Friday, June 16, 2006

An Educated Heart by Mairéad Byrne

Palm Press, 2005

Reviewed by Erika Howsare

A heart is educated by what it encounters, absorbs, reflects, or is invaded by. Mairead Byrne’s An Educated Heart is full of readymade (as in found) evidence of the world at work, alongside crafted documentation of the author’s responses to that world. This may sound mechanical, or sophomoric; and indeed, Byrne often risks a kind of unapologetic simplicity of tone and form that, in less capable hands, would fall flat. Within Byrne’s work, though—which is often procedural in method—these two kinds of evidence blend much more seamlessly, sometimes masterfully, than that description would suggest.

For example, in “Almost,” the procedure calls for Byrne to insert the word “almost” into each of 14 Reuters headlines, always just before the words “Killed” or “Dies”: “Moscow Pool Roof Collapse Almost Kills 26, Search Goes On (REUTERS)”. The act of inserting this word becomes a kind of ritual or prayer, a sadly futile deployment of language as talisman. This recalls the use of Word as spiritual or magical instrument, as in Abracadabra or Om. And, of course, it is a commentary: If a poem cannot bring back the dead, perhaps it can through calling attention to its own innefficacy accomplish something less tangible, like conjuring hope within a matrix of sterilized, up-to-the-minute despair.

In another piece, with an even lighter touch, Byrne simply attaches the title “Long Distance Relationship” to a set of web-based driving directions from somewhere in Illinois to Providence, Rhode Island, where she lives. The directions are an evocation of our current obsession with geographical omniscience, as well as an utterly distanced (as in “objective”) representation of distance. And even as the poem suggests a personal condition of loneliness, it becomes a depersonalized function, like a spreadsheet or a satellite photo. “Relationship,” after all, can mean nothing more than finance.

Still, these poems are intensely of the heart; they map the human urge toward a bodily and soulful existence which, in Byrne’s view, strains against the grinding gears of our present condition. Everything is a dance between these opposing forces—the innermost self, wet and vulnerable, on the one hand; the machine, manifested as war or grocery-store receipt, on the other. In “The Day,” the repetitive demands of parenthood elegantly straddle these extremes; the poem consists entirely of the sentences “I step up to the mat” and “I step up to bat.” The very mechanization of the language, through repetition and simplistic rhyme, is the center in which the poem’s emotional impact resides. In “Crop,” there is a searing statement of personal loss (“I thought/ because you saw me/ sliced &/ torn open/ &/ the shining child/ dragged from me/ you would have/ stayed with us/ for life/ but not so”) embedded in lines of capital Xs. These are both visual shapes—anonymous detritus like the power lines we unconsciously delete from our vision—and textual problems that eat into (“crop”) the rightness of the lines, the integrity of their diction. Taken lyrically, they are a field of something negative that grows in rows—an agriculture of sickness.

Byrne displays not only a dadaist’s sense of the found, but a lyricist’s ear and an artist’s feel for timing. “Link,” for example, has the pared-down structure and tonal surety of a Robert Creeley jewelbox:

      “You hoist the pump of your rage
      in Minnesota 1968
      in Providence 2003
      tears gush out.”

In her procedural work and collage poems, Byrne manifests the intersection of reader and writer in a single, fragile body. She also focuses on the terrible crossroads of the political and erotic that is war, as in “Headlines:” “WOMAN BRINGS MAN TO BRINK AS MISSILES LAUNCH/ NO SEX SAYS PRESIDENT SINCE 1993.” We see the great global machine spinning its furious turbines, the techno-night where computer viruses grow, the unfathomable economic groupmind as constituted by billions of dreary and forgotten transactions (“Clio wants Kids Tropicana but this is cheaper 2 @ $1.99,” from “Eastside Market”).

Yet the book is not only an account of the leading edge of angst, where trouble slices into our awareness. It is a human, maternal, sexual, responsible document of living and, the reader suspects, also supplies evidence of managing trouble, whether individual or world crises—in other words, it’s cathartic. The humor of “Reminiscence,” in which the speaker recounts a lover’s baffling renomenclature of things the speaker loves (“Well, you have beautiful hair, I said. You little ninny—that’s not hair, that’s persillis”), balances and heals the plain injury behind it. And the librarian’s project of amassing synonyms for “Broken,” “Split,” “Crushed” and so on—in a series of seemingly found poems that make up the book’s only underedited section—is an act of almost pitiful carefulness in the face of the destruction Byrne tackles: the war in Iraq and a divorce involving children, among other topics.

The fact that Byrne maintains a connection to raw emotion—again, the word “unapologetic” seems appropriate—allows her to succeed in taking on subjects that, because of their potential for overstated failure, many poets avoid. In the same way, her fondness for self-conscious form and obvious experimentation gives her license to write and imply clear narratives. When Byrne reads to an audience, her presence is large and artificial in the old-fashioned, theatrical sense. She adopts the persona of “reader” rather than pretending to reject it as so many post-language poets do; she uses her body, voice, and gestures as actors do. Similarly, in this book, she willingly dons the mantel of “storyteller,” “protestor,” “human voice.” In both cases, the risk pays off as the bravado of the performance illuminates the material. And the concepts are compelling enough so that the poems, though appreciable at a glance, continue to work long after the first encounter.


MAIRÉAD BYRNE immigrated to the United States from Ireland in 1994 for reasons of poetry. Her collection Nelson & The Huruburu Bird was published in 2003 by Wild Honey Press. She lives with her two daughters in Providence, Rhode Island, where she teaches poetry at Rhode Island School of Design.


ERIKA HOWSARE lives in Virginia. Her work has been published in Fence, Chain and Denver Quarterly, among others. Recent projects include a multi-genre, multimedia project based on walking across Rhode Island, and an ongoing online collaboration with the formidable Jen Tynes. She teaches at Longwood University.