Between Blog and Book: Mairéad Byrne’s The Best of (What’s Left Of) Heaven

Publishing Genius, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-9820813-5-8
208 pages

A kind of Lydia Davis of the poetry world, Mairéad Byrne is an absolute whiz at the short poem; she excels at the one-line poem, the two-line poem, the one word poem, the brief list, the permutational riff, the conversational aside, the set-up and punchline, the Objectivist observation, the found fragment, the compressed paragraph, the precise and neatly cropped haiku.  In what will undoubtedly become a classic ars poetica (mischievously titled “Donald Hall Would Hate Me”), she says,

My poems are usually brief
they resemble each other
they are anecdotal
they do not extend themselves
they make no great claims
they connect small things to other small things

I LIKE SHORT!

While it is tempting to dub her a miniaturist, an inveterate tinkerer of small verbal machines, I don’t want to detract from Byrne’s truly holistic vision — her conception of poetry as a lived practice that exists within time, as an active and encompassing mode of being. The “small things” that are her poems connect to each other in such enriching and dialogic ways that The Best of (What’s Left Of) Heaven becomes, in the process of reading, greater than the sum of its constitutive parts. Taken as a whole it amounts to an oftentimes comedic, sometimes steely-eyed, but ultimately compassionate manifesto on how to live life poetically: how to find, in our post-modern world, what will suffice — and, alternately, how to re-calibrate our perception so that we can fully experience, in the words of Shelley, the “wonder of our being.”

For Byrne, such wonder is firmly rooted in the everyday.  Whether they be loco-descriptive snippets about Providence (where she lives and works), domestic reflections, or newspaper and Internet appropriations, Byrne’s poems exhibit a diurnal knowledge gained from sensitively responding to both her physical and textual surroundings — indeed, they spring from those imbricated spaces in which exterior phenomena are thoughtfully annotated by the textual and in which the textual takes on a striking and manipulable physicality.

While it is tempting to dub her a miniaturist, an inveterate tinkerer of small verbal machines, I don’t want to detract from Byrne’s truly holistic vision — her conception of poetry as a lived practice that exists within time, as an active and encompassing mode of being.  The “small things” that are her poems connect to each other in such enriching and dialogic ways that The Best of (What’s Left Of) Heaven becomes, in the process of reading, greater than the sum of its constitutive parts.  Taken as a whole it amounts to an oftentimes comedic, sometimes steely-eyed, but ultimately compassionate manifesto on how to live life poetically: how to find, in our post-modern world, what will suffice — and, alternately, how to re-calibrate our perception so that we can fully experience, in the words of Shelley, the “wonder of our being.”

“These small poems are made of very pure time,” Byrne writes, “They are small muscles of time.”  And like striated muscles, some of her poems flex when you want them too — and like smooth muscles, others do their work in the background until, by the end of the poem, you realize that some mysterious process has been luckily completed.  Byrne’s patient attention to time is apparent in the very first section of the book called “calendar.”  According to Ashlie Kauffman’s otherwise positive review from the jmww blog,

The lead section, “Calendar,” seems the least compelling of the book and is perhaps unfortunately placed. Its twelve poems—one for each month—mainly note color, temperature, and weather observations…The poems “Light in February” and “Light in April” each present a series of extremely terse and simple descriptions (“gold/golden/rose-gold/light gold light blue/light-grey/grey/high bright blue/golden blue,” etc.), which on one hand, invoke the thought that this is all that’s necessary to make poetry, but on the other hand, risk seeming haphazard, because there isn’t yet a sense of trust or connection established between the reader and the text.

