I confess to being unacquainted with Olivia Byard’s work before I was paired to read with her at last year’s Cheltenham Poetry Festival. We had both just had new books from the always enterprising Worple Press. I read with her again last week at Oxford’s Albion Beatnik Bookshop. I wanted to try to convey something of her methods and concerns in this blog.
In The Wilding Eye, Worple Press have gathered new poems and others selected from Byard’s previous two collections, From a Benediction (Peterloo, 1997) and Strange Horses (Flambard, 2011). Her work ranges from vivid evocations of childhood scenes, to mythic treatments of subterranean psychic hurt, sketches of domestic exchanges, more politically engaged poems and (recently) a more expansive concern with our relationship with nature. Her work is hard to pigeon-hole but acclaim from the likes of Les Murray and Bernard O’Donoghue is well deserved.
Some of those hyper-lit childhood scenes appear in ‘From Benediction’ which is a brilliantly detailed account of a child’s encounters with an eccentric, kindly grandfather. But even though his “disembodied” false teeth are more likely to be caught smiling “in their cut-glass jar”, it does not take a very close read of the poem to sense unease. The child is “trapped outside” her grandfather’s room, yet inside the furniture looms like “black giants” and dolls are trapped in “glass cases”. ‘Without Blessing’ reinforces this sense that all is not well. Why should the two sisters be sleeping in “Aunt Audrey’s bed” at all? Where are the parents? Are they perhaps part of the “razzle dazzle beyond the door”? Why should one sister be happily “abandoned” to sleep while the narrator eyes the mirror, all too awake, eying a “dark opponent” there? All she can think of are “stratagems for escape” yet memory reminds her any attempt at flight is “futile”. When the word “menaced” finally arrives as a way of describing her state of mind it is the wholly appropriate one.
‘Theft’ is more explicit. “Her childhood was thieved”. These were bold poems in 1997, four years before Pascale Petit’s The Zoo Father (Seren). But Byard does not allow herself to be wholly defined by past events. Whatever their source, the wounds send out shock waves that surface variously. Here as a strange fascination with a schoolgirl’s traffic accident, now in the landscape of Lake Huron, now in the way Byard is drawn to characters from Christian myth (Christ, Mary, Mary Magdalene, Lilith, Lazarus) all of whom are co-opted into micro-dramas of pain and survival. Magdalene is just the most obvious example of this with her mouth’s “bruised hole battered / by harsh sounds” and in a second poem the character herself speaks out: “My nature haunts you; it wrecks / your peace”.
Yet Magdalene is partly addressing men (surely the root of disturbance) and what she demands is some self-knowledge, or at least less blindness. She says “Search for where I reside in you”. But the re-making of the masculine ego is not really Byard’s preoccupation in her poems. Instead, there is an internalising of what she calls plainly the “dark side”. ‘Whores in Amsterdam’ is a memorable poem as the female narrator watches the sex workers closely, she imagines their thoughts – then returns the next day to do exactly the same again. Why? Perhaps “to learn the limits of my own dark side”. Or perhaps “to hide”. Many poems from Byard’s second book, Strange Horses, pursue this sense of the dark carried unwillingly, but inevitably within ourselves. ‘Mappa Mundi’ half-mockingly records the strange mythic creatures illustrated on the map but quite seriously concludes with the wish to forget “our roaming monsters”. ‘The Torturer’s Horse’ revisits Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ only to locate the root of worry, blood and unease in “you or me”.
In another ekphrastic piece on Piero di Cosimo’s ‘The Forest Fire’, the beasts fleeing the fire – many of them with human faces – are plainly identified as our own nightmares, briefly dislodged but all too soon returning into the mind’s undergrowth, to lie in wait again, “for the dark dreams to quicken”. And such darknesses can be set loose at the slightest provocation. In ‘At the Kennels’, a casual comment about the dogs is made: “they never really / forget abuse” and a delirious, Plathian, nightmarish torrent of images is released, culminating in “a twitching thing” attached to an ECT machine. In part, it is the presence of, perhaps the responsibility for, the needy creature in the narrator’s arms that steadies the situation on this occasion, enabling a homecoming where, in a more assertive tone, deftly managing the shift from literal to figurative, we are told “I throw open the windows. / Everywhere, I throw open windows”.
Each of Byard’s collections contains cave dwellers. ‘At Ruffignac’ (1997) has the narrator time-transporting to watch the cave painters at their “serious joy”, secluded, secretive, their art a translation or distillation to be held aloof from the outer world. In ‘The Horse at Ystradfellte’ (2011) the outer world is again an almost fairy-tale-like, maze-like rummage and bustle in contrast to the small white horse image, “whole, complete, protected / from marauding eyes” in the cave. Interestingly, in ‘Homo Erectus’ (2015), the bustle of the world is this time presented more satirically through big-bummed, munching cave-men, who seem intent on excluding those who do not fit in. The poem notes the old, the hobbling, the dim, the infertile. And one other outsider: the needlessly observant one who stops, distracted from the merely necessary, to watch a bird, only to be “irredeemably entranced / by breath and song”.
Poets like to dramatise themselves as neglected heroes; we like to believe our ‘useless’ art has its uses. In the unfolding drama of Olivia Byard’s speleological sequence of poems, I can’t help but read the more recent access to light and air, to bird song and branches, as a further metaphorical opening of psychic windows. And it’s not merely in the acquisition of a new household pet that the new poems lean upon the natural world. ‘Inheritance’ lists a plethora of natural details in a celebratory tone as something “not withheld” and nature’s gifts prove a likely “fresh furrow” in ‘Wood’. In ‘The Wilding Eye’ itself, the abandonment of the manicured lawn to unregimented disorder is in part ecological, part psychical as years of trimming, reserve and restriction give way to “great / gulping breaths, of sweet riot / and tangle”.
There is real delight in Byard’s recent poems, all the more powerfully felt for the sense (after DH Lawrence) of ‘Look, we have come through!’ The gifts of nature (and the need to protect them) are foremost in this but ‘Besetting Sins’ (despite its title) also triumphantly expresses a far less corrosive, self-critical assessment of mankind’s – of this particular poet’s – “wonky wings, wrong angles, pratfalls”. We may know happiness begins in forgiving ourselves but it may prove an almighty struggle towards that point at which “it’s time / to turn, be returned” (‘Way Out’).