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On Feminism and Migration in the Work of Poet Mairéad Byrne



Jane Joritz-Nakagawa 



The following essay is based on a presentation I gave at Nagoya University (in central Japan) in March 2016 for a symposium on migration in North American literature.  



I contacted Mairéad Byrne in 2015 to ask her to contribute work for an anthology I am currently working on, as editor (forthcoming in 2016 with Theenk Books, titled women : poetry : migration [an anthology]) consisting of poems and short essays by approximately fifty female poets doing innovative work currently living in a country other than that of their birth (in other words, “migrant” poets). Mairéad in an email to me at that time shared:


Being female was certainly a contributing factor to my leaving Ireland. It was almost laughable to be a woman who wanted to write poetry, or at least very unlikely (it took me a long time to admit to it myself).


She explained:


One of my sisters, eight years older than me, had to leave work in the Irish Civil Service when she married. There was a profound prejudice against women writing poetry, or speaking in public. Eavan Boland articulated it well, and she was a person of privilege. What can I say? There was no acceptance or encouragement among my seniors or peers, with the exception of my gentle father, who died when I was seventeen.


Indeed I have read more than a bit of what Boland has written about women and poetry in Ireland, such as in her essay “Outside History” (published in 1990 in American Poetry Review) where she complains about how women are simplified as subjects and objects in poems by Irish male poets and how female Irish poets had to thus invent their own poetic traditions where this would not be the case. Additionally, when I gave a presentation a few years ago in Kyoto about Irish poet Catherine Walsh’s incredibly wonderful book Optic Verve (published in 2009) for an Irish literature conference, the moderator introduced me by saying that I was going to talk about the work of, and I quote, “one of Ireland’s most overlooked poets.”  Why would such immense talent be overlooked? When I emailed the head of well known avant-garde poetry publisher Shearsman, based in England and publisher of Optic Verve, that is, Tony Frazer, to inquire further, he said via email there were two reasons, one being that Walsh is female and the 2nd that Walsh’s work is experimental.


As far as the timing of her migration from Ireland to the U.S. (1994), Mairéad commented that the advent of the Internet enabled her to make contact with experimental poetry in Ireland while in the U.S. I understood this, because I had myself moved to Japan in 1989 and while at first I felt very cut off from poetry abroad, and as I was still learning Japanese at that time I could not access well local poetry, towards the late 1990s I was able to keep in touch with innovative poetry in English and increasingly other languages through the Internet and was able to consequently more successfully relaunch my own activities as a publishing poet and poetry researcher. The 1990s were also a time where female poets were emerging quite strongly in the US and other countries, for example poets such as Alice Notley (who moved to Paris however in 1992 and started doing her best work ever from then on, I think it's fair to say, although she was already good), Leslie Scalapino (one of my favorite books, New Time, was published in 1999), Rosmarie Waldrop (another favorite book, The Lawn of Excluded Middle, published in 1993, just one of many of her fabulous books published in the 90s but I have a special fondness for this one—it encouraged me to write poetry again seriously! Waldrop is also a contributor to the forthcoming Theenk Books anthology), Myung Mi Kim (who like Waldrop is "migrant"), Harryette Mullen (Muse and Drudge!!! a huge influence on me and many others) as well as the wonderful Frances Presley and others in the UK; Wake Forest Univ. Press put out a fantastic bilingual anthology of poetry by innovative French women in 1997; to name just a few. Groundbreaking scholarship about Anglophone innovative women poets and their works’ sociopolitical ties to feminism would soon follow, for example in the year 2000 Megan Simpson’s book Poetic Epistemologies: Gender and Knowing in Women’s Language-oriented Writing published in 2000, Innovative Women Poets by Beth Frost and Cynthia Hogue in 2006 in the US (I sent them both a fan letter upon receipt of their book which resulted in an interview, published in Jacket 1) and in the UK Contemporary Women’s Poetry: Reading/Writing/Practice by Alison Mark and Deryn Rees-Jones, published in 2000. Feminism, Experimental Poetry, and Contemporary Discourse would appear and in 2002. Claudia Rankine’s and Juliana Spahr’s Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language. Susan Schultz’s book of essays A Poetics of Impasse and Alice Notley’s book of essays Coming After would both come out in 2005. For me, as a poet originally from the U.S. but living in Japan who had studied stateside primarily the work of men as that what was the course syllabi had covered when I was a student (Maxine Kumin, in Bryan 1993, p. 101, makes the same comment: Kumin was born around the same time as my mother), reading all this accomplished work by women had an incredibly buoyant and encouraging effect on me as a poet.


