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Elena Karina Byrne
Tupelo Press $16.95
Review by Catherine Woodward


Don’t try to pull off your mask, it is really your face.

Too few times does a reader experience that curious feeling of expansion, having stumbled upon something truly extraordinary and thoroughly unlike anything they’ve ever seen before.
Masque is a brave concept; not to be confused as a simple exploration of physical masquerade and its limiting cultural purposes, instead Elena Karina Byrne opts to fragment consciousness. Like hypnosis her deconstructive and disorienting style attempts to introduce those separate selves, alter-egos which compose what we perceive as ‘I’. Unsurprisingly the transactions between them are bewildering, explosive and mercilessly challenge our rationality and focus, making this poetry as enigmatic and exhilarating as it can and should be.
Byrne has made for breathless reading; every splinter of self is born of word and discourse (as all meaning is constructed) but also wrenched from it in order to spin our comfortable perceptions of identity. Think of the current consciousness hosting the body in She Mask: Inversion, the ‘drum-/pomegranate anemone in the blood’ of her schizophrenic sister she collides with inside. The gunning plosivity of the words becomes the feeling this identity lives in, its element, and little more (if anything) is needed to root her as real. Byrne’s play with pronoun and tense however shakes this sense from sense. The emphatic ‘you are dying’ of Your death Mask for example, throws the reader at random, leaving them with (as in so many of these poems) a voracious introspection, the persona left as a mystery, omnipotent yet close in its direct address. The collision of past, present and model at the end of this particular piece, but further tears our grasp from anything solid we may think we have understood in the poet’s peculiarities of language

There would be entire rooms made for swimming.
Whales and one night watchman who welcomes you
to the truth with his teeth.
But someone lied.

The particular gratification of Masque, is Byrne’s insistent obliteration of rationality, something I believe it is paramount to insist upon. Her deconstruction of pronoun (‘you meaning me’) results in one perceptual crutch being knocked from beneath us, and her cosmological poems do an even better job of dominoing them down. They reveal, like all others pomes here, the futility of the human way of seeing, but in particular the natural tendency to rely on a higher being (or God) to provide our narrative. Byrne proposes a gutting indifference of the maternal/paternal consciousness’s we have immemorially relied upon

Indoctrinated by sky, by the helm of the galaxy, and
absent-minded as Newton’s windmill, I am
invented by what you discover next.
(Cosmologist’s Mask: Persephone)

…beyond anything exempt
of patience, fallible, more pleasing than gravity under your feet…

was just another way to greet the darkness
when it knows you are coming.
(Phantom Mask: Mercury)

This futility makes Byrne’s reader helpless, with no ground to look into the mask of me and you and claim that old possessiveness of identity.
It is rare to say that a work is essential, but Masque truly is; through a series of mental, Freudian contortions, everything that is in you will speak, our masks address each other, tempt us to wear them, beg our sympathy and warn of our narrow minded approach, which is simply the lie that ‘I’ is singular.






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