The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven, a new release from Publishing Genius, is a collection of poems compiled from Mairéad Byrne’s blog, Heaven. The collection is ordered into thirteen parts and there’s a sense of slow build-up, of climb, climax, and linger.
The opening sections “Calendar” and “Everyday Lunacy” are whimsical and provocative, flirt with the reader. There’s a shift in tone and emotion once we arrive at the third section “Found.” I sat straighter in my chair, fully engaged. Each line from the second poem, “To Skin a Muskrat,” vibrates and the last line hums: “This is nothing like writing poetry.” Overall, the writing throughout “Found” is visceral, exact, and mesmerizing.
The sections “Interviews” and “Numbers” return us to a sense of playfulness, yet for the most part remain thought-provoking and moving:
HAPPINESS LEVELS 1994-2004
THE MIDDLEI’ve got to the middle
I didn’t get killed
I didn’t kill myself
The section “War” begins with the haunting prose poem “Baghdad.” To my great surprise, from the very first line, I realized that I had met Mairéad Byrne several years ago at a reading in Dublin. There, I had the honor of hearing Byrne perform “Baghdad” and other poems. Byrne’s vibrant, lyrical voice, the relentless pelt of “Baghdad, Baghdad, Baghdad” has stayed with me all this time, as any writing about war should—any worthwhile writing period. The work in “War” is startling and skillful, and left me rightly unsettled and a little stunned:
XXXXXXBECAUSE YOU SAW ME
XXXXXTHE SHINING CHILDXXXXX
XXXXXXXXXXDRAGGED FROM ME
XXXXXXYOU WOULD HAVEXXXXX
XXXSTAYED WITH USXXXXXXXXX
XXXXXXXXXBUT NOT SOXXXXXXX
I also enjoyed the stirring section “Family”:
I’m a miserable person:
What have I in life
but my two daughters,
Come into my house.
I do not want it anymore.
On the yellow bus with the children—
in their seat belts of shout.
From the section titled “Poetry”:
how long does it take to write a poem?
time stands still
The sections “Providence,” and “Dedications” deliver further keen, compassionate, and shocking observations and moments.
“Family,” “Instructions,” and “Everything is Unlikely” tie with “War” as my four favorite sections. Just as we eased into this collection, the tiny section “Everything Else” gently takes us out—a loved one leaving, the sun going down.
I saw so much of myself, of my Irishness, in these poems and white spaces. While there are few surface references to Ireland, she permeates everything. I recognized the Irish obsession with the weather and place, with routine and everydayness. I saw how we use humor as salve, deflector, and to save our sanity. I also witnessed our psychic scars from colonization, brutality, and patriarchy. Our great joy and searing sadness. Strength. Courage. Imagination. Uniqueness.
I heard our gift of the gab and our stubborn silence. Above all, I heard echoes of the great Irish writers that have gone before us and that remain among us. Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien, and Eavan Boland are just three that will buy Mairéad Byrne a pint in heaven. And if anyone points out that Eavan Boland isn’t in heaven yet, then you haven’t read HEAVEN from this collection. But you should. You should read this collection in its entirety. Then reread it.
I do wonder at the order here. I worry that its initial whimsy and obliqueness might lose readers. More, some of the poems read like lists and scraps, and I found myself glossing over them. Overall, though, it’s an order and a collection that works, and works well.
I remember shaking Mairéad Byrne’s hand that long-ago night in a dim pub in Dublin. I also felt her hand come out through these pages and touch me again. Byrne boasts a down-to-earth voice and style that are devoid of intonation and affectation. There are eight words of Gaeilge in this collection that translate to “an educated heart.” Mairéad Byrne’s generous, educated heart sings from these poems and white open spaces.