Byrne wrote, as part of our currently as of yet unpublished and unfinished interview (in progress):


Emigration is like death. You get to have a heaven, in a sense. You can't exercise your sense of humor much. Your family is frighteningly small and fragile. I brought a child with me when I left Ireland and changed the direction of her life forever. There is no going back. Emigration makes life unreal. You think you can go on forever. But it's also very tiring. And you know some day you'll just lie down. I think being a single parent has defined me more than being an emigrant. I never had time to socialize. I am an outsider in my work place. Of necessity, I was fiercely independent. In that way I'm not well socialized, and am now solitary. After a good few years of never identifying with Irish poetry or Irishness, I realized that I'm an Irish poet after all. At least when I'm funny, and ornate, and totally ridiculous I am.


In an interview published in 2007, Byrne commented:


I value mobility. When I was a young journalist, I had nothing, materially, but I had access to those who had less than nothing, and to those who had a lot more. I came to America with $400 and a 7-year old child, knowing no one, not even being able to drive. I kind of believe in the American dream, and I still believe in America. I teach at Rhode Island School of Design, a private school, and that 7-year old child, a daughter, is now a Junior at Brown, studying Applied Math & Economics.


I’m still an inbetweener. I work in a situation of privilege. My colleagues and students are predominantly White or Asian. I live in a situation much closer to poverty, and there is much poverty in Providence. My neighborhood is predominantly Hispanic, and Black, as is my younger daughter’s school. Black America has had an enormous influence on me, ethically. Also Black music and poetry. The America I emigrated for was Black rather than White. These terms seem harsh when I write them; the reality is harsh too but not quite so stark. The fabric of my work is quite similar to the fabric of my life. The relationships are visible. (From 12 or 20 Questions blogspot, accessed Feb 27 2016.)


In the same interview, in answer to the question “Where does a poem begin for you?” Byrne replied:


The poem often begins with the title, I just note it down and it’s there for me to conjure from when I go back. Of course if I don’t go back, or if I don’t go back soon enough, the titles stop coming. I’m probably an author of short pieces, in lots of modes…


Byrne’s most recent book, save for a bilingual anthology that appeared recently in Brazil I believe, is You Have to Laugh: New and Selected Poems, published in 2013 by Barrow Street Press. The book consists of selections from the following works/books by Byrne appearing in the following order:


1. The Best of (What's Left of) Heaven (2010)

2. Talk Poetry (2007)

3. State House Calendar (2009)

4. SOS Poetry (2007)

5. An Educated Heart (2005) 

6. Nelson & the Huruburu Bird (2003)

7. from Tympanum (a work in progress at the time of publication)

8. selections from Lucky (2011)


I analyzed the poems in her book for recurring themes, sociopolitical or feminist outlook/tones or overtones, approaches to writing poems (based in part on her comments in interviews and notes as well as of course the poems themselves), stylistic diversity, poetic form, and of course spatial and linguistic features of the poems including syntactic, semantic, visual and phonological characteristics.


Motherhood, especially single motherhood, is a recurring theme in Byrne’s poetry, including in over a dozen poems collected here.


