Catherine Byron's poems write themselves where they ought: on the inside of your skin. Hilary Mantel
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About Catherine Byron
Catherine Byron is an Irish poet who often collaborates with visual and sound artists. Her first book of poetry, Settlements, appeared in 1985, and she has since published five collections, the most recent being The Getting of Vellum (which was reissued by the Salmon press in 2007). Raised in Belfast, she has lived in Oxford (where she studied Classics at Somerville College), Scotland, Derry, and County Donegal, a place which is central, she says, to her sense of self and poetry (‘the country of my mind’). She now resides in Whitechapel, East London. A long-term collaborator of Byron’s is the artist and calligrapher Denis Brown; and with the painter and printmaker Eileen Coxon she made ‘Renderers’, a multimedia poem commissioned by the Poetry Society in 1999 and published online, its content centred in the valley of the River Tas in South Norfolk. She has held residencies at the Hayward Gallery, the department of Glass & Ceramics at the University of Sunderland, and elsewhere.
Byron is also the author of a study of Seamus Heaney, Out of Step: Pursuing Seamus Heaney to Purgatory (Loxwood Stoneleigh, 1992), with whom she shares a fascination for Anglo-Saxon poetry, and the interrelation of family history and the rural. Her interest in visual art is evidenced by the poems’ fascination with the acts of marking and inscription, and the ‘emotional connections’ made during these processes. The blunt nail in ‘Writing on Skin’ carves ‘Thin rosy weals on the parchment of your wrist’: the first word the speaker had thought of, ‘VEIN’, is a word signifying, among other things, the body’s own ‘unseeable’ network of cursive script. In ‘After Propertius’, it’s not ‘death’s cut-off point, the loss of name’ that’s feared most by the speaker meditating on death, ‘but that my passing won’t be marked by you’, the presence of the beloved felt in the experience of that ‘blind place’. Similarly, ‘The Getting of Vellum’ (which, being an exegesis on calf skin – ‘The most prized writing surface / for a calligrapher’ – connects, in part, to her earlier work’s first-hand examination of meat-farming) has the uneasy comparison of the casual scribbling of a note with a biro on the back of one’s hand with that of the animal ‘whose skin has been stripped off, / scraped clean of life’s paraphernalia’. There is a discomfiting grace about the ‘slunk’ skin: of ‘seeing the calf being born / a second time’ – and the poet is not afraid to find beauty in such a traumatic ‘transformation’; the trauma undergone by livestock being something she acknowledges in her introduction to the recording of ‘Getting Tough’.
The textures and textiles in Byron’s poems are thus woven with emotional histories – be that of the animal in the materiality of the writing paper, or in a marriage made after ‘years of sewing and saving’. And, in ‘Silk and Belfast Linen’, a first-hand account of the trials suffered by young women weaving with industrial looms in linen mills is offset with the creative reappropriation by older women in the home of worn but precious silk, the ‘camisoles and wedding negligees’, used to luminescent effect. Byron reads softly yet fervently; attentive, as though careful to handle poetry’s being, what she calls, ‘a method of divination, of truth telling to the self’, and sensitive to the delicacy of the skin as it is distressed with ink or the unseeable impression of a blunt fingernail.
Catherine Byron’s favourite quotes about poetry:
‘Nature repeats herself, or almost does.
Repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.’
– Elizabeth Bishop, ‘North Haven’
‘their “great, astringent withholding”‘
– Colm Toibin, on the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Thom Gunn.
This recording was made for the Poetry Archive on 9 April 2015 at Soundhouse and was produced by Anne Rosenfeld.
Poems by Catherine Byron
Featured in the Archive
Books by Catherine Byron
The Fat-Hen Field Hospital
Settlements and Samhain
Out of Step: Pursuing Seamus Heaney to Purgatory (prose)