What the Fire Said
SOLO 6, 2003
(The Flammable Bird, Elena Karina Byrnee, Zoo Press, PB, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-970817-8-9)
The Flammable Bird by Elena Karina Byrne (Zoo Press: Lincoln, Nebraska, 2002)
Kingdom of the Instant by Rodney Jones (Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, New York, 2002)
What if language poets could do more than take language apart? What if they could take it apart and put it back together again in new and surprising ways right before your eyes, like a card trick or a tricky transmission or a psychic Tristan Tzara? Two poets, one from California and one who claims never to have been to California, have written very different books that nevertheless exhibit a common facility with language and intellect, a love of words and ideas, and a respectful understanding of the distance between them. Elena Karina Byrne’s Flammable Bird is a terrific first book, crackling with linguistic energy and burnished with a lovely patina of desire. Rodney Jones’ Kingdom of the Instant, his seventh book of poems, continues his canny rhetorical assault on American idiom and assumption in his characteristic molasses lyricism, backed by a knife-quick wit.
Byrne’s poems at their best want desperately and veer like swallows near cliffs, even when the subject would appear to appeal more to the intellect, as in several poems challenging the limits of language (“Ghost: A Love Story,” “When Words Fail the Body,” “Pigs Eye”) or in poems exploring relationships between science and religion (“God’s Watch,” “Kierkegaard Knows No Shame”). “Darwin’s Windows,” for example, about a woman with a head injury who can’t copy squares but can draw church windows, reacquaints science with the human. The poem ends:
In a world of division, space means naming; a wasp curls into
A sweet pea and the world is enlarged all over again outside
Her window. You sit across the room, out of order
And the unnatural selection of History stains the church glass
Above you both: glass anonymous, glass-haunt, glass-us, glass
Of water and Darwin’s earth colored ghost kneels below
As if in overt reverence, with a pencil in one hand, the other full, closed on
Consideration, closed on the counted, colorless squares of broken glass.
The poem exposes the ambivalent relationship between religion and science, revealing deeper relationships between subjectivity and objectivity that scientific objectivism misses. Byrne attempts to tip the balance the other way, not to dismiss science, but to ameliorate the absence of the personal that science too frequently misses. So for Byrne “you are physics/ When light praises light in the insect skin of leaves.” Her language insists breathlessly and playfully, moving from pointed observation to specific image in a turn like, a bee to the next blossom. Her best poems are mercurial and possessed, enjambing through a tumult of images and ideas that surprise and arrest. Even the poems primarily driven by formal experimentation exhibit substance and power. Byrne has crafted an excellent, surprisingly mature first collection of poems.
Rodney Jones’ Kingdom of the Instant successfully expands on many of the themes explored in his award-winning Elegy for the Southern Drawl. Kingdom of the Instant, however, is better because it risks more. Yes, the book is still peppered with Jones’ familiar intelligence, his down-home southern wit. “Pompadour” (“It was timely like a scab.”), “Nudes,” Smoke,” “Bufus,” and others bristle with humor and canny observation. Yet several ambitious poems wrench language into new levels of tension, tightening around Jones’ focus on the moment. “Keeping Time” questions when where and why, pointing out the difficult nuances of language and how it fails, how we fail it:
When did kiss go? When flower power?
Why when when where shows mold-wallows
of hard and tender raptures, gene pool
place held: cinder stones beside a track.
Pick one up and throw it at a train.
The poem’s playful interrogation of language and time continues until it rests briefly, “But event resists the word,” and this tension underlines the collection’s most extraordinary poems. Similarly, the long, eleven-section “A Whisper Fight at the Peck Funeral Home” revitalizes the elegy as it encircles a family funeral:
Immaterial who we were. Time narrows the hide to a strap—
Everything bound leaps once, and is free forever—
decay our fertilizer,
dissolution our daily bread.
Questions. Questions. Rain out there
between here and the mountain.
Mist for the blind interpreter,
not here yet, maybe never.
But the body gets laid out by noon.
People like to have what is missing before them.
And in sections six, in the middle of the poem, he muses on poetry:
What is the poetry of the world?
A wound and a poultice.
An eavesdropper’s serenade.
A Shrug at Armageddon.
An obsolete love note.
addressed to the vengeful cults
of longing and respectability.
Not music, not just music;
more like abandon.
The light of a conservatory
shining in the blueprint of a ruin.
The poem finally gets around to the subject of the elegy, Jones’s father, but how it gets there demonstrates both our halting ridiculousness in facing death as well as its unalterable power over us. To muse on poetry itself would seem a surprising thing in the middle of a funeral, but here it is apropos of everything. “Ten Sighs from a Sabbatical” and “Divine Love” are similarly ambitious, exploring death, religion, love, and politics with lacerating incisiveness, but not like accident, more like the slow knife of a careful surgeon. Rodney Jones is one of our finest, wisest, voices, and Kingdom of the Instant simply confirms this fact.