A Christian poet searches for meaning in the mundane.
Byrne doesn’t name the painting he’s writing about in “Manet’s Genre Paintings of Everyday Light,” a poem in his new collection. “A heavy silence and late day light fill the room, a kitchen / table, with bowl and book, another day endured, the / patience of a shared elderly marriage.” Perhaps he’s thinking of “Interior at Arcachon,” in which a couple—she much older than he—laze at table by an open window, each looking off in different directions. But no matter the painting, Byrne captures the great impressionist’s concern with the mundane. Manet, perhaps more than any other modern master, painted the everyday, depicting not gods or generals, but instead just regular men and women “enduring” their workaday lives. The relentless grind of days is a topic to which Byrne returns again and again. “Balances” opens, “Most days there is a constant fight against / ourselves.” In “And Then It Was Saturday,” Byrne notes—or laments—“I’m ready, another Monday morning is on its way.” Later, in “It’s All Just Another Day,” he writes, “It’s time to shut down for today / Another day working on the fringe….Another day is waking, / so the other person can win.” The pressing question for Byrne is how do we instill the weight of days with meaning? Byrne tries a number of answers—love, family, work—but seems ultimately to find the most durable peace in religion. As the author reminds us early on, “God’s loving energy is around us everywhere.” Byrne is a Christian, and his faith infuses his verse. In “Grace Before We Had Begun,” he invokes Christ’s suffering: “A spear in side, / The last tear dried, / How could you betray a friend / Like twelve of those whom were chose / To see it till the end.” However, here we see his weakness, too: “twelve of those whom were chose” is either quite stilted or grammatically incorrect, and similar slip-ups appear occasionally in his verse. Yet they are not too distracting, and careful proofreading would clean them up quickly.
An effective exploration of the commonplace.