Fence Above the Sea
The speaker of Brigitte Byrd’s debut volume pivots in the roles of mourning daughter, affectionate mother, and poet whose attention to the sensory and sensual world never falters. In language both musical and linguistically playful, Byrd revivifies the form of unlineated lyric that in her hands reminds us of its French forebears and could never be termed prosaic. These poems haunt, ache, and celebrate by turns, and always they sing.
“Her poems are like the best music: as intimate as a lover’s body, as startling and fulfilling as a dream.” —David Kirby
“The prose poems of Brigitte Byrd are a hymn to the everyday, but a hymn based on the contingencies of language. The six series in Fence Above the Sea are homage to poets and thinkers including Rilke, Cixous, Char, Artaud, and Radiohead, among others. She is a wise, ebullient poet whose prose poems are mosaics of humor and loss, a playful requiem for life as it is in this dangerous new century.” —Maxine Chernoff
“[Byrd’s] simplicity disarms us, as though we always mistook for difficulty our own acquisitiveness, sought more where lack itself was missing. I know of few books that undergo their words as utterly. Fence Above the Sea is a primer of presentness, that unimaginable task, this being here now.” —R.M. Berry
Overlooking the River
What is really important she thinks when she walks through a crossroad and her hipbone sets her on
the edge like a door. If there is chocolate powder why do they eat oatmeal. She calls an old friend when
the future scares them stiff from a desk. When she opens a bead curtain the daughter tells her of horses
and she says the cat likes this electric guitar. There is news from Australia and there is always a risk in
netting Western dollars. That her world fits in a notebook carries a strange fragrance when she wants to
escape to a forest. Simply put I saw your love stream flow. Where are the violins in this prime vantage
point. She likes the zephyr song in a perfect weather and wo-wo-wo-wo-wo-wo-wo-won't you. The
daughter wants to be an ambassador and there is a form to sign.
“Byrd brilliantly portrays the artist seeking out memory and making a language of it, making a pattern and narrative of the mind’s accumulations.” —from the review by Alexis Smith in Tarpaulin Sky. (Read the entire review here.)
“Today it often seems that a poem is a poem is a poem. Not so this haunting and hypnotic paean to loss, displacement, and the journey to self . . . . this poet’s rhythms and use of repetition echo the seminal language work of Gertrude Stein, as well as James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness monologues.” —from the review by Erica Wright in ForeWord. (Read the entire review here.)
“In fact, it is because of their resistance to conclusions, finally, that the prose poems especially do so well. . . . Byrd’s prose poems instruct the reader how to read them: not far into the book, we realize that her sentences challenge the logic of the sentence as a unit of speech. For instance, the first poem of the collection begins with the lines, ‘The father is a breath. This is not a mistake it is.’ The second sentence here seems to contain in one unit a statement and a refutation of the statement. In ‘(Cassis),’ logical statements beginning with ‘if’ are not proceeded by ‘then’ and questions do not end in question marks: ‘If I dance are you dancing. Je ne veux pas dormir. If there is a ritual is this a tongue clicking. J’ai peur de tomber dans les vaps. Is this performance when his chest fills with requiem is this body art. There is always a sister in the train.’ Byrd is not trying to create a chaos or to disorient the reader. And while the first section of her book is especially reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and To the Lighthouse, this is not so much because she is trying to emulate the internality or the unconscious but because she focuses on moments and attempts declarative statements, as well as the emergence and repetition of images in the middle of flux. There the reader can take pleasure in the loss of gravity that Byrd creates and sustains through the careful negotiation of the lyric speaker and form.”—from the review by J’Lyn Chapman in Denver Quarterly. (Read the entire review here.)
