Thursday, February 11, 2010

. . . the color of the stone

. . . against the color of the sky.

State House Calendar
Mairéad Byrne

(Dusie Kollektiv: 2010)

Mairéad Byrne’s State House Calendar is one of 49 chapbooks, each its own pdf file, posted about two weeks ago on the web as Dusie 9. These 49, the third big batch of “Dusie Kollektiv” e-chaps posted since 2006, were published mostly in 2009 ( a few in 2008), and it’s great to have them up, out and available to all with internet access.

I stress the up, out and available part because before they were posted as pdfs it was very, very hard to get your hands on this poetry. The chaps exist as physical books, handmade by Dusie Kollektiv (their spelling) members (somebody different makes each title). However, only 50 or 100 copies of each chap are typically made. Copies are distributed to kollectiv members, with any extras retained by the particular publisher (the person who made them) and/or the poet. As such, general sales are very limited. So the web posting pf these books, which much have involved much work by Dusie Kollektiv editor Susana Gardner, is much appreciated.

Of the new Dusie e-chaps, State House Calendar is the one I’ve so far most often re-opened and re-read. I’ve also printed out a copy to read around the house or while commuting on BART (nope, I don’t carry a laptop or other mobile wireless internet device). There are 29 total pages, including the cover, preface, and colophon. Thirteen pages contain a month of the calendar (September 2009 through September 2010), and an equal number have a poem. Each poem corresponds to a month (e.g., “State House, September” is the first). The hard copy was bound at the top by two rings, calendar (natch) style. Here’s a small shot of the hard-copy, swiped from GoodReads:

Byrne explains the basics of the poetry in State House Calendar – its genesis and method – in a short prefatory note. Here’s the first of five paragraphs:

Byrne’s explanation makes clear that State House Calendar is a kind of list poem, that most ancient and adaptable of poetic forms. Larry Fagin, of course, wrote the book on these – The List Poem: A Guide to Teaching & Writing Catalog Verse (Teachers & Writers, 1991). Among dozens of other observations therein, Fagin reminds that “lists are the stuff of everyday life” and that lists and poetry have gone together since day one, including Homer, the Bible, Ovid, and plenty others since.

State House Calendar is also a kind of procedural poem: every day she was in town (she went away for part of one month), Byrne would write down a line (maybe more) about “the color of the stone against the color of the sky” when first seeing the building and background that is her subject. Now, there are plenty of photography projects that take a similar approach, from high art (e.g., Nicholas Nixon’s The Brown Sisters, thirty-five years and counting worth of annual portraits of four siblings), to the very common (any number of YouTube “photo every day” projects). There’s even a movie project (the Up Series) that takes the approach of periodically re-visiting and recording the same subjects.

But I don’t know about poems that use this approach. Are there other poems that had the recording a particular matter day after day as their sole purpose? I can’t think of one. Am I missing something, or is State House Calendar, in its procedure – poems made from the daily recordings of a particular view – without precedent?

The Rhode Island State House
Providence, Rhode Island

Byrnes’ poems excite me regardless of whether they are one of a kind or one of many. I like these poems, a lot, first because who – at least among us who schlep to work each day along the same route – hasn’t been struck by seeing the same dang thing every morning and noticing how it looks the same as, or a bit different from, the day before. We all see these things, even if the experiences, in the grand flow of life, register only slightly in our consciousness. I like that Byrne takes this most human of experiences as the starting point of her poem.

Even more, I got excited that for Byrne (and her daughters who, per the preface, were sometimes were with her and who sometimes took notes what she saw), each daily encounter with the State House was, as she writes in the preface, “a moment of great attention . . . .” Let me, please, repeat that:
“[A] moment of great attention . . . .”
You better believe I stood up and shouted “HELL YES!” when I read that. I love poets who in effect decontextualize Arthur Miller’s classic Death of a Salesman line – “Attention must be paid” – and transform it into a motto for engagement with the world. I love those who live in, or even exploit, the locked in, super-focused perspective.

Another “HELL YES!” bellowed through my head when I read, also in Byrne’s preface, that during these moments of great attention she was “intent on color” and subsquently discovered, after taking photographs that showed little of what she’d put into her poem, that she had been “able to handle light better with words than with a camera.” Let me repeat the core of that last statement:
“[H]andle light better with words than with a camera.”
How’s that for a twist on the ol’ canard? Look, I like photographs as much as anyone, but generally speaking, find the cliched equivalency of one picture for a thousand words extremely disturbing. I like the idea of words, formed in imaginative emulsion, trumping the mechanical eye of the camera. Maybe that explains why the ratio of poetry books to photography monographs in my collection is – you do see this coming, right? – roughly a thousand to one.