In my opinion, “calendar” is one of the most inventive sections of the book and nicely shows Byrne’s conceptuo-minimalist chops. Read in a certain way, “light in april” (below) is not “haphazard” at all, as Kauffman suggests, but, in fact, uncompromisingly precise in the way it incrementally records delicate gradations and variations of light. It is anti-literary to a degree — particularly if we put it alongside the high literary-symbolic mode of Faulkner’s Light in August (which I fancifully take to be a possible intertext). Nevertheless, we do have some lovely poetic description here: the simple word “gloomy” is assonantally elaborated into “gloomy rain-tarnished stars.” Ultimately, the poem is about the subtlety of perception and the fidelity of observation (two principles which undergird Byrne’s poetics), yet the way that the text is arranged across the double-spread makes it seem like an elegant blueprint for an abstract expressionist composition as our eyes attempt to take in this accumulation of micro-moments as a static simultaneity.

In the poem “Spring,” which precedes “light in april,” Byrne uses the simple list form to wittily contrast objective and perceived time — a distinction which Bergson has famously articulated with the terms temps and durée:

March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
March
april

Byrne first posted all of the poetry from this book on her blog Heaven (hence the title and concept of the book), and the informality, breeziness, and unassuming nature of the electronic form carries through in these print poems, creating an intimacy not unlike that of Frank O’Hara’s “Personism.” Through the use of the blog (and blogging as what media theorist Walter Ong has called “secondary orality”), Byrne creates an inviting approachability — a way of putting the poems, as O’Hara would have it, “between two persons instead of two pages.” This, I’m trying to argue, is not nearly as possible within the discursive unity that is the normative poetry collection; in other words, the blog as framing device re-situates these texts within the shifting realm of the everyday rather than within the more rarefied and detached domain of Literature. A “sense of…connection” is thus established in the very first page of “calendar,” which presents a pair of hilarious pendant poems:

Thursday, January 01, 2004
Dammit more champagne.

Friday, January 02, 2004
Dammit no more champagne.

This is classic Personism Mairéad Byrne-style. (We might even consider this to be a form of Twitter poetry avant la lettre.)

In an interview with Sina Queyras at Harriet, the blog of the Poetry Foundation, Byrne remarked that in conceiving this book she tried to “carry blogginess back into the book” and how she collaborated with publisher Adam Robinson to “instantiate a dialogue between blog and book.” This “dialogue” has been performed beautifully on a level of structure as well as design and is most apparent in the set of thematic groupings which loosely categorize the poems. The book is divided into thirteen sections — “calendar”; “everyday lunacy”; “found”; “interviews”; “numbers”; “war”; “family”; “poetry”; “providence”; “dedications”; “instructions”; “everything is unlikely”; and “everything else” — which serve as blog-like “categories” or “tags” that are smartly presented at the bottom corner of each page below the page number (again, see the image of “light in april” above). One might usefully compare the structure of The Best with Susan Schultz’s recent Dementia Blog (Singing Horse Press, 2008), which, in mimicking the reverse chronology of the blog, begins with the most recent post, making the reader progress “backwards in time.” Schultz’s book fragmentarily recounts, among other things, the author’s mother’s condition of dementia, and if it gestures toward one of the blog’s previous incarnations, the diary, then The Best gestures toward another: the commonplace book.

The commonplace book — a form which has its roots in the florilegia or “books of flowers” of the Middle Ages — was, in the Renaissance, what Ann Moss called a kind of “information-retrieval system” (in Printed Commonplace-Books and the Structuring of Renaissance Thought), a library-in-miniature in which readers could store, gloss, and organize pithy quotes and passages under general thematic headings such as “Nature” or “History.”  Such “headings,” then, in The Best seemed to be designed for easy access and reference.

Dating from 1870-1876. This work is a commonplace book of poetry in manuscript with selected printed poetry and family history printed clippings from Mary Linehan born in County Cork, Ireland. She and her husband William both died in Georgia, of yellow fever, 1876. Notice the copied poem and the musing below: "We shall all be forgotten one hundred years hence." Image from Villanova University Digital Library.

