Everything Broken Up Dances, James Byrne’s third collection of poetry (and the first one published by an American press), opens with the author’s birth, a dislocation magnified by the sudden influx of pop culture: “Star Wars premiered as they cut the exiguous flap of my umbilical.” As the newborn is placed in “the carry-cot of my mother’s arms,” he “cried nothing, confessed nothing”; the poet, however, from a distance, begins to examine the world he’s born into, whose breakage is metaphoric and real:
It was the year of the snake and The Spy Who Loved Me—
the year Zulfiqar Bhutto was ousted by the Bond villain ul-Haq.
The year Steve Biko was clubbed to death in custody.
Into this turbulence, Byrne is born. As the introductory poem ends, he plants the arc of what’s to follow:
Amnesty won the Peace Prize.
The Cold War was inscrutable.
On and on it went.
The flashpoints and obsessions already in place in 1977, in a moment of inscrutable wars and amnesty winning its peace, wait for response.
The juxtaposition of war and world is the glue Byrne uses to connect faction with culture, family, and identity. In “On the Cancellation of the Al-Sendian Festival” (written for Syrian poet Rasha Omran), which takes place at a funeral, there is “the thresh of a sniper/On the mosque scaffold/blurred and wracked/by a prong of stars”:
And the bricked road
and the red road banked
by memorial flowers
And portraits of sons
missing at the funeral
undead at the checkpoint
At the rubbled amphitheatre
where a soldier looks back
from the black canvas
Descending tercets are the suspension holding the accumulation of a broken moment. The later poem “Bilu” takes its name from the Burmese ogre from 2,000 B.C. who has entered, via Byrne’s mythology, the twenty-first century. Bilu tells a group of Western diplomats and company executives how he’s reformed himself, “while—in the East—a boy lights the matchbox of a minefield.” Even poems about New York are strife-ridden, from the examination of Goya on a museum wall in “from The Caprices,” to an homage to poet and veteran Yusef Komunyakaa that plaits Komunyakaa’s lines with Byrne’s (as Byrne, “snagged between two countries,” records footage of Ground Zero).
While many poems have a distinct location—Asia, the Middle East, and Africa—the profiles of people are what mints them. In the poem “Shaqti,” short syllables accrue into muscular lines, such as “Shaqti opens the gold reckoning case of his mouth to knock back coffee.” Shaqti is a living example of the everything that is broken up but still dances, felt in the words themselves: “Who strokes the face of a MISSING poster at Ham-mamkbir and says:/ ‘Look at this boy. He is my son.’”
Even when Byrne’s descriptions are less specific, they are never general. In “The Old Men of Skopje Town,” in the capital of Macedonia (one of the successor states of the former Yugoslavia), the old men appear sequestered, in shadows:
Landlocked, walled in where
the sea cannot settle them—
from lake clouds over Ohrid,
from the black eagle, Shiptar
whispered inside the shadow
of an arc lamp and the crude
standstill of a doorway.
Locked in their own land-box (Macedonia, as a border state to Greece, now refuses a vast influx of Syrian refugees), these men are “plinthed,” as Byrne says, on chairs; they are old stone men of the old town—relics.
Or could it just be the bluster of jingoism
Or might Cicely and I inquire if you are fluent in African
Or when there’s no change from the chameleons we voted in
Or in clean rags for a pail of water
Or because it’s different when the mutilated are Muslims
Or else what kind of sinner are you
The personal ethics of these lines peak in the third section’s “or else what kind of sinner are you,” which (through lack of punctuation) queries, accuses, and identifies with moral ambiguity. Throughout, Byrne stands witness to everyday people and everyday lives absorbed in regional and national wars, overseen by the looming western democracies: “But the gardener knows why the bud’s heart is bloody.”