Review: So Long the Sky by Mary Kovaleski Byrnes

Mary Kovaleski Byrnes, So Long the Sky, Platypus Press, 2018. ISBN: 978-1-9997736-7-0. £9.00 (including shipping)

 

HOW TO COLLECT COAL FROM A MOVING TRAIN

 

While you wait for the whistle, place a penny

on the track. Count the cars

when they blur by, the coal as it flies

 

out like popcorn. Scramble faster

than the other children—a skirtful can heat

even the flimsiest structure, will make you dream

 

of islands. From the air over Boston, you can almost touch them.

On each descent, I number their backs,

even the rocks jutting high and lonely,

 

wishing again for an era of shipwrecks.

For the fogged-out survivors, those rocks

would have been land enough for a hard-scrabble home.

 

My grandmother made her own rock, her own decades

of lost ships. Slept seven siblings under coats in one bed,

tells me how to collect coal

 

from a moving train, how to replace its dust with rain.

At her sister’s funeral, she shows me how every woman

is a swallowed canary.

 

I forgot this, and the requiem’s chorus,

how the scapular itched my neck,

even the story of the boy who stood too close

 

to the penny when the locomotive made it a flat bullet,

drove it right through him.

From the side of the highway in another country,

 

I watch the jacaranda spew its brilliance: paper-fire floating

in all that hot steel. I have no place

being here—this sudden knowledge

 

twisted copper in my chest. An immigrant man

walks back and forth when the light turns red,

selling packets of tissues.

 

He says, Please, lady, you need these,

             the birds around here

                        make foreigners sneeze.

 

– From So Long the Sky, p.18-19

 

I want to start this review by stating that I come to Mary Kovaleski Byrnes’ wonderful So Long the Sky (Playtpus Press) as a British (white) reader, who has only visited the U.S. twice. It feels important to contextualise my background because there may be allusions, inferences and details that are lost on me. But this admission shouldn’t be mistaken for a sense of feeling lost or less engaged as a reader with any of these wide-ranging poems.

The collection encompasses themes that include immigration, passed-on female experience, family history and place. If anything, coming to these poems as a non-American adds to the tensions of belonging and not-belonging that it explores. I discover Polish history as the narrator does. I find myself in not just American towns but others across the globe with little more, maybe even less, starting knowledge of these places than those in the poems. And this is okay; it’s part of the reading journey, a journey made vivid, gripping and memorable.

Byrnes’ poems in So Long the Sky travel through history, across generations/the globe/poetic form, in understanding and experience. As the title might suggest in a spatial reading of ‘long’, this collection is as expansive and far-reaching as the sky. But ‘long’ also applies as the verb of longing (for belonging/acceptance…), and in the sense of saying farewell (to the things that must be let go because that is how life is or in order to find a sense of peace/belonging/acceptance).

I’ve picked out the poem quoted in full above as a way of demonstrating some of my comments. I’m not going to dissect it line by line, simply say that I chose it because it contains some of the collection’s overarching themes, motifs and techniques. As with other poems, there’s a mix of vivid and precise real description with wonderful jumps of thought and imagination. Images and metaphors often accumulate in a natural, unforced, enhancing way, creating a sense of movement and constant change, as found in the narratives, observations and characterisations themselves. The enjambments and movement across the page reflect the movement found within other poems and the collection as a whole. Metaphorically, the title alone might be read as symbolising the process of piecing together family history, sense of self, societal identity…Taking this a step further, I can also use this poem as a metaphor for how I read the collection – eager for each new image or experience, collecting lines and phrases as I go, the building of depth, richness and emotions with each new layer revealed…

‘How to Collect Coal from a Moving Train’ is representative too in setting nature alongside man’s machinery, evoking the sense of a different world, of child and adult perspectives, and characters that bring a landscape to life. It’s also set in and across time, as with other poems here. Sometimes, time brings the order of historical cause and effect, of the present building on the past. But, often, time is not so neatly linear, with the past very present in the present, jumping from one memory to another completely different point in time. There’s movement, freedom and a patchwork effect in this, which takes me back to the opening poem, ‘Centralia’, which concludes:

‘We could drive to the place where everything started.

It’s ours, after all—

 

this empty time.’