More important here, though, is a principle implicit in Byrne’s comments about being intent on color and handling the light. I’ve been reading Frank Samperi lately, and in his long series of poems collectively titled “Triune” there’s a line that I think says it all: “Mind the light.” May I also, for emphasis, repeat that?
“Mind the light”
Samperi’s suggestion could – should – support all sorts of wondrous poetry, and I think State House Calendar is a great example of what can come about. Day after day, for about a year, Byrne went out and took a look at one particular place, with “mind the light” as her credo. And what do you know: State House Calendar is one de-light-ful poem-project.


State House Calendar’s thirteen poems (one for each of the thirteen months of Byrne’s project) have a total of 370 lines. All poems except the one for the month in which she was in part away have the same number of lines as days in the month which serves as the poem title.

Each line represents the written record of a particular observation. A few lines lines are but three words, most are four, five, or six, and the longest has eight. Byrne’s takes are concise. All lines are unpunctuated, and have the same basic grammatical structure: a noun or adjective-noun combination, a preposition, and then another noun or adjective-noun combination.

The particular wonder of Byrne’s chap lies first in the variety of what’s reported line-to-line, observation-to-observation. There’s quite an array, and its fun to read, even if such variation must be expected. Over the course of a year, and even day-to-day, there can be considerable change in the weather and/or angle and amount of light. And the same is true – truer, maybe – with regard to the filter of one’s own perceptions. Heraclitus neatly tied this all together about 2500 years ago when he said, “You cannot step into the same river twice, for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.”

But the real wonder of State House Calendar is how Byrne varies “how” she tells what she sees. This of course is what gives the poem its poetry, what makes it something more than a “mere” list of the colors of the stone and sky or a simple catalog of what the light looked like. As Larry Fagin puts it, “[s]urprise in the sequence – a poetic bump in the road – is often desirable.” The particular fun in Byrne’s work is how, within the very short and grammatically simple (and thus language-limited) line structure, she keeps things fresh (while nevertheless also showing, and honestly, that sometimes the day-to-day changes can be quite subtle).

Byrne’s sometimes presents “the color of the stone against the color of the sky” in the most minimal way imaginable, using basic colors or very literal nouns. These are effective, to-the-point depictions, language equivalents of (to stretch a bit here) something like Agnes Martin’s art. Consider the following (these lines, as with all excerpts below, are pulled from the poems as a whole, as examples of the approach being discussed):
ivory on blue-grey

pink against purple

white on grey

marble against fog

“white on grey”


Most of the depictions in Byrne’s poems, however, even if as concise as the examples above, or longer by just a word or three, are far more evocative than the minimalist type lines. It must have been interesting and a challenge to write, line after line (day after day), an observation of color and light that is unexpected, that might jolt the imagination, but still be true to what was seen.

I’ll tell you this: as I started to read the State House Calendar poems, I didn’t foresee hardly any of the things I came upon. Byrne does surprise. Plus, these richer depictions still correspond to color and light, but do so more allusively, and sometimes seem charged with reverie, all the while not varying from the grammatical structure and concision common to all the poem’s lines. These “moment[s] of great attention” rendered in words are especially effective, and themselves create, on the page and in readers’ minds, moments of great attention:
dead tooth against factory smoke

conch against inky sea

lemon-tea stain against cracked cup

worn dime against storm clouds

blueberry in milk

bone against bruised vein

orange ice against faded denim

mouse fur against glass
Aren’t those something? The last of the bunch – “mouse fur against glass” – is actually an example of a subset that can be culled from among the many particularly evocative lines. I characterize the lines of this subset, broadly, as “marvelously oddball.” They might cause you to cock your head, as in “let me think about that.” A few might even make you laugh, or cause a grimace as when coming across something slightly gross. In these lines, the unexpected has an extra kick:
sandwich in church buffet

stale oatmeal against gruel

hiccup against grand plan

smegma against lint

arthritis against glaucoma

cucumber slice against Himalayan peak
Now that last line is super-special, I think. The building, I imagine, must have been slick that morning, maybe wet with dew, glistening in the morning air. And the sky that day, well the sky must have been enormous. ENORMOUS. And jagged, snow-capped, and traversed by teams of well-equipped climbers escorted by shaggy yaks and unflappable sherpa. See what I mean? Byrne’s lines make you see!