“[Byrd’s] sentences themselves are written in a continuous present, reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, furthering the act of a transmutable discovery. ‘Comparative obscurity’ begins:
A dark day it is and it is in bed. An empty house is often a full heart when colors have left the rooms. This is what you get when the only brightness is a yellow shade. There is no one to let her in. I might be wrong. It is not uncommon that both breasts feel different. Silver is the color of water in the rain on the roofs. The only time a branch falls in my path is when the wind blows. I used to think. If there is estrangement what is the difference between speaking to the dead and speaking to the living. (16)
There is a particular logic found here that is at once playful and at once breathtakingly startling. All is new in Byrd’s language. All is up for grabs: imagery, metaphor, even meaning for “She says she read all night when she opens her eyes filled with meteors” (29). Here, the body acts as vehicle in this ravished realization that out of the vast nothingness of death—the literal death of the poet’s father and the metaphorical death of meaning—there is very real possibility. The language pushes this revelation, not to a fixed meaning, but to its own pulsing reality. —from the review by Carrie Bennett in Chattahoochee Review, Winter-Spring 2006.
A native Parisian, I soon moved to the small town of Montbron, Charentes, which is situated in the Southwest of France, and lived an idyllic childhood under the care of my maternal grandparents, as my mother had emigrated to America and my father had stayed in Paris. I grew up as the youngest member of a very bourgeois industrialist family constituted of my grandparents and my mother’s three younger siblings. I had a dog, Camille, named after my favorite heroine of Les Petites Filles Modèles by la Comtesse de Ségur (this is an important detail as I also named my daughter Camille, after both of them). I did not attend school until I was six, so until then I spent my days riding my bicycle, hiding in the attic amongst its treasures (one of them being my mother’s wedding gown) or in the garden tasting plants (my favorite was sorrel), climbing trees, swimming in the Tardoire River which surrounded Moulin Neuf, my grandparents’ place, and waiting for my grandfather to read me a new story each night (he really read me a new story each night). Every summer, the entire household moved to the Atlantic coast for two months.
My grandfather died when I was eight, and I went back to Paris to live with my father and his new wife. Both of them worked, so I spent much time at school, attending after-school programs and camps. I loved this school, which was a Catholic private institution named Ste Elizabeth. There, I took piano and dance lessons. I also enrolled in the drama club. I also competed on the athletic team. I went to winter school for a month in the Alps where we studied in the morning and skied in the afternoon. I received a great extensive education there, which compensated for the diffi culty I had at home with my authoritarian father. I also had a dog, Nouchka, who accompanied me in my multiple expeditions in nearby neighborhoods. We spent each week-end at my father’s countryside house in Soulaires, a hamlet in the heart of the flat region of the Beauce, near Chartres, which did not measure up to my memories of the hilly countryside of Charentes. I started to develop a passion for dance, and my father, fearing for my education, steered me toward horse riding instead. I developed a new passion for horse riding and rode in Paris, Soulaires, and over the summer while at my grandmother’s beach house. While living with my father, I cherished the time I spent in Normandy at my paternal grandparents’ for two reasons. My grandmother, whose name is Madeleine, baked the best madeleines (see Proust) ever and although from a bourgeois background had this weird passion for farm animals (she had rabbits and sheep) and bees, and my grandfather introduced me to J.S. Bach, opera, anthropology, and astrology.
I ran away from my father’s home at fifteen and went back to my maternal grandmother who, by then, had moved to Angoulême, a city built on ramparts and famous for Marguerite de Valois, Honoré de Balzac, and François Mitterand. Actually, I attended Mitterand’s old college, St. Paul, and took a Baccalauréat in Science. My interest in academics vanished in favor of a turbulent nightlife. Still, at 19, I enrolled in medical school in Poitiers. I must say that my choice had more to do with the proximity of the medical school to the apartment I had just found than with a passion for medicine. Needless to say, I failed the first year and did the next easiest thing, which was to marry my boyfriend and move back with him to Cognac where his family owned vineyards and a distillery. My father’s father died. I took up dance again. Bored to tears, I divorced and moved again to Paris at 23.
I finally worked for the Socialist Party representatives of the Parisian region schools then moved on as a contractual assistant to the Small Businesses Secretary of State. There is a strong Socialist undercurrent
pull in my family. I also started a lifelong relationship with the works of Marguerite Duras and Milan Kundera. I think they are my literary parents, and I even get frustrated with Kundera for being such a man! I took dance lessons all along, and when the left collapsed, I decided to audition and got a job in a small French dance company. I toured in Japan, Hong Kong and Eastern Europe and loved it, but I was already 28 and there was no future for me in dance. I thought I had to know my mother.