The text of the poem “CROP” embedded in rows of or a box made of Xs (these could be kisses symbolizing the love and romance which led to the birth of the child) reads:  "I thought / because you saw me / sliced & / torn open / & / the shining child / dragged from me / you would have / stayed with us / for life / / but not so."  The irony of the title and the rows of Xs mitigate somewhat against the abject despair of abandonment and permanently reversed expectations. I asked Mairéad if this poem was autobiographical and she said it is. The poem itself must be “torn” from or viewed apart from the rows of Xs to be deciphered, the message embedded into this “bed” of Xs or kisses as an unborn child might be “torn from” or dragged out of its mother’s body. (Although some of us may see the Xs as kisses, Mairéad commented that for her they are something like barbed wire, and for me too they present an important kind of contrast to the words of the poem.)


In “Downtown Crossing” any “thing” can be a mother, objects both comforting or offering protection like a blanket or coat as well as harmful substances like cigarettes. The poem can also be read as a visual description of various mothers glimpsed on a busy street corner. Finally comes the line “you can be your own mother”perhaps because none of the “objects” are suitable or can be relied on to fulfill one’s needs (a child inadequately parented due to the emotional or physical unavailability of parents may simply need to mother herself of course). In “Single Mother” single mothers must be both the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus as there is not another parent to fill any such role (which can be one interpretation of this poem; a friend of mine in the audience who is a single mother indeed interprets the poem this way I learned while discussing it on the train back to Shizuoka with her after the conference); in “Personal Insurance” the speaker, identified by name as Mairéad, “keep[s] a fresh copy of [herself] in her closet at all times, so that “If anything happens to me there will be another Mairéad to look after my children”. “Door” depicts being abandoned by one’s partner in the first stanza but the second stanza of this 2 stanza long poem seems to indicate some possible hope for an at least interesting life (in “the carnival world”) on the other side of the “door”. “Gesture” depicts various women outside walking with their children, while the words “I am thinking of divorce” are buried within the poem at the end of line seven of the 19 line long “Tedium”, a poem which contains an especially stunning line, repeated twice as the 2nd and last line: “My child whose face is a white petal detaching and fluttering toward me” (although the "detaching" could be construed as ominous!). The poem “Things I’m Good At” contains a single line “Smiling at children” with a note at the bottom: [I intend to add to this list]. The presumably lonely or shut-in speaker of “I Went to the Doctor” mentions in the middle of the poem how she told the doctor her “famous story” of how she immigrated with $400 and a seven year old child; she basks in the attention she claims to receive from the doctor, nurse and office manager who merely routinely interview her for medical purposes, as if ordinarily starved for company or conversation—making this trip to the doctor one of her best experiences “since her first wedding” and “the MLA” (conference). The first line of “Chiamus” is “When you marry & divorce your dreams get mixed up.” The longest poem in the book “For the ear of the auditor” makes references to Langston Hughes and contains the lines “My body has flowed like the rivers / Men cast their burnt fathers in me as I have given birth.” In a poem titled “Pitch” as in a pitch for a movie, actress Catherine Zeta Jones is poor but saving her meager income to buy a house but “can’t even buy lunch anymore so she passes out at the check-out in Au Bon Pain just as she’s counting pennies for coffee [when] she’s revived by… a “Johnny Depp type who is actually a banker”; at the end of the story property taxes go up and “Catherine and [Matthew Broderick and] Johnny all go down to City Hall where they meet with endless officials.”  “Postnatal ward,” set in Dublin, begins with conversations with nameless women about their husbands and leaky breasts ending with “... surging through me were giant peals of joy, joy, joy—and I couldn’t wait to get out.”  (This is motherhood not on a pedestal but with a dose of reality, as in the poems “Morning Song” by Plath or more shockingly Ito Hiromi’s “Killing Kanoko” i.e. 伊藤比呂美の『カノコ殺し』; the poem appears in English translation in a number of books including Stone Bridge Presss anthology Other Side River).


