In individual poems, small series of interconnected poems, and in the book as object, Mairéad Byrne has made in The Best Of (What’s Left Of) Heaven a map that covers every kind of topographical feature.
Normally I’d be wary of a book what opens with a Bob Marley epigraph, due to an odd, longstanding bias I have against most things Bob Marley but the further I delved into the book and the further I got away from that epigraph (People don’t get no time to feel and spend them intelligence. The most intelligent…and innocent are poor, are crumbled and get brutalized. Daily.) the more those words came into some kind of purposefully hazy focus.
I can’t think of a book of poetry more deliciously all over the place than Byrne’s. In a poetic climate where everybody appears to be tying this poem to that poem reaching toward a stylistic and thematic cohesiveness that can be wrapped up in a pretty little present of a review Byrne ventures everywhere, does it all and does it, for the most part, better. To make a conversation about Heaven easier the book is “referred to as a book of poems by Mairéad Byrne”, but saying “book of poems” to a person who is anything less than willing to accept infinite definitions of the word poem ignores the blog threads, weather reports, songs, miniature plays, news headlines, pictures, lists, and anything else that could be placed on a page that are present in Heaven. Byrne both makes as well as steals everything you can think of and informs the reader this is now a poem, what you thought was a poem is also a poem, but this too is a poem, and not in a way that can be easily dismissed a la something like, say, a Kenneth Goldsmith book.
Space, both the absence and a presence of it, appears to be the main concern Heaven. In individual poems, small series of interconnected poems, and in the book as object, Byrne has made a map that covers every kind of topographical feature. There are pieces in the book that are little else but space, such as “Audience” which consists of (spoiler) eleven dots thrown on to the page which seem to be in a size eight font. Although in terms of placement in the book a poem such as “Baghdad,” is located nowhere near “Audience,” “Baghdad,” which covers every available spot on the page with clauses involving the titular word, seems to fill in the space which is left by “Audience.” I don’t own a transparency projector, but someone who does should copy these two poems and place one on top of the other.
While poems like “Bagdhad” and “Audience” obviously address and explore space within the individual poem, there are less obvious and similarly diverse varieties of space to be mapped out between the content of the poems. “…Heaven” has a fair amount of Mike Topp-ish poems such as “Privacy” which reads simply
If you do not have a room
body odor can be a room.
What then, is a house?
as well as the poem “Obviously” which reads even more simply
I have to get out of the tub:
I don’t have
Internet access in here.
While poems like these and those of Mike Topp (although I am a fan) are fun to read aloud to the other person in the room if there happens to be one, an entire book of them can usually be run through in about a half an hour and often leave you wondering why you paid the cover charge. This is not the case with Byrne who throws absolutely everything at you. For every poem like “Obviously” there is a prose-ish poem you’ve got to go through eleven or more damn times before you think you know what’s being said. The weightiest of these occur toward the end of the collection in a section titled “Everything Is Unlikely” in which Byrne tears apart and blows up familiar things with her sentences. In “A Certain Charm” Byrne writes:
Reality has a certain charm. It’s really happening. Your breast is being stretched and pulled like dough. It’s being flattened between two parts of machine you’re afraid to look at. You’d rather chat to the technician who says A little more? A little more? And you say Okay until you say That’s enough.
For all the seeming scattered nature of the book, Byrne is actually extremely calculating in the way she applies balance to both the skin and the guts of her poems and to how they end up touching one another. Her sense of awareness for what works perfectly and where is explained in a hilarious way in “GREAT BUSINESS IDEA #9: TEST-YOUR-POETRY” which shows up on the page looking like a flyer in above a urinal.
Test YOUR poetry on our dedicated audiences of
MEN SERVING TIME!
*ENTIRE CLIENTELE OF YOUR LOCAL GYM!
We can arrange for your VERY SMALL homogenous poetry
audience to be REPLACED by a much LARGER homogenous
audience in any of our popular categories!
The format, type, and pace of the poem are all signs that Byrne is not doing anything on accident or even without intricate planning, no matter how microscopic or flippant the action appears. “GREAT BUSINESS IDEA #9…” also lets us know that Byrne is more than well aware of the fact that a majority of the public probably finds her work and the work of other poets like herself (although, I really don’t think there is anyone really like her) esoteric nonsense. That Byrne can look at that fact, accept it, and continue to do her own thing is incredibly admirable. I personally have grown tired of the whole bringing the poems to the streets stuff, not that the poems should remain caged academia either, they should simply be wherever they happen to land, which is something Byrne has allowed to occur in her own work.
Book review purists might end up bitching a little bit that good amount of this review deals with the more conceptual aspects of The Best Of (What’s Left Of) Heaven than with the text, always with the text and the basic ENG101 stuff. The reason there is so much more to talk about in Heaven than the text is that Byrne has created so much texture. When I first got into the book I mentioned to Adam Robinson, publisher of Publishing Genius, that Byrne’s poems look like they should be touched. He told me that if he’d had more money he would have wanted to play textural games with the words on the page. So you should probably all donate to Publishing Genius today so that instead of simply reading The Best Of (What’s Left Of) Heaven we can pet, be cut by, and maybe even eat the work of Mairéad Byrne.