I moved to Hawaii in 1988, where my mother lived, and what was supposed to be a short three-month long visit ended up in a year-long stay. Let me say here that I was not fluent in English yet. I applied for a green card, got it, and worked as a server in a French restaurant while learning how to surf and to speak English. I still remember the day I finally got a joke on my own. And then I met my daughter’s father, married him, went back to France for six months and moved with him to Mississippi where his family lived. We stayed in Greenwood, Mississippi, for two long years, had Camille, my daughter, and moved to the nearest ocean, the Gulf of Mexico. That’s how I ended up in Northern Florida.
After realizing that Camille’s father had insurmountable problems with substance abuse, I had to divorce him. It was a last resort decision. I found myself in a foreign country (not yet an American citizen) with a beautiful child but without money. Thanks to a great therapist, I went back to school and shortly after became an American citizen. Why didn’t I go back to France? Why didn’t I ask for help to my family? These are questions I still ponder. My grandmother died a few months before I divorced. Is this a response?
I received a BA in English from the University of West Florida in 1997, a MA in English with emphasis in Creative Writing from the University of West Florida in 1999, and a PhD in English/Creative Writing from Florida State University in 2003. I had to become fluent in English, so I gave up my French culture from 1995 until 1999, when I knew I was fluent. I am still trying to catch up with my native culture. I speak French with an English accent, and I speak English with a French accent. Translations drive me crazy, but I keep trying. Actually, I am working on translating a French poet, Jean-Yves Masson, into English, and I am translating, intermittently, S. E. Gontarski’s work on Beckett into French. I love Jean-luc Godard’s cinéma. Thanks to my grandmother, I soon became a movie buff, sat entire afternoons in movie theaters watching epic movies such as Arianne Mnouchkine’s Molière, for instance. My daughter loves movies too. She and I go back to France every other year, sometimes each year, since 1999. She rides horses. She does not dance. I do neither. We have two cats. My father died in 2002, and I wrote Fence above the Sea, like that, like an obsession. At the moment, I teach creative writing courses in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry at Florida State University as a Visiting Instructor of English. The poet Cynie Cory lives with us and does the same thing. We both are on the job market and keep wondering where all this is going.
Fence Above the Sea is a collection of prose poems written in sequences. Writing in the line of Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, and Lyn Hejinian, I experiment with language and challenge its conventions.
While Dickinson writes about “the landscape of the soul,” I write about the landscape of the mind. While she appropriates and juxtaposes words in a strange fashion, I juxtapose fragments of sentences in a strange fashion. While she uses dashes to display silence, I discard punctuation, which is disruptive and limits the reader to a set reading of the sentence. Except for the period.
Stein’s writing is the epitome of Schklovsky’s concept of ostranenie (defamiliarization). Like her poems in Tender Buttons, my poems present a multiple perspective. On the moment. Like Stein, I write dialogical poems where there is a dialogue among words and between words and their meanings. Also, I expect a dialogue between words and readers, author and readers, text and readers. My prose poems focus on sentences “with a balance of their own . . . the balance of space completely not filled but created by something moving as moving is not as moving should be” (Stein, “Poetry and Grammar”). Repetition is essential in everyday life, to the thought process, and thus in this collection.
Like Stein, language poets embrace ostranenie, and the results are flatness of tone, experimentation with syntax, and decontextualization of words. I work within the same parameters. Also, I am making a political statement by asking the reader to be active and react to the text instead of providing a poetry that is made a commodity for consumption. I particularly agree with Hejinian’s aesthetics and poetics: “the ‘open text’ often emphasizes or foregrounds process . . . and thus resists the cultural tendencies that seek to identify and fix material and turn it into a product” (Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry). Each poem from Fence Above the Sea is an experiment with the thought that each sentence is a story and that a poem is an open text which is the mind.