After 11 years an emissary came from my country. We missed you he said. After all these years. He spoke about how things had changed: The embargo was lifted. All the figures were up: Employment, wages, life expectancy. Elections were being held. We met in the library, the largest room in my house. As he spoke I paced back & forth. Recalling those high hard days. Then 11 years. So many others had gone longer with no word, no call. For some, there was no more country. They had gone. They had ceased to exist for their country. Their country ceased to exist for them perhaps. And then one day ceased to exist at all, for anyone. I wondered what he wanted. What was the purpose of his visit, so to speak. He spoke about investment, education, a democratic reconciliation of differences. If I were a fiction writer I could take it from there. I could give you an explanation, a plot, a narrative. But I am a poet. I looked at his hands holding the glass, the intense black of the trim on his coat. I listened to his voice crumbling into dusk & thought about what it was like.
A researcher moved into the 19th century. It was not intentional. It started slowly in the cold archives room, maybe even because of the temperature and holding the body still. Her spirit seeped out, like honey, like light, and fed slowly into—or imperceptibly rained down like pollen or pixels or dots in a newspaper picture onto—the materials spread out on their folders on the table spread over her knees, and gradually an image was formed—her image—two-dimensional, in the new place. Her body worked on, propping its chin on its hands, its head drooping like a tired flower over her papers, shoulder-blades anxious, belly stashed between the bulwarks of elbows & thighs. In the 19th century she could be very quiet, quieter even than in the Rare Books Room. She carried letters between people who barely acknowledged her presence; she examined their buttonholes, frayed edge of a waistcoat, hand white as paper, curl of steam above a tea-cup held in a plain hand or adrift among a mess of papers in a drawing-room which should have seemed more strange. She came to their call, harked to their merriment, the senseless jocularity of voices long gone, it has to be said. She accompanied them in their most private moments, even to the hour of their death—the date of which she knew though they did not. She was virtuous in the 19th century, humble, with slippered feet, replete with knowledge and proud that though not rich or brilliant at least she was alive. Here, in the 21st century, she was quiet too. Quieter than before, her spirit elsewhere.
In our house we didn’t have a camera. We liked photos though and posed for them at every opportunity. We didn’t have a television or much in the way of music except a few Clancy Brothers records & a Leonard Cohen LP. On Sunday afternoons we liked to line up on the couch, and behind the couch, and smile like hell. There were eight children in our family. We didn’t use the living room much. But we liked to dress up and grin. There was a piano. Sometimes my younger sister, who got lessons, would sit on the piano stool, and holding her hands suspended somewhat claw-like above the keys, would swivel round her head at a 90°angle to her stalwart body, her face full of mischief & intent. That was fun, though not so much for us. We piled into the tub, four or five of us, and, all facing forward, went mad with glee. After a good meal, or even before it—my mother at the roasting tin basting the turkey, the birthday candles lit and one little set of cheeks in profile swelling to blow—we liked to put our elbows on the table & beam. Parts of our house were black & white; parts were colored. My father was in charge. As far as groupings were concerned, he was the magnet, we were the metal filings. I don’t know how we ever got anything done in our house, we spent so much time face-forward, grinning to beat the band.
Mairéad Byrne’s current publications include three chapbooks, An Educated Heart (Palm Press 2005), Vivas (Wild Honey Press 2005), and Kalends (Belladonna* 2005); an essay of sorts, Some Differences Between Poetry & Standup ( www.ubu.com <http://www.ubu.com/> ); and poems in 5AM, Conduit, The Drunken Boat, Fascicle, Margin, MiPoesias, and Volt. She teaches poetry at Rhode Island School of Design.