A Clownlike Kafka

Talk Poetry,
Mairead Byrne
(83pp, $10.00. Miami University Press)

The first thing I liked about this book was its small size and square shape. By bending it ever so slightly I could tuck it into my side jacket pocket and take it on the bus with me. And the second great thing was that the crowded bus as it bumped its way over potholes into Lancaster was the perfect place to read it.

At the beginning of Talk Poetry
, is a quotation from Claes Oldenburg: 'I am for an artÉthat is heavy and sweet and stupid as life itself.' This pretty much sums up the spirit of the work inside. Often poetry is separate from the hustle of everyday life, something reserved for quiet or darker times (and, of course, this has its place, too). Or else it swings over to the opposite and becomes a comic poetry with endless rhymes and jokes about bottoms. Mairead Byrne's prose poems are neither of these, but are perhaps big enough to include both of them, sometimes even in the same sentence. Among other things, Byrne makes space in her poems for mobile phones, bath sponges, office keys, paella, elevators, deodorant, personal insurance, poetic justice, and the dogs in her neighbours' backyard. Everything - from the tragic to the farcical (and let's face it, this is what most of our lives are like) - is welcomed into her poems, but laid out and put together with a cool eye and a cunning ear. 

Like the New York poets (she reminds me of Ron Padgett in particular and perhaps, closer to home, Martin Stannard), Byrne allows herself to soak up the influences not only of poetry but also of art, music and of whatever's going on around her at the time, whether it be on the street, in a restaurant, driving a car, cleaning the fridge or having a meal with friends. 'There are other things to write about. Surely,'  she says of the once 'new sponge' which is now 'semi-okay though grimy'. It is this celebration of colloquial  language which is another source of delight.

Some of the prose poems when you start them seem to be novels in miniature, or that dreadful phenomenon 'flash fiction'. But then something unexpected always happens which makes you feel as if you're entering a series of parallel universes (which is what any prose poem worth its salt should do). Everyday situations and objects take on a fable- or dreamlike dimension. A good example of this is 'Figures' which is short and worth quoting in its entirety:

I used to be 4 years younger than my husband then he left me with
    2 children & I got 7 years older very quick. Two years went by. I
    was 11 years older then. He stayed the same age, always 30,
    possibly even younger. In no time, I was 20 years older than him
    & hurtling towards old age. Even the children began to age. They
    were small & wrinkled, older than their own father. His skin was
    baby-smooth, his brown hair rising like a stack above their wilting
    headsÑor like a vividly brushed dun & purple mountain range
    ringing the horizon in the pan of which, somewhere, they tottered

I love the sheer length of this last sentence and the impossible, yet believable places it takes me to. She makes me think of a clownlike Kafka (and Kafka could be as clownlike as anyone).

Something else I like very much about this prose poem is the way humour, a sense of the absurd, indeed sheer silliness is combined with a sense of underlying melancholy (the children ageing, their wilting heads) and hopelessness (all the narrator can do is stare wide-eyed at her own life 'hurtling towards old age'). I think that without this mixture the prose poems wouldn't work except at a superficial, purely jokey level.

And here perhaps I come to my one criticism of the book: a few of the prose poems do actually only work at this level.  What makes this worse, to my mind, is that there is almost a self-congratulatory quality to the jokiness, as if she were saying, 'Look how funny and clever and sophisticated I am'. An example of this to my mind is the first piece in the book, 'America':

    America is just the greatest man. We got all this space &
    democracy & everything & just the greatest music. Like Chuck
    Berry & Buddy Holly & Elvis & Bob Dylan & Bob Marley & Van
    Morrison & The Beatles and Vivaldi & everything.

Isn't this too easy? Besides, I've heard this joke before (you know, Americans thinking that everything in the world belongs to them, and if it didn't it should do). I'm sure this gets a good laugh at readings, but it didn't deserve to go on the first page of the book. Luckily, there are not too many moments like this.

Which brings me back to sitting on the bus. This is the kind of book you can read anywhere - it doesn't matter what's going on around you or inside your head, it all somehow becomes a part of Mairead Byrne's Talk Poetry

            © Ian Seed, 2007