Cynthia Arrieu-King
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Review of Fence Above the Sea, by Brigitte Byrd
(Ahsahta Press, 2005)


Brian McHale says the modern is like a non-genre version of the detective story: the post-modern is like a non-genre version of a science fiction story. In the modern, you go looking for clues, try to add up scraps of knowledge to a larger picture. The reader hunts and assembles. In the post-modern, well, you wonder who really is there and what selves they are. Trying to sort what is epistemological and what is ontological in poetry, I see that Byrd manages to get the reader both to look for clues to an ultimate picture of a woman’s and creative life, and also sense that this world collides and fractures paradoxically with itself. Though you do a little detective work about who is here – the speaker, her daughter, and a man or father – how many selves they each contain seems incalculable and shifting. What ultimately emerges is an interestingly fractured picture of maternal lineage, and the splitting foci of a woman’s attention. Byrd achieves this with simultaneously contradictory lines and verbs, celestial metaphors, and a knack for tender simplicity.

The lines themselves enact a sea-like pattern of the domestic. Mostly this happens through her repetition of certain emotional phrases as Hejinian did in My Life: “ It is hard to turn away from moving water” (5) (10). This line repeats early on and French lines come and go within the flow of English to suggest that life's pains and tribulations aren't enough to shake one's attention from its shifting nature. Soon the daughter in the poems becomes a lasting changing character who interrupts and comforts simultaneously the narrator. Eventually the narrator seems to speak straight from a subliminal place, as submerged as the creatures and life in the sea. The speaker seems to speak of the daughter by avoiding proper nouns, saying “She thinks she fucks the father when she fucks her and the mother and the others and all of them think that and look” (28). Through the figure of the daughter and thinking about Life, Byrd seems to say motherhood is a project not easily assembled into a coherent form; therefore, change the form, change the expectations of what mothers are, what daughters, where unity lies.

The natural world particularly the vast expanses of seas and heavens, create a painterly backdrop to the poems, one that slowly gathers a feminist meaning. Byrd doesn't invoke these vistas or visions to invoke reality or etch the world around the speaker, as Hejinian might have to delineate a relatively biographical space. Byrd does manage to use these as metaphors for inner states in such a watery sense that as Cixous advises, the body is written, and the world, held surreally in the body, helps to write its conditions. In “American Tanz Theatre,” the speaker ponders her own writing mind and the lack of space between the page and her daughters place on the couch. Her discursion is interrupted by an italicized voice, “Nobody can keep you from the ones you know you love,” (17) a statement that chides the mother, it seems, from resenting the daughters needs, but also allows for the “ones you know you love” to stand for the speaker herself.

The prose poem turns at the end, liberating the speaker from her confining room and desk: “She likes a waltz through the lines under the vicious sky and she understands the fish is sky and she does not understand. The daughter gathers planets on the plate.” (17). Here the domestic limitations are shaken off, and the speaker's work melds with her physical dance. The fish from the sea are in the sky as well – the body has broken free of its earthly ties to melt with the rest of the universe. The daughter gathering planets on the plate seems to be the redemptive quality of the daughter lifting the poem at the end. She's not just a chore: she brings different worlds together, she brings her own future and her mothers future to her, framing and offering them. Motherhood, then, has its price, but the self she sees in her own daughter through these celestial moments assures there's some eternity in the consequent generations.

These heavenly images usually pick up this same sentiment, the daughter repeatedly embodying the big picture with “eyes filled with meteors in “Adagio for Hands” and seems to be mingled in her subjectivity with the mother. It could be the daughter or the mother, finally, who asserts control over situations when the sky won't allow its assuring bigness to be seen as in “Enlightenment” when the poem again ends with the observation: “There is always a light to switch on a winter afternoon when the roof is the color of the sky from the other side” (47). These sources of light and immense perspective can be within easy pragmatic reach. Obviously there are many kinds of imagery that hurtle in and deposit themselves in a pleasing randomness throughout the book – an Egyptian like a golden mask (47), powdered sugar, balloons, apple tarts with heavy cream and apple pie (62). Even “O Hart Crane O Hart Crane O Hart Crane” in “Poetics” – along with the rest of that poem and its section -- marks a graphic, nearly non-symbolic quality not seen before in the book (49). But the speaker's desire to look out a window – “this attraction to a window” and “the house far from the stars” are both section titles – and see largeness and light is undeniable. It's the way she locates herself in the world, and the way she understands her body and mind to be constructed: something finite latched to something infinite.

What keeps the flotsam of French and English, inner and outer, and subject verb disagreements grounded and satisfying as poetry is simplicity and tenderness despite. Marianne Moore used to say that's what made Gertrude Stein's work more than just an exercise in strangeness. And Byrd delivers plenty of it in either language. In French, she interrupts the cacophony of language in “Poetics” with the line, “les dernières minutes de la vie d'une mouche ordinaire” (“the last minutes of an ordinary fly's life”) (50) signaling mortality and a sad normalcy amid clanging, competing phrases. In “Vibration in the Line” she also uses French to anchor sad surrealism with the sad quotidian. Referring to Rilke, and watching foreign movies for a week, the speaker, one might think, is alienated by the “spreading surrealism” of the films, including “ a hearse…hauled around the Eiffel tower by a camel” (60). But a sense of wholeness or comprehension lies beneath this in the not necessarily understood French line, “Les films étrangers ne sont pas étrangers à cette étrangère,” (“Foreign films are not foreign to this foreigner.”) A line particularly satisfying underneath the overarching discord appears in “Countless Pretenses”: “Contempler enfin le monde dans la douceur des questions répondues” (“To contemplate, finally, the world in the sweetness of answered questions”) (52). The notion of questions being answered given the searching nature of the speaker provides some anchor to the teeming oceanic life around her. While these tender moments are certainly not limited to lines written in French, I focus on them because of their way of interrupting understanding for some, but being the secrets too that inform the speaker's life.

The pleasing combination of seeming artlessness – or, maybe it is quiet – with hurtlingly and disparately textured sentences gives the piece a tenuous sense of balance tonally, much like the speaker has to aggressively maintain a balance in her life between endless motherlove and limitations, separateness and the infinite. Tenderness suffuses all to the end, grounding yet questioning, as in section headings such as “Loud Darkness,”: “Is alienation a defiant freedom?” Somehow, the daughter answers or seems to guard the answer to all these, sometimes for and sometimes from the mother. The cover offers a marvelous juxtaposition of the title Fence Above the Sea: the swarming expressionistic interior scene/portrait of a young girl, maybe twelve, a Klimt entitled, “Mada Primavesi”. The figure's one arm nearly akimbo and the other hidden behind her straight posture and even gaze suggest she, a daughter – or the mother in the past – is the fence above the sea, the mother's creation that keeps her eyes on the border or limit between life and infinite creation, and also holds her from getting too good a look at swarming infinities/falling into the mind's depths.