Lyricism meets a “squandering” experimental impulse in Elena Karina Byrne’s third book of poems, Squander—“squandering” as in not counting the lyrical chips, a poetics that succeeds only if most of the chips are blue. Byrne is awash in a sea of blue. Not that the hard edges of denotation are excluded; they are only subordinated. There is even plain speech about

 

Plain speech, bible

of blank pages, petty speech, breach of color

 

as well speech of unerasable color:

 

                                                                                     Oh, uneasiness origin.

Anyone’s god confounded, and does… in language-cage, its fallen

bird’s orange feathers.

 

This last, in the opening poem, ”Language,” suggests that, out of deep unease as to life’s sources, poetry dynamizes language into emotional form and hurls it against discourse’s language-cage, seeking an atmosphere as absolute as it is rarefied and infinite. But though the cage has many holes, it doesn’t give. Anyhow, the lyrical impulse needs the melancholy of its resistance, on penalty of idiocy. So poetry’s colorful feathers litter the cage floor. A squandering? Rather, a discovery of the possibility of a new atmosphere, after all, of an “intimate munificence [that] blazes forth with charm” (Mallarmé), inexhaustible inklings of a mystery that bathes in the noon of sonorities

Byrne indeed writes near the border of the radical modern practice of deobjectiftying objects and quashing connectivity (a la Barbara Guest in her middle period), but she feels instructed from within to leave enough space for the thickness of signification and an agon of struggle against inhibitory laws and customs. Consider, for instance, from “Dostoyevsky’s Final Battle Feast,” 

 

                                                                                                                             and he

                                      cried with both hands,        his

                  two declared atheists,     moving on their way together like       good butter

 

                  in the funeral feast

 

 

Or consider her instruction to the reader to “Take Pilgrim’s Way, the Puritan route west” and, at length, when standing with “feet in the ash-ink sand,” be “ready to eat a calf in the cow’s belly to be beautiful” (“Place”).  

The literalist of the mind but not of the imagination will be delighted to know that the novelist Yukio Mishima

 

walked out onto the deck with another man under the pacific sky’s grief-

wide

door lintel, under    anchor-light,

expecting to see his past

 

                                         like a woman (thirst that ate her) rise up

 

from sea bottom, bloated body of the long-drowned.

Thirsty, still   helplessly swallowing sea water,   the past,

                                                                                 with her kimono sleeve

releasing tiny fish, her voice   a great glass ball sliding up into her throat

 

To graph the movement here one would need to draw a line from Mishima up to the sky, which is a door like everything else but also his elected “anchor-light,” thence down to his under-water past, where desire is both dead and alive and figured as a woman who still thirsts for what isn’t potable, namely her past (here draw another line downward), which she helplessly swallows while a fishing boat’s glass ball rises up in her permanently speechless throat. The dislosure is that desire has no past that is not also a desire for its past (see “uneasiness origin” above) and cannot speak its truth. Consciously avoiding women, the homosexual Mishima is haunted by this female subconscious in which tiny phallic fish are loosened from a kimono sleeve.

Byrne is not often this simultaneously coherent on both the surface and the depths, but who is? Rimbaud and Mallarmé, perhaps. And of late, Lucie Brock-Broido. And Robert Fernandez in Pink Reef. And Richard Greenfield in his first book and his third, now in preparation. A few more. In all, very few. The two French poets founded a new lyricism more extreme than the usual kind, Rimbaud’s a biting green, Mallarmé’s a seafoam green (I somewhat know what I mean by this). In it, a deep figure makes the mise-en-scène shudder as if by an unconscious collision with the past. I could put this more rationally, but it is not a rational matter. It is poetry in which the tonal system, to draw a metaphor from music, is not abandoned but is positioned far off. Reconciliation is not the aim. All is already and indelibly “grief- / wide.” Nor, of course, is clear argumentation to be expected, or wanted. What runs through it resembles electrical pulsations, not a river. Grammar is only on the dock of the infinite, not in the sea; violations are allowed, for, as Lyotard said, “violence  . . . belongs to the depth of language.”   

Byrne’s speaker recognizes Rilke’s “grammarless face” in a gallery: “grammarless  . . . as if / absent from the hours.” An astonishing lyricist himself, although not a new lyricist, Rilke escaped the post-lyrical deconstruction that followed Nietzsche and Freud. As for the new lyricism, it prefers to be scathed by it, but it isn’t de-con-struct-ed to death, only down to the waist. Its intuition is that “Everything is gestation” (“Rilke, Somewhere in the Gallery”) and, at the same time, as was noted, grief-wide. The best passages in Squander are angel-verses 

if “the black pirate ship ribs of angels” is how it is. 

 

    —Calvin Bedient

 
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