The “arthritis against glaucoma” line is pretty special as well. The color of the sky, paradoxically given the noun used, is clear enough: I imagine a hazy whitish-grey. Arthritis, in turn, suggests the color of the stone as bone, but stiff, swollen, slow. Does it surprise you that it shows up in September, when hot late summer days abound?


Another type of line Byrne’s poems – and the final group I’ll discuss here – are hardly literal at all. These lines, with regard to the State House and its backdrop, the color of the stone and the color of the sky – are mostly or even entirely abstract. And yet, somewhere, somehow, they still convey the particular presence of light:
blur against comprehension

presence against white noise

endurance against onslaught

resignation against saturation
Of these, I’m especially enamored with “white noise,” the second half of the second line, in that it half-suggests synaesthesia, the experiencing of color in sound.


Readers of the glade, the 22 lines I’ve used as examples in this post amount to only six percent of the 370 lines in State House Calendar. There are almost 350 additional examples just waiting to be read. For free. Click here, and go, courtesy of Dusie and Byrne. Read the poem-months all at once or take it slow, a month at a time, turning the pages as the year ahead of us unfurls. Either way, or any way, I recommend the trip, and highly. The color of the stone against the color of the sky: a daily practice of poetry, the slow accretion of closely observed color and light translated into words, now calendared and available to all.


State House Calendar
Mairéad Byrne

(Dusie Kollektiv: 2010)

Mairéad Byrne

The Rhode Island State House
Providence, Rhode Island



Conrad DiDiodato said...

Firstly, thanks for giving the e-chaps the respect they deserve: first rate poetry (probably the best)seem to reside in Dusie 9's the world over. You are my kind of archivist, Steven!

Secondly, Mairéad Byrne's list poetry is as you say...deliciously sensuously 'oddball'.I like poetry as fifty ways to leave your lover. Repetition and difference both.

Ed Baker said...

I can really identify with this book as
for about 9 months working construction I used to at about sun-up drive down North Capitol Street and would every morning oogle the Capitol (building) of the U.S.A....

a very similar structure

then her koan-ish (zen-ish) connections

as you say expansives-in-mind

you got to know a lot to be this reductive/explicit..

now to a read of..



neat the connection to Frank Samperi..

an under-read poet.

Steven Fama said...

Thanks Conrad, and Ed, for the comments, and the appreciation of Bryne's chapbook.

And Ed, extra special credit for noticing the Frank Samperi. I give all credit to Joseph Massey here, for it was through him that I came to Samperi. Massey has a poem titled "After Frank Samperi" in his Areas of Fog (2009), that piqued my interest, and then he made a few comments subsequently in e-mails and I think Joe also talked a bit about Samperi in the one talk I've had with him, in October 2009. I think you are correct, that Samperi is too little read these days.

John Olson said...

I positively love the sentence "I like the idea of words, formed in imaginative emulsion, trumping the mechanical eye of the camera." For years, my dad tried getting me interested in the camera. He was a purist. Developed all his own pictures. I got to love the smell of his darkroom, the soft red glow, the potent chemicals, smell, in particular, of "the developer," a term which I still love. But for the life of me, a photograph, however well taken, always disappoints, never captures the experience of the moment. Words do. Byrne is the Doisneau of stone.

Steven Fama said...

That's a beautiful comment, John Olson, and thank you.

And you know, I need to give credit to you, and I apologize that it is belated, for whatever beauty that there is in the sentence that you so kindly praise.

Late last night and early this a.m., I looked through my 100 plus pages of typewritten notes, that I've compiled over the years while reading your poems and other writings. You've opened a lot of windows in my mind, taught me a lot, about poetry, language, and photography.

There's your (I think unpublished) statement about what you call "Messays" [yr term for the essay that gets a bit more free than most usually do], in which you state:

Poetry, like photography, is a form of writing with light.

Then there's the narrator in your novel Souls of Wind, who tells us:

Words emerged, as if from a photographic emulsion, and wobbled, floated, and drifted through his mind.

And then there's the final poem in your Oxbow Kazoo collection. The poem's titled "Writing in Light" and it's a beautiful consideration of photography and poetry, nuanced and thought-provoking.

Finally here, how interesting to read about you having the darkroom and all in your home, and your father's passion for it, growing up!

And I loved the thought of Byrne as a Doisneau!