 

-‘Centralia’, p.1

 

Unvoiced, but for me implicit between the lines in this poem and the collection as a whole, is the idea that (‘empty’) landscape and life are ours to fill. Within this, I’m beautifully reminded that migration, and the sense of identity and belonging or not, happens not just across geography but across time. And it applies to us all.

‘Forgive us our forgetting,

forgive me my blonde youth

burning like your yesterdays at the table.

 

Know I will be you some day—

my face will turn

as foreign as a century.’

 

-‘To My Polish Aunts’, p.40

 

Threads of literary, cultural, folklore allusion mingle with the (imagined) lives of saints and angels, or their statues. There are seams of violence within this collection but also resilience. Grounded gritty reality is set alongside imaginative twists. Both are vivid and convincing.

Within the collection’s overall themes, fire and coal are two recurring motifs. Coal is part of the landscape and historical background. Its presence as a shaping force in people’s lives is implicit in many of the poems but explicitly seen as part of the body in ‘Commonwealth’ (p.50):

‘The slag mountain’s rough back
remembered in my anatomy.
Wasn’t it this ruined river that led me
to the sea?’

Coal creates fire, landscapes, occupations and history. Traces of these also inhabit language, and language is part of and helps construct identity, acting as something that’s both very universal and very personal, as in ‘Kowaleski vs.’ (p.51-52), where:

‘… The weight of paper
will outweigh what was known

as truth. Other generations choose

variations on a theme:

Coveleski. Softer with the C,

the added E. Less alien. A weaker knee.

In a phone booth in Warsaw, I learn

it’s Kowalewski,

as common as Smith.

Means: Iron-worker.

No wonder.

Such fire needed

to bend it. Such hot sizzle

in the plunge

into assimilation.

I’m Kowalewska here.

Ends with A for woman.

Alpha. Begin…’

 

This poem gives a flavour of Byrne’s linguistic awareness and playfulness, as well as her striking imagery. Each new description or idea builds on from the preceding lines. It’s hard to quote small sections from this collection in a way that will do justice to the whole, as each part adds context, texture and richness.

Throughout the collection, there’s a sense of history in everything – though the seen and the unseen may tell different stories, as with Warsaw later in ‘Kowaleski vs.’:

‘The old town, a snow-globe,

a souvenir paperweight.

Only the ground, they say, is higher,

so the old is underneath

the broken bricks, the blown-out

glass, the people, their clothes,

and bones,

and teeth,

their occupied tongues,

their emptied ghetto,

their long history of wrongs…’

 

In a similar way, fire flickers and flames through the collection, which opens with the question ‘How does an inferno begin?’ (‘Centralia’, p.1). This poem follows through with descriptions of the town as a funeral pyre, and the land as a wreck. Later, in the erasure poem ‘Centralia Mine Fire Project: History And Recommendations For Control’ (p.73), we’re given:

‘What is a town

worth? Once the fire reaches

the highway, then what?            State

of panic descending.’

 

While fire can be destruction and anger, it’s also about strength and transformation, however difficult. In that opening poem ‘Centralia’ (p.1), we’re reminded:

‘ …And fire
will only travel

where it can breathe…’

In ‘St. Edith of Centralia’ (p.13), we have a woman whose hot pink Aquanet (hairspray) can carries a warning of ‘EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE’. In ‘A Photo of Poland in Pennsylvania’ (p.17), hot air balloons create a ‘sky aflame with patchwork suns’. Meanwhile, love and lust set Paris alight in ‘Maybe This Happens to Everyone’ (p.25-26) where:

‘…We were so young,
our hearts like Molotov cocktails,
like stones through leaded window glass.’

Contrasts are everywhere. ‘Whatever We Name, We Exceed’ (p.104-105) has ‘your darkness is | so bright’ – simultaneously reassuring and unsettling in the choice of line-break. Meanwhile, when the mythic regenerative phoenix is evoked:

‘I call this love. It burns to ash,
and—never bird—returns
to flame.’

The collection closes with ‘Volcano with Child’ (p.106-107), a poem that again sets ‘Luck would have it’ alongside past suffering and bad news that may continue elsewhere:

 

‘I climbed in there once, the sleeping mountain

warm from within and exhaling

through invisible fissures under my sandals.

