By Edward Byrne
(Cincinnati, OH: Turning Point).
Paper, 102 pp.: $18.00. ISBN: 9781934999783
Reviewed by Zara Raab
The short, spare lines Edward Byrne wrote as a young poet selected by John Ashbery for his first book, Along the Dark Shore, have eased open into the long, iambic couplets of his latest, sixth collection. Turning from the heartaches and joys of fatherhood in Tidal Air (2002), Byrne, in Seeded Light, now addresses themes from nature––moonrise on water, a storm at sea or in a mountain meadow, a wild canyon tributary, night skies in Colorado, where the poet is engaged, and at times beset:
. . .this entire peninsula sky
blossomed with a white blur of birds
in flight as if someone somehow had
suddenly shaken loose and tossed aloft
those new blooms of early spring already
flourishing in fields flowing around us.
[“Triptych: Fly-by over
the Wildlife Refuge”]
Rich, shaded, and subtle in texture, with second lines often bleeding into the next couplet, these open couplets expand meaning, encouraging the reader to follow. Spurning end rhymes in favor of inventive rhymes and off-rhymes within the lines–– “a stark road//wound round the edge of town, coiling toward/some distant hint of massing light just beginning/to glint up ahead. . .” [29: “Thanksgiving’]––Byrne makes expressive use of alliteration, assonance, consonantal rhyme, and repetition of vowel sounds.
“Revision by Lamplight,” describes his creative process:”late at night/. . . when reading aloud//what lines I have written, I listen for their/lessons I still seem incapable of learning—//. . . another language present[s] its sentence//with something as simple as the rhythm/of rainfall or a whisper of wind...”. This “other language” is voiced––almost without exception in the first four sections––by the “we” of poet and wife, a couple enclosed and protected by Byrne’s unhurried and rolling couplets. The rhythm and movement of the lines, the stately, loose-limbedn rhythms of the pentameter, mime a strolling gait.
Byrne’s couplets celebrate coupling. In one poem, the couple, pretending to be years younger, revisit an inn [“Anniversary Visit”], in another, his wife’s childhood home [“Returning to Your Father’s Farm”], a locale explored in an earlier volume, in others they seek sanctuary in a church, following “the slow toll/of cathedral bells calling parishioners” [25: “After the Miscarriage”], cottage or motel room.
All the more poignant, then, to come near the book’s end to “After Leaving the Hotel,” recalling an uncoupling, echoing poems from his early collection East of Omaha: “I now know our odd absence of pain . . .//followed by the feelings of loss//And regret we still appear to share are no/More than normal emotional costs a couple// Might expect after reflection upon leaving/The site where their love’s come undone.” 
This poem’s dissonance echoes elsewhere in the sense of unease and the heightened awareness of nature’s deceptions. After visiting a wild canyon gorge, “each day we return to the safety/at home—in any weather, no matter what changes//occur. Falsely, we arrive; like deceptive images/of distant fixed stars; we seem to stay the same” [68: “Canyon Tributary,”]. In “Waiting at a Bus Station” , stranded by a winter storm, the poet notes the “false warmth” of the neon window displays in the closed shops—meaningless displays, like old photographs that once meant something.
In Seeded Light, elegy and illness balance the pleasures of memory, without trauma, war, or 9/11, unlike much poetry of the past half-century. Though his aesthetic shares more akin with Wallace Stevens than Mary Oliver, Byrne has Oliver’s sensitivity to nature, without her need to draw obvious lessons from it.
As the day retracts its light, invites
still colder weather, from the warmth
of our bedroom . . .
. . . .
. . . as the escaping sap
of fresh-cut wood sighs in our fireplace.
[43, “Winter Nightfall
in a Seaside Village”]
Such sap-filled sighs are likely to escape the reader of these wonderful poems, just warm and heartening enough for one well attuned to winter.
Zara Raab’s Book of Gretel appeared this spring. Swimming the Eel will be published in 2011. She lives and writes in San Francisco. Visit her on the web at www.zararaab.com.