Home—Pennsylvania and Poland—ancestry, immigrant aunts, and travel to several European cities form the basis of Mary Kovaleski Byrnes’ book So Long the Sky (Platypus Press). Byrnes’ descriptive language creates resonant images grounded strongly in the places where commonplace emotional moments occur. Spending time with a lover in Paris, working in Russia, visiting Gdansk—all of these settings allow Byrnes to use her empathy to show her readers what she sees in common between herself, her aunts, young women in Poland and Russia, a close friend in Germany, her husband, and all others she describes.
What makes these poems distinctive is how particular they are in their details. Byrnes grew up near Centralia, Pennsylvania, home of a perpetual underground fire; the image of this literal inferno opens the book in “Centralia”: “this town’s a funeral//pyre” Her Polish ancestors were miners, so emigration to central Pennsylvania was a logical choice; Centralia offers Byrnes the continuity of industrial Poland and coal country Pennsylvania to examine. In the erasure poem “Centralia Mine Fire Project: History and Recommendations for Control,” an escape to a new place, with hope for a better life, turns into an apocalyptic nightmare: “What is a town/worth? Once the fire reaches/the highway, then what? State/of panic descending. Ask them again.” In contrast, “The Floating Island” provides a watery opposition to the fire under Centralia:: “this lake so vast,/how do you save a place/in water.” Despite their seeming opposition, both are examples, in elemental language, of how Byrnes uses her power of observation to build a sense of the unknowable and the mythic. The lake and the fire both remind us of the depth of the earth and the limits of what humans can see, understand, and control.
Those poems of the earth link us to the poems about human subjects; emigration feels like a way to take charge of one’s circumstances, yet what comes after cannot be known, requiring not only courage and perseverance, but some good fortune, some luck of the draw. Byrnes’ portraits of women, in particular, are haunting, and evoke a sense of continuity among the women, regardless of their ages or national origin. She sees her future and her aunts’ pasts in “To My Polish Aunts,” sketching the links of bodily inheritance: “skin pale and pocked with moles,/your names pulled from Slavic litanies,” in contrast with her childish Americanism: “In your houses I was all brash New World—/wanting peanut butter, Dr. Pepper,/my shorts a shock of orange//against the dust and pickled wallpaper.” She recognizes the straight line between them, from their former youth, “long locks of waving auburn—wrapped in tissue, after you’d all died” to her own aging: “my face will turn/as foreign as a century.”
Several poems are about Rositsa, a friend or distant relative; these show the audience a peer who lived a very different girlhood behind late-century Iron Curtain East Germany. “Rosi’s old enough to remember/the day the wall fell, her Russian mother crying/in a cab. The day the ice cream shop offered/flavors other than strawberry. The day she started speaking/English.” But now, Rosi lives a Westernized, consumerist life parallel to Byrnes’ own: “Hers, the generation who wants/none of this bleak memory, just/another H&M, tighter leggings, louder folk-pop/English-English, the sterility/of supermarkets, and more Vin Diesel, please.” The pair of poems, “Reading Anna Karenina in the Susquehanna Valley Mall” and “Looking at the American Girls in Club Y2K, Gdansk” mirror each other; American young women interacting with, even romanticizing, Eastern European culture through consumerism, and failing to understand. These poems and the Rositsa poems are also, of course, about Byrnes herself, showing her own engagements with those former Iron Curtain countries, and her efforts to understand them as a young woman. The book connects her experiences with her ethnicity, bringing her aunts and grandmother as younger women into conversation with her contemporaries, all of whom are navigating the divisions and connections between Eastern Europe and the West, which serves as escape, as a promise of abundance and freedom, even if those promises fall short.
Byrnes’ book evoked a strong personal response for me. I, too, have Polish ancestry, though I grew up in the Detroit area, my ancestors drawn to work for Henry Ford. Her Polish aunts recall my great aunts, all of whom, now dead and gone, came back into view as the young, vivacious, even rowdy young women they were, rather than as the older women I knew. Although I share a similar background to Byrnes, I suspect that anyone with immigrant relatives will connect to sense of liminality that Byrnes evokes, the identity which is not quite American, not quite Something Else. The power of So Long the Sky comes from the shifting back and forth of across that fuzzy line, and, further, that fuzzy place called home. Underlying the sense of home is also a recognition of American hegemony, of its imperialism, through the echo of the aftermath of World War II and the impact it has on the lives of her female characters, through to the Iraq War and its destruction of the lives of her central Pennsylvania peers. With a subtle and personal approach, Byrnes is able to empathize with the very real personal ramifications of global politics, both positive and negative.