Monday, May 03, 2010

Paul Morphy opening ...

... Notes on a Poem by Edward Byrne

I have, not far where I am writing, a stack of poetry collections I have been hoping to read and comment on. I have written a lot of reviews of poetry collections in my time, but I have long doubted the efficacy of such reviews. The reason is that a collection of poems is most often a gathering of discrete of discrete works written at different times under widely varying circumstances. Usually, all that they have in common is that the same person wrote them and they have been printed together in the same volume.
The actual experience of reading such a collection is that some leap out and embrace you while others may simply strike you as well-crafted literary artifacts. This does not mean that they are any less good than the others - and you may come later on to feel quite differently about some of them - but only that they are different from those that immediately strike a spark of recognition in your imagination. Those are special, and will always remain so. I just encountered one such and will get to it in a moment, but I want to end this prefatory note by announcing that this is the first entry in a new feature on this blog, one that I have been thinking about for quite a long time. Instead of writing a review of those volumes stacked nearby, I plan to keep a sort of diary of my reading them, focusing on those poems that grab me in that special way.

Which brings me to my first example.
Last week, I picked up the book that happened to be on top of that stack - Edward Byrne's Seeded Light - and read the first poem in it, titled "Moonlight in the City." I picked it up because I had a few idle minutes on my hands and just felt like lolling back and reading something new that wouldn't take me very long. I have since read the poem a couple of times more- for the same reason you play a song you like over and over again.
"Moonlight in the City" is an exquisite poem. It is July 20, 1969, the day of the first moon landing, though the poem really isn't about that - except obliquely. That grand event simply functions the way a perspective figure does in a landscape painting.
Since this is a different kind of review, I feel I can point out why I was so immediately taken by this poem about an 11-year-old boy by himself "in the middle of a vacant lot" watching "as a fresh wash // of moonlight began to flow over rooftops, / and the sky beyond dust-covered billboards // just started to fill with clustered stars." It is because it so perfectly reproduces the landscape of my own first eight years - the magical beauty of a cityscape in the eyes of a child.
That is what swept me along for that first reading. But when I read it again, what I noticed was how well-made this poem is. I don't want to print the whole poem here, but trust me that the phrase "Warning lights" is perfectly placed at the end of one couplet, connecting what has gone before precisely to what follows about "the span of that great / bridge over the river, as hundreds of bright // buds suddenly stippled those rippling / waters now deepening to the blue of a new / bruise." Any comment on the music of these lines would be superfluous. But the image of the bruise seems telling.
There is a wistfulness bordering on - though not quite crossing into - melancholy in this poem, which one at first may miss because of the casual placement of the bruise metaphor and that only fully reveals itself at the end, when we learn that the boy's father "was far away // again, driving deliveries along an interstate," and that his mother "was sitting alone at home, // as were her neighbors, awaiting the first / broadcast of a man walking on the moon."
I could write a good deal more about this poem, but why spoil it for the rest of you? It is not so much that the poem encapsulates a particular time and place so much as it reveals how such a particular time and place can echo so resonantly so many years later.