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C.J. Allen

Those Decapitated Similes

An Educated Heart – Mairéad Byrne
(Palm Press 2005 – www.palmpress.org - unpriced)
Vivas - Mairéad Byrne (Wild Honey Press 2005 – www.wildhoneypress.com – unpriced)

What is poetry? We’re not sure, but we think we know it when we see it. Isn’t it the best words in the best order? Didn’t we read that somewhere? Well, it kind of depends on what you mean by ‘best’, I suppose. Best for what purpose? Best to lie with, best to tell the truth with, best to persuade, best to enrage? You see my point? How about Auden’s pronouncement to the effect that poetry is ‘memorable speech’? If that’s the case then it includes lots of things that we’re not accustomed to calling poetry – I’m thinking of things like political addresses, headlines, famous one-liners, everything from ‘GOTCHA!’ to ‘Ich bin ein Berliner …’ Clearly this line of enquiry isn’t taking us very far, so let’s try … What is poetry made out of? Ah, now that’s easier. Language. Poetry is made out of language. We’re getting somewhere at last. And where do we find language? In people’s mouths, on the radio, in books, on computer screens, advertising hoardings, newspapers, mobile phone displays, dictionaries, Roget’s Thesaurus, till receipts, fragile little collections of poems etc.

Which brings me to Mairéad Byrne … Here is a poet interested in what a poem might be, who makes her poems out of language. Any language. For Mairéad Byrne it doesn’t have to be beautiful language, or literary language, it doesn’t even have to be
her language – and by that I mean she’s perfectly happy making poems out of foreign languages and found scraps of language collected from supermarkets or the internet. She’s even at home making poems out of defaced items of language, deleted words, scribbled-over notes. Sometimes she does hardly anything to it at all. She just finds a piece of discarded language and re-presents it to you, but this time in of a book of poems, maybe with a title she’s thought up for it.

Here’s an excerpt from the Acknowledgements bit at the beginning of ‘An Educated Heart’:

The matrix of ‘Eastside Market’ is a grocery receipt from Eastside Marketplace in Providence.

Hey, says Mairéad, look at what I found! What do you make of this? How do you think it looks now I’ve put it in a little page-sized frame and called it something? How is it interacting with the other ‘poems’ in the book, with your idea of what poetry is? Do you find it profound, bewildering, dull? Does it get you hot under the collar and start you off huffing and puffing about how anyone could do this stuff? Well, she goes on, that’s just great! Mairéad is almost intemperately fond of language. Almost.

But her poems are not just random collections of linguistic detritus; they are carefully selected. Some of them are cleverly edited collages, some of them are brilliant little dramatic monologues tricked-out as prose poems, notably the ‘Pitch’ sequence from ‘Vivas’. Here’s the beginning of the first one:

Okay so there’s this poet – Gerard Manley Hopkins – who’s a priest,
a convert, his family are a little starchy about that, and he’s
marooned in Ireland for part of the movie.

And the second one:

Okay so there’s this woman, let’s say Catherine Zeta-Jones, and she’s
buying a house, so she finds this house and it’s really beautiful,
everything you could want so she goes to get a mortgage – no hang
on – actually here’s the thing: she’s already pre-approved. So get
she’s already pre-approved but she doesn’t have a realtor.

And the third one:

Okay. So it’s the mid 17th century in Holland right. There’s this ah
46-year old fuzzy-headed arthritic maid-of-all-work and she goes to
work in the home of a famous painter, sort of Vermeer, actually
it is Vermeer.

This is the sort of stuff
I could read all day. It masquerades as all surface-y and inconsequential, very anti-rhetorical, very un-romantic, but it’s replete with brilliant rhythmical effects, half rhymes, echoes of rhymes in the vowel sounds. I like it because it’s keyed-in to the here and now without being solely about the here and now. It refers to history and literature, it moves forward and back very easily, very lightly, it wears its knowledge and knowingness casually. It’s not afraid to be funny either, because Mairéad Byrne’s poetry knows that being funny doesn’t make it lightweight or trivial; funny is sometimes what life is, funny is sometimes the best way to say something very serious indeed.

And then, in the midst of all this, we find Mairéad doing some genuine (if fancy) fooling around, getting all arty, or maybe just blowing off some poetic steam (we can’t tell). This is from ‘Another Self-Portrait’ (from ‘Vivas’):


***pinwheels ****pinwheels


******pinwheels **************************PINWHEELS!!!!!!!!!!!


It goes on in this vein for several more lines. I don’t understand it. I don’t think there’s much
to understand actually. Apart from maybe it adds to the I think this is poetry – do you think this is this poetry? spin that she seems to put on things from time to time. She’s kicking up her heels and squealing. But she’s doing it in a poem.

Back to ‘An Educated Heart’. There is a very serious, politically-engaged side to Mairéad Byrne’s work. The first six poems in ‘An Educated Heart’ are, we learn, collage poems, using phrases copied and pasted from internet coverage of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. You remember earlier when I made that remark about her being careful and selective in her use of found language? Well here’s a fine example, culled, as she tells us, from internet sources:

Metaphor, Similes

like grapes from the sky

like small grapefruit

metal butterflies

like small stones

like cough sweets in a metal sheath

like a tree house

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 is at once both gentle
and powerful. The ‘collage’ quality, which is emphasised in the original text by typographical shifts (font, font-size etc) and which I haven’t attempted to replicate here, adds to the matter-of-factness which adds to the implied horror that loiters just to the left of those decapitated similes.

There’s a lyrical, almost imagistic, twist to things too. It reminds me a little of the work of Anne Carson. This is ‘Door’ (from ‘Vivas’):

When you left

it was as if

one wall of the house

was taken down

I walked out

through that large door

into the carnival


The line breaks are peerless, aren’t they? They’re not just rhythmically ‘right’, with the natural weight and timing of breaths, they are also little units of sense and thought, the enjambment of the last phrase deftly emphasising its significance.

On the minus-side for these two collections … some of the more left-field typographical wackiness feels forced and unnecessary, but I think maybe we should roll with that - because it may well turn out to be a requisite part of the wider dynamic, the light and shade of Mairéad Byrne’s aesthetic.

Her books are not going to be easy to get hold of, but I urge you to try - the publishers’ websites have all the necessary details. I also encourage you to check out her blog at
Mairéadbyrne.blogspot.com – which has lots of excellent poems, sideways wisdom and (possibly entirely fictionalised) accounts of ‘events’ from the poet’s day to day.

I shouldn't go without mentioning that both of the chapbooks under
review are very tastefully produced, with handsome illustrated covers, good printing and, instead of stapling, coloured stitching - 'Vivas' has blue stitching, 'An Educated Heart' has red.  It feels like it's making a small but significant statement about the feminine and domestic. 

Copyright © C. J. Allen, 2006