andrew Burnham Harbour
         all the Burnhams

the short and compact:

         The Pillar had shot its wad
         and we stood in its spume
         knee-deep in rubble
         not knowing to take credit or what.
         The stump was still frothing
         and there for the taking
         spilled all around
         was granite shiny and sandy:
         Easy to bend down and slide
         deep in a pocket a hand or an eye.

and, of course, it’s Irish but not Irish. While it works itself around and about the statue of Nelson in Dublin’s O’Connell Street, which was apparently blown up by the IRA on Easter Monday in 1966, the statue is at once both the subject of the poem and much more than that. It’s the catalyst for the poet’s sense of the city, of history…. but it’s more than that too, because it’s as much to do with ‘what matters’ as it is to do with anything so small as either the ideas of the individual writing the poem, or a sense of history, or the city itself. It’s all this and more: one of those poems that oozes life. It’s an enormously rich piece of work, and like all of Byrne’s poems it’s tough and self-confident. I need to read it more. Much as I’d like to quote the whole poem all I can do is recommend it to you, along with the whole book. I suspect that one sign of a reviewer’s weakness when trying to write about something they like a lot is that they resort to extensive quotes and cries of Gosh! This is great! Look! But then, perhaps that’s good. I’d hate to bury these wonderful poems under an avalanche of critical hogwash, after all. Oh, by the way, I want to tell you my favourite bit in the whole book. It’s in ‘The Pillar’, and at the end of a little list of stuff for sale in Woolworth’s there’s these couple of lines:

         garden gnomes and cupids, watchstraps for the dada,
         all the bounty of the age of plastic but regulated, oh yeah.

And I really love that “oh yeah” to bits. It’s got something in it I can’t even begin to describe. I wish I’d written it.

Lastly, I suspect you might be wondering about the huruburu bird. So was I. Late on in the book is a cracker of a poem called ‘Birds’. It begins ‘Impossible to be a poet not knowing the meaning of phlox!/ I see phlegm. I see pox./ I see phloroglucinol and phloxine -/ It’s not enough!’ and this somewhat daft exuberance vies for space in the poem with lines that include the sentiment that ‘I have wasted my life.’ Byrne is a complex and ceaselessly rewarding poet. The poem mentions the poet ‘Vyzyzgny Zygymbygzsna who needs two translators’: I only tell you this because I think it’s funny. And the huruburu bird?

         Me I’ll stick to the monkey-puzzle tree
         made out of fuzzy pipe-cleaners
         and lemurs’ tails. Parked on the front porch
         of the dew drop inn dunroamin by the dooryard bloomin
         the old there’s no place like no poem should be without the
                  de rigeur

         list of homes. Or a hummock in the yard or its own huruburu bird.

                  © Martin Stannard, 2003