In addition to “Postnatal Ward” are other poems that make reference to Ireland or Mairéad’s Irishness, although many poems are set in the U.S., sometimes elsewhere. In “Three Irish Poets” the speaker jokes that she is “available for inclusion in [anthologies and special features in Irish poetry]… in 3 guises:  Irish Woman Poet, Innovative Irish Poet and, as the field is currently wide open, Ireland’s First Concrete Poet.” At the end of the poem, she states: “I am working on a fourth identity—‘A Remarkable Poet in Her Own Right.’” The tentative title for this character is: ‘Mairéad Byrne.’  “Directions for The Dead” is instructions for filming snow falling on such things as bare hills, a bog and a churchyard, whereas the end of a poem titled “Early Morning, Dublin” makes reference to the murder by a pimp of an activist for legalizing prostitution and her aunt. Tympanum, the most recent work included in this anthology and also arguably the most rigorously experimental, contains work in progress focusing on sound in work rendered phonetically of a mid-20th century Irish language poet, and a set of poems “made from harnessing the rhythms of John Donne’s poems and sermons to names from the Providence phonebook, followed by a set of prose medications on color in contemporary poetics. In Songs, each poem looks like a list of names reflective of the diverse population of a medium-sized American city, but sounds like the poems and sermons of John Donne.“


The next group of poems can be seen as representative of a feminist outlook vis-à-vis a somewhat larger or expanding culturally speaking world stage. In the short two line poem with a long title, “Black Man Strolling Downhill Meets White Woman Huffing Up: Strangers”, a white woman encountering a black man on the street claims to be thinking she is not afraid that the black man is there to rob her. In another two line long poem titled “Choose Your Husband,” a war activist and a peace activist both tell each other that each deserves to be “shot in the head.”  Poems titled “Baghdad” “Rubble” and “Trapped” are collage poems based on news coverage of the invasion of Iraq and contain lines such as “to choke Baghdad cut Baghdad in half so to speak”; “crushed in rubble of farmhouse pulverized by missiles” and “burn to death inside their car… umbilical wires and broken concrete” (respectively). “Almost” is a fourteen line list of fourteen headlines such as “Suicide bomber almost kills 50 at Police Station in Iraq”; the prose poem “Everything is Unlikely” begins with a line identical to its title and ends with the line: “Why am I here—in this house—in this world—which also holds a man screaming as other men saw at his neck with an inadequate knife?” In “The Way of the World” a soldier tells the mother of her six-year-old daughter whom he raped and killed that “we had consensual sex,” asks her to forgive “mistakes on both sides,” tells her to “get over it” and to give him a glass of water. The poem titled “An Educated Heart” does not depict such a heart or give any clues as to what an educated heart could be—rather it is simply a list of lines of translations of the phrase “an educated heart” into a variety of languages.


Some other of Byrne’s poetry included in this anthology rather than have more overt political and sociopolitical tones or overtones (semantically speaking) seem to linger more on the surface of the poem. Examples of this would be the poem titled “Metaphor, Similes”—although according to Byrne the lines in this poem also came from internet coverage of the invasion of Iraq!—the selections from Lucky and the series of poems published under the title State House Calendar in which during a 13 month period Byrne recorded her first glimpses every morning of the stone of the Rhode Island State House building in Providence against the sky. Regarding State House Calendar, Byrne comments: “It was a time when I had no time—a way of snatching poetry where I could.  I made the notes while driving; sometimes my daughters wrote them down” (in the notes following the poems in the Barrow Street book, p. 171). However, it is also possible to view such poems as feminist considering their style, form and approach in the way they may suggest alternative modes of perception, thought, and/or feeling. 


Byrne uses an impressive array of narrative, non-narrative, visual-spatial and phonological approaches and techniques as well as humor to display her virtuosity as a poet as well as present the sociopolitical outlook of a person who is not just a poet but also mother, single mother, migrant with knowledge of two cultures and languages and liberal observer of the world including its darker terrain. I've recently introduced her poetry to two different audiences in Japan; in both cases it was extremely well received.




Reference: Bryan, S., ed. (1993). Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition (New York: W. W. Norton)



copyright © Jane Joritz-Nakagawa 




Jane Joritz-Nakagawa is the author of ten full length collections of poetry as well as chapbooks, fiction, and essays. Her most recent book is Plan B Audio (Isobar, 2020). Email is welcome at: janejoritznakagawa(at)gmail(dot)com.