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
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,
younger. In no time, I was 20 years older than him
towards old age. Even the children began to age. They
were small &
wrinkled, older than their own father. His skin was
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 &
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