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Stephanie Burns on Brigitte Byrd

Review of Song of a Living Room by Brigitte Byrd

Ahsahta Press, 2009

 

“There.”

 

It is a word that repeats throughout Brigitte Byrd’s Song of a Living Room.  Is it an echo?  The end of an argument?  A simple definition of place?  It may be all of these things in the various poems in which it recurs, yet ‘there’ never becomes ‘here’ in Byrd’s rich collection, a fact that seems to drive her meditation on place, language and the writing process.

 

Byrd’s collection consists of lyric prose poems, divided into seven sections of various lengths, each section populated by poems that seem to have subtitles rather than titles, as each is nestled into parentheses.  Are these subtitles hesitation or explanation?  Perhaps both.  Titles such as “(How to Sing the Distance)” are followed by “(Something Like nobody coming Something Like went instead).”  Each poem is a thick block of language, at turns describing the action between “she” and “he” (Byrd’s displaced characters), and attempting to describe or define their relation both to each other and their surroundings.

 

            “She tried to fall asleep in the hollow of his unfolded shirt and she did not fit.  She tried to slide off his skin scandal and she got caught on his lips.  She tried to chew on his lavender words and she broke up in explosive sentences.”

 

“She” is a writer, attempting to write a narrative (a film script?) in a strange place and struggling to do so.  The poems themselves also seem to struggle to define not just things but also feelings and actions, often with a string of contradictory phrases: 

 

            “It was not a theatrical gesture this leaping out a window it was poetic industrialism it was gauche surrealism it was referential anguish it was just uninspired.”

 

“She” and “he” speak to one another, but often their words are actually quotation—a pastiche of writers in French and English.  Samuel Beckett, Anna Akhmatova, John Berryman, Monique Wittig and Marguerite Duras are just a few of the quoted writers, as identified by Byrd’s notes in the back of the book.  In this way, Byrd’s characters have conversations not only with each other, but with those writers who have preceded her.  The effect of having English and French sprinkled indiscriminately throughout the collection is somewhat reminiscent of the performative alienation present in Eliot’s The Wasteland.  “She” and “he” speak both of these languages, but the reader may not.  Bits of meaning escape translation and the reader finds herself in a similar situation to “she” and “he”—adrift in a foreign space.

 

For Byrd’s characters, that foreign space is Georgia, and we find as we read that “she” struggles with the language, the heat, the landscape:  “and they both knew she could not subtract in English.”  As “she” continues to attempt to write, we see that the landscape changes both of them and the way they relate to each other.

 

            “Just as the Southern sun transformed him into magnetic irrationality he saw her as Ganesh and it was difficult to embrace the notion of the first sound when she often looked for the first word.”

 

Of course, there is a sense in which the whole narrative is enclosed within the titular room—a room that contains only “she” and “he” and leaves them to echo off each other in their various pursuits.  Does the heat trap them in one place—a slightly claustrophobic inability to move—or is it simply their alienation which encloses them?  “The sun did not shine.  The wind did not blow.  The sky was immovable.”

 

Further into the collection, “she” seems increasingly to be writing her own story.  Byrd addresses through “she” the difficulties inherent in writing: “There was futility in the narrative and her voice broke.”  Part of their alienation from the surroundings has to do with her difficulty reconciling them with the setting for her narrative: “By that time it was clear that she brooded over their setting.”  Byrd’s story and that of her character slowly take shape and then just as slowly unravel in a series of one sentence statements at the end of the book—like an old car sputtering to a stop.  We are left to question the words preceding as the last proclaim, “it was something that did not happen.”

 

Song of a Living Room is an intriguing collection of poems that uses pleasurably lush language to explore the problems of displacement, alienation and the struggle to define ourselves and our surroundings.  It is well worth the read.



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