And the once-buried, now-excavated city,

the blown-out houses and casts of screaming

women, their bodies curled, their mouths

full of ash. All of it ancient

history. So long the sky,

a lemon-washed blue.

No fear, nor empathy,

perhaps a faint hunger

for the sea, a desire to dive

off the prow of a ferry or lip

of a cliff. Get sand in my teeth.

Remember the untethered

freedom of this? The privilege…

 

…I’m walking home, son running ahead,

and nothing to fear: cars all parked,

his hair a spark, a flame, and he’s going up the walk now,

to a house that’s gray, and settled, and waiting

for us all to return with our noise and need,

like homes everywhere hope to do.’

I’ve already mentioned townscapes alongside nature, the personal, global and universal intermingled. Reading this collection, I come away with an increased awareness of how everything is connected, with even opposites brought together. Like yin and yang, the volcano in this poem gives way to a longing for the sea. Water, ocean and snow imagery flow through the collection, not just in contrast to fire but also like it. The various forms of water reinforce my sense of the elemental, of shape-shifting, flux and transformation. Again, this inevitably includes movement, and journey.

Journeys of self-discovery, belonging and uncovering family history are long ones, collection-long and maybe beyond. But the insights and wisdoms gained in the process can also include humour and lightness, softness and eventual acceptance, as well as acknowledgements of lack or loss. In ‘For Work’ (p.35-37):

‘In Moscow, I am asked to state my intentions.

The immigration officer’s voice so Boris-and-Natasha,

I want her to say

moose and squirrel, moose and squirrel, is always

moose and squirrel. Not a chance—

her disdain for me warranted. I don’t know anything—

my knowledge of this country: Saturday morning

cartoons, passed-down grudges,

and a typography of snow. I’m here
for work,
I say…

 

In Moscow I ask

hundreds of students to state their intentions.

Why do you want to work in the United States?

Why will you be a good dishwasher?

I don’t know anything

about dishwashing…’

 

The narrator is asked by her grandmother why she wanted to go back there (after all that generation did to escape). No direct answer is given, instead a series of observations on the narrator’s own journey, concluding:

 

‘Your granddaughter, the first one

to get the resonant stamp IN without trying, shoves that blue

passport privilege in her back pocket, walks through

the narrow gate, not knowing what to expect on the other side,

feeling not fear but wonder, and the air so cold in her nose—

it stings her eyes, makes them tear.’

 

The mixture of lightness and sadness feel right together in this poem, as elsewhere. Threads link within poems and across the collection, but they’re always accompanied by surprises that have earned their place. Whether it’s a turn in language, narrative, metaphor or imagery that takes my breath or makes me pause for thought, every line-end is an edge that I want to cross to discover what comes next.

Inevitably, there’s a lot that I’ve left out in this review, both because this very re-readable collection covers so much and because my summing up could never even come close to the richness, depth and beauty of the poetry. I’ve mostly analysed some themes and techniques here intellectually. But that’s not to overlook the importance of these in creating and reinforcing the poems’ emotional and experiential impact. So Long the Sky is a striking, thought-provoking and moving collection, but the best way to truly know and feel that is through reading the poems themselves. Hopefully, the small selection included here gives a taste of this, a taste that will entice readers to get the collection and find even more to explore, savour and admire.

 

S. A. Leavesley


 

You can buy So Long the Sky here.

 

S. A. Leavesley (she/her) is a prize-winning poet, fiction writer, journalist and photographer, who fits life around words and words around life. Author of four poetry collections, two pamphlets, a touring poetry-play and two novellas, she was also longlisted for the New Welsh Writing Awards memoir prize in 2017 and the essay collection prize in 2018. Overton Poetry Prize winner 2015, her poems have been published by the Financial Times, the GuardianThe Forward Book of Poetry 2016, on Worcestershire buses and in the Blackpool Illuminations, while her flash fiction publications include a Best Small Fictions nomination. An avid reader and editor, she runs V. Press poetry and flash fiction imprint. Latest poetry books: How to Grow Matches (Against The Grain Press, 2018) and plenty-fish (Nine Arches Press, 2015). Novellas: Kaleidoscope and Always Another Twist (Mantle Lane Press, 2017/2018).

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