EILEEN TABIOS Engages
OTHERWISE, MY LIFE IS ORDINARY by Bobby Byrd
(Cinco Puntos Press, El Paso, TX, 2014)
Well. That’s a first. Bobby Byrd’s OTHERWISE, MY LIFE IS ORDINARY presents the first time I feel that a publisher’s cover letter that arrived with the review copy could be part of the book, like a Preface. Yes, because the letter was written by the poet’s son, John Byrd, who happens to work at the publisher Cinco Puntos Press founded by the poet-author. But also because who more than a child might directly might offer expert testimony on whether the parent—the poet in this case—lived well the life from which the poet says his poems sprung? Some excerpts from the cover letter:
“I am happy to be sending you my father’s latest book of poems …”
“…my father, whose life is anything but ordinary…”
“Lucky for us that my father considers writing poetry to be a wonderful occupation…”
“We hope you will love” my father’s poems…
These are statements not to be taken for granted. It’s not guaranteed that a poet’s relatives, even a spouse or a child, would ever come to care about the poet’s work. I take the son John Byrd’s investment in his father’s poems to say something positive about the life lived by his father—the life which also generated the poems. The poet-father notes (in the book’s opening, a poetics essay) his goal of “understanding.” To the extent understanding can affect positively the way a life is lived, the son then offers loving proof that the poet-father succeeded in creating a well-lived life.
Okay. So how are the poems themselves? Here, by sharing a poetics essay, the poet actually defines the standard by which a critic can judge the poems. That is, the poet writes of his interest in “experiences that open up holes of understanding.” Great. Do the poems do that? Indisputably, and often slyly in its stories of seeming mundanity but which are actually the gold of life.
For example, “FOR LOVE ON I-10, WEST TEXAS” describes a van running out of gas and a Sheriff’s deputy and two sidekicks showing up to help. The threesome were “nursing an adrenalin rush” from having just come from an accident scene:
They had just cleaned up a bloody mess on the highway.
An SUV going east, a young couple and their three kids.
The front right tire blew out, the vehicle rolled
It was ugly…
From that incident, the poet observes their helpfulness as
Big smiles all around
They wanted to help somebody.
It’s poignant. The deputy and his assistants couldn’t help the family, could only clean up their “bloody mess.” What then could they do about the “darkness [that] surrounds us. What / can we do against it?”
“Nothing,” the poem goes on to say. But, meanwhile, for the incident where one can do something, where one can resolve, where one can help—offering gas to the occupants of the van that ran out of gas—the threesome “wanted to help somebody. / Anybody.” Italics mine.
Another example is the poem “SUNDAY MORNING” that describes a walking meditation by “two old guys.” They have lived lives different from each other—
The two men are shoeless. The smaller,
the guy in front, is limping because
40 years ago in Vietnam a kid in black pajamas
shot him in the head and almost killed him.
The other guy dodged that war,
lived in the mountains, lived in the city,
wife and three kids, drank a lot,
wrote some poems…
Yet the poem concludes:
One of them is the teacher,
one of them the student. It doesn’t
make much difference which is which.
That lesson should permeate many poetry workshops. But I digress …
When the search is for understanding, the goal is never reached—there’s always more in life to understand! But what can happen is that lessons learned will impact additional experiences. Byrd, the poet, shows a comfort with the search as status quo. But with increased understanding, it seems that the poems forge harmony from the dissonant slices of life. Thus, the poet has lived well when, in his 70s, he can release a poem like “MEMO, #34.” It’s a poem that doesn’t say anything in particular (despite its particulars), but it says it all:
“Getting old is like…
it’s like getting old.”
That’s what I told her.
I guess it follows that death
Will be like death.
But I didn’t say that.
Our dinner was black beans and a salad.
Cornbread baked in a cast-iron skillet with lots of butter:
We split a bottle of red wine from somewhere in Spain.
Now I’ve washed all the dinner dishes.
That’s my job.
And the November moon is almost full.
Eileen Tabios reveals something about herself in ARDUITY'S interview about what's hard about her poetry. Her just-released poetry collection, SUN STIGMATA (Sculpture Poems), received a review by Amazon Hall of Famer reviewer Grady Harp. Due out in 2015 will be her second "Collected Poems" project; while her first THE THORN ROSARY was focused on the prose poem form, her forthcoming INVEN(S)TORY will focus on the list or catalog poem form. More information at http://eileenrtabios.com