Salamander 2024 Fiction Contest

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Admit Everything: Everything Broken Up Dances by James Byrne (Tupelo Press, 2015); Admit One: An American Scrapbook by Martha Collins (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016)

Valerie Duff-Strautmann
| Reviews

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.

In Byrne’s anaphoric title poem “Everything Broken Up Dances,” it is hard not to hear an echo, intentional or not, of Allen Ginsberg (there are certainly lines of Byrne’s that Ginsberg might have gravitated toward, for example: “When the president waves a tar baby in the air/….When they load up a shopping basket and call it democracy.”) But where Ginsberg often blew his lines out into the sociopolitical forum of the American beat experience, Byrne’s fragmented lines are less a quarrel with than an exposure of the unique politics of his life history, a world confession of racism, imperialism, and patriarchy bound up in a similar rhythmic clamor:

    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.”

Valerie Duff-Strautmann is the author of To the New World (Salmon Poetry). Recent poems have appeared in Solstice, Prague Review, and The Common. Her books reviews have been published widely and she was the 2015 Writers’ Room of Boston Fellow in poetry.

Prayer for Something Like a Home
Self-Portraiture, Family History, and the Lyric: One Hundred Hungers by Lauren Camp (Tupelo Press, 2016) and Weston’s Unsent Letters to Modotti by Chad Parmenter (Tupelo Press, 2015)