In So Long the Sky (Platypus Press, 2018), Mary Kovaleski Byrnes facilitates the journey between outsider and what it takes to make a life in a new place, as seen through the embodiment and personas of Russian and Polish immigrants. What does it mean to truly belong somewhere?
It might begin with a fresh start as a fiery inferno wipes away yesterdays in the poem “Centralia.” Of course it is apropos that this collection begins with violence and heat and results in ash. Any new industry and beginning is often built on what came before or the backs of others. A fire can subsume more than architecture and lives. It can become what a place is remembered for. Byrnes writes, “This town is a funeral pyre.” Byrnes proves that yes, a town, a place, can die a horrible death.
When an entire town dies, the people have to move somewhere else. These poems showcase the movement, the idea that “the only way out is through,” and maybe a new life is created but is often much different than what people envisioned.
One of the first main ideas surrounding an immigrant is language. What is a “mother tongue” vs. a language someone must learn in order to fit in and adapt and use to survive in a new country? In the poem “Whistling Language,” there is such a sense of loss. Is every new word spoken in broken English a little death? Perhaps. Is it a betrayal to a homeland? Maybe. But a necessity to try and fit in, to pass. Byrnes perfectly captures what it is like to learn a new language, depicting tired parents and curious strong-willed children. There is a home in the suburbs where the children fill a “belly full of television.” As overheard in documented stories of immigrants, people have learned English from watching American television. This poem is filled with grammar and accents and liveliness. The people are grounded and confident because they have one another. They learn to soar across a childhood home “only to land once more.”
Where do we land? There is still a sense of danger, and Byrnes is quick to write in a poem, “Don’t stick around for the bulldozer coming over the hill.” A metaphorical or real bulldozer can quickly destroy a home in seconds. There are so many metaphorical bulldozers: disease, death, prison, unemployment, crime – the list is long.
Whereas often we feel safe in our homes, or possess the illusion of safety, the idea of leaving the house and confronting a new language, new customs, new bureaucracy is terrifying. Especially in this age of Trump who wants to build a wall to keep out a kind of imagined “Other.” What do we sign our name to when we move to a new country in hopes of starting over? In “X, 1926,” Byrnes writes, “She hands over the pen. He leaves an X.”
This isn’t just about not knowing how to spell one’s name in a new language – it’s about a power dynamic. Not knowing the language and government and customs of a place leaves one vulnerable. Someone might take advantage. Byrnes captures this power dynamic more than once in her collection. She writes about coal miners in Pennsylvania but also about reading Russian novels at the mall. We are all outsiders. The sense of place is vast but she captures an intimacy in each speaker.
Byrnes also discusses the conspicuous consumerism that is so often a symbol of America. There are 20 brands of mustard and such a fascination with H&M and Vin Diesel. There is a push-pull in shunning this “American” trope but also a curiosity.
This passage from the poem “Rosita at The Communist Monument, Buzluzdja, Bulgaria” captures it perfectly:
“The day the ice cream shop offered
flavors other than strawberry. The day she started speaking
English. The neighbor, returned from the labor
camp. Black market shuttering. A time before
refugees, cocaine, short skirts, homelessness, MADE IN CHINA, passports.
How to make sense of a country waking
if no one can agree on the dream?”
It’s a reminder that our choices never just affect us or one person. In one of the last poems in the collection “Volcano with Child,” Byrnes reminds the reader that every step we take, no matter where we come from, is toward a future and away from a past, and it’s not done solo. Children pick up the pieces of a parents’ journey, no matter where or how. Memories infect them no matter how hard people attempt to shield them from pain.
Byrnes writes, “I will try to feed a child and not hear about how others were killed but first tortured somewhere far from here.”
Jennifer MacBain-Stephens lives in Midwest and is the author of four full-length poetry collections: Your Best Asset is a White Lace Dress (Yellow Chair Press, 2016), The Messenger is Already Dead (Stalking Horse Press, 2017), We’re Going to Need a Higher Fence, which tied for first place in the 2017 Lit Fest Book Competition, and The Vitamix and the Murder of Crows is forthcoming in 2018. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She is also the author of 10 chapbooks. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in The Pinch, Prelude, Cleaver, Yalobusha Review, decomp, and Inter/rupture. Visit her website.