So one might look for a war poem and find the following text, entitled “Metaphor, Similes,” and realize that, no, it is not in fact an incorrectly filed poem from the category “poetry” but rather an ingenious connection of “small things to other small things” that, in so doing, indexes the vast destruction of war:

METAPHOR, SIMILES

like grapes from the sky

like small grapefruit

metal butterflies

like small stones

like cough sweets in a metal sheath

like a treehouse

like dolls’ houses

like butter

like a bell with a very hollow ring

like a doll in a funeral shroud

like heavy wooden furniture being moved in an empty room

This text, as we learn from the book’s ending acknowledgments, is a work of appropriation and consists of phrases which Byrne had culled from Internet coverage of the 2003 invasion of Iraq (the book presents the lines above in varying font sizes to emphasize the uneven texture of collage). Much of the poem’s conceptual force inheres in its very categorization; indeed, without the tag “war” in the lower corner of the page, it may not even be legible to some readers as a war poem. According to one reading, the deliberate omission of the tenors (here I’m referring to I.A. Richards’ classic tripartite model of metaphor) may be understood as a utopian act of protest, a rejection of the terms and consequences of war. On the other hand, Byrne has managed to convey, by way of deliberately disavowing the ostensible subject (which hangs over the poem like a spectral absence), the unrepresentality of warfare and the difficulty of describing its brute literality.

In “A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet,” Jonathan Swift calls the commonplace book “a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there.” In “Metaphor, Similes,” as well as in the many found poems in The Best, Byrne truly makes the diverse source texts her own. Yet we have plenty of her own original thoughts here too and they are anything from insignificant. The Best, like a good commonplace book, is a loose collocation of memorable speech. We needn’t learn it by heart for we have the printed text at our disposal — although we’d probably be better off if we did.

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8 thoughts on “Between Blog and Book: Mairéad Byrne’s The Best of (What’s Left Of) Heaven

  1. The Danish poet Henrik Nordbrandt has a poem similar to “Spring”:
    The start translates to “The year has 16 months”
    The rest I’m sure you’ll understand without translation:

    “Året har 16 måneder: November
    december, januar, februar, marts, april
    maj, juni, juli, august, september
    oktober, november, november, november, november.”

  2. thanks for the review! i’m a fan of “Talk Poetry” and all things Mairéad. lazily, i started to skim towards the end of the review, but that bit around “Metaphor, Similes” gave me chills. like seeing sweet twin girls in matching camo skorts.

    • An apt simile for such a striking poem of found similes, Aya. I found the last line of “Metaphor, Similes” to be such a particularly intense ending that I googled it to find the original context. It comes from journalist Robert Fisk:

      “The A-10’s cannon-fire sounds like heavy wooden furniture being moved in an empty room, a kind of final groan, before the rounds hit their target.”

  3. It so weird to be reminded that that is the case. The first play that I wrote, a long time ago, opened with a speech appropriated from Robert Fisk’s then current coverage of the massacres at Sabra and Chatila.
    Thank you so much Michael for a really fine review which touches many acute points with me. I am indeed preoccupied with metaphor (and wrote a dissertation on it), so Richards’ figured (:)) (that looks so strange, wry smile or double chin? guess i don’t need the parentheses) — I am interested in why you say “tri-partite.” Metaphor, at its least interesting is schematized as binary but then it yields that third thing. But I tend not to see it as nominal but as a generative process (Lakoff et al). Just now I’m reading David Batchelor’s Chromophobia which is food + drink to me.

    • Ha! “Richards figured” — rolling off jokes even in your blog comments!

      When I said “tripartite,” I was referring to the tenor/vehicle/ground model, but, as you say, there is a “third thing.” I wonder if this is what Richards meant by the “total meaning” produced by the interaction between tenor and vehicle…

      It was a real pleasure to read and then think and then write about your book, Mairéad. I’m very glad to know about your work now.

      Batchelor’s _Chromophobia_ sounds really interesting. I haven’t really thought deeply about color since reading Benjamin’s “A Child’s View of Color.” This makes me think of the great cover of _The Best of (What’s Left Of) Heaven_. And also of your poem “An Almost Welcome Splash of Color.” Again, marvelous book!

  4. Pingback: The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven | Publishing Genius Press

  5. Pingback: The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven by Mairéad Byrne | Publishing Genius Press

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