If you are lucky enough to be bewitched by Elena Karina Byrne’s brilliant poems, then you will travel across time, space, and the ocean of language. In her beautiful new book, Squander, Karina Byrne again douses the reader in her sparkle and luminosity, through poems triggered by Shakespeare, Amy Winehouse, Georgia O’Keefe, and Rilke. There’s a driving breathiness and breathlessness in Karina Byrne’s poems, as if a voice is haunting your ear, unveiling what a genius mind might see and feel through language. This is Karina Byrne's deepest exploration of language yet; there’s no one writing like her and her voice is an essential one in American poetry.
—Victoria Chang, author of THE BOSS
Ultimately the title of the book tells all—squander, be willing to give, even to waste words; cast the net wide: “O Obedience like a horse, we are / trained to the bit, mouth-made. Heresy. Here. Say” says Elena Karina Byrne, and she practices with enthusiasm such preachment throughout the book. The intelligence here is always willing to sacrifice itself to energy—“turn a plum into/an orange//word into words”—and the result is an unforgettable exuberance of poetry. And of an enchanting intelligence.
--Bin Ramke, author of MISSING THE MOON.
Fully recognizing that we are numerous, as are the snares and delights of the written word and the influences of history, Elena Karina Byrne's "Squander" diligently investigates living in language—from attention to responsibility toknowledge—and creates a dedicated space for beauty to interrogate truth, encumbering our sometimes inexplicable world in a net of indelible lineages and connections.
--Maxine Chernoff, author of HERE.
The Greeks highest compliment to Odysseus was to call him “myriad-minded.” Shall we say of Elena Byrne’s amazing sequence that it is “myriad-masked?” By turns poignant, intricate, ingenious—Byrne’s poems explore and dramatize the theme of mask into a multiplicity of insights and imaginings almost as rich as consciousness itself.
— Gregory Orr
If I can’t have you, everyone else will,” begins Elena Karina Byrne’s Masque, an implosion of refracted and fractal selves. Wearing both the mask of Greek persona and the mascara of postmodern personality, these voices—whether moon or necropolis, vertigo or ventriloquist, Penelope or pen name, Rorschach or rant—revel in what one poem calls “this terrifying devotion to language.” Ancient, proliferative, profligate, and prophetic as language itself—“I am that greased machinery of heresy and hearsay”—these poems might have issued from the oracle at Delphi herself: “my flush crawl space in the mind/ Where, Ich Dien, I serve, am iamb slang-maid made to make you/ Sing my by-word, nay-word, password dance into the next/ World.”
— Angie Estes
Instantly ticklish and slowly narcotic, the language of Elena Karina Byrne’s curious index of masks in her new book nearly confounds the rigor of its ancient form, the poetic catalogue. Yet one cannot help but trail the voice threading through these veils made of words, at once Luciferian and terribly vulnerable to its own power, as it escorts the reader, and abandons her, into a dappled space reminiscent of one of Tolstoy’s great Russian balls—a social and erotic prospect distilled to meteoric gestures. One can only yield to the naked hermeticism of this book.
— Daniel Tiffany
In verse simmering with sensuality, Elena Karina Byrne eloquently reveals, then carefully slices away, layer after layer of the masks we wear until our most secret selves are exposed. With imagery at once exotic and electric, individual pretense dissolves in the service of revelation, and we find ourselves irresistibly drawn into an internal dialogue that is unabashedly intimate. Find here a voice that is like no other we know.
Tupelo Press — Website Blurb for MASQUE
There are such nice connections linking one poem to another. And with their famous energies, reading the whole thing is like riding an Arabian over one hill and then another, down one hill and down another. The scenery changes, the form changes, the pace slackens and quickens, but the whole thing is part of one journey… an astonishing and lovely experience, and all out of language chasmed with desire.
Forrest Gander — Comment for MASQUE
Elena Karina Byrne's second groundbreaking book of poems, MASQUE is comprised of a series of masks or voices (through a mask, as a mask) spoken from the literal or abstracted personas of identity, and so explores themes of the ever-changing exuberance of the self set against backdrops of history, science and nature, eros and language. Within the full force of metaphor, and the full range of address, these 'masks,' as dramatic lyrics and monologues speak to one another with visionary authority. Whether spoken in the voice of Magritte or from the vantage point of war, each mask comes alive 'between the divide,' within exile and belonging, providing a "peeping Tom's keyhole to this universe".
Brigit C. Hennessy — Amazon Review for MASQUE
Each of Byrne’s poems begins with an epigraph, from sources as diverse as Sylvia Plath, Oscar Wilde and the Bible. These help direct readers as Byrne seeks to mine the heavy ore of identity and cart it out on the masks we wear at different times. Perhaps most intriguing is the close relationship of the body to the self; no Cartesian dichotomies for her. For example, “Invisible Blessing Mask: Night,” with its invocation of marriage as a means of addressing the desire to differentiate one’s self from the beloved while at the same time abandoning our identity in union: “It has dissolved on the skin / where you’d rather not / say the words for conjugation, / separate the verb from the tense / nor ever harness what happened to you / when night put the lights out / on the tongue.”
Kel Munger — Sacramento News and Review for MASQUE
for The Flammable Bird
Sometimes, when a gifted poet bides his or her time, their first book seems more like a fourth or fifth book. The Flammable Bird is like that; a book flung whole, utterly original, beautiful and seamless, upon the world.
— Thomas Lux
Elena Karina Byrne's The Flammable Bird, is a powerful and exquisite collection of poems. Graceful and lyrically complex, this word invites us into the layered realms of consciousness, into both the sublime pleasures and the raw psychological densities of contemporary experience. Like the phoenix, Elena Karina Byrne lifts herself — and us — high above the ash of our disappointments and regrets. A marvelous debut.
— David St. John
Like Hopkins's kingfisher, Elena Karina Byrne's flammable bird, takes off from the branch of human passion, though the heaven she is drawn to is desire itself, "the sanctuary of hunger," the appetite that will not be fed. Enfleshed, inflamed, insatiable, these form her holy trinity, and the heady, headlong language of her poems has honored them with an artful liturgy of devotional wonders.
— Sherod Santos
What if language poets could do more than take language apart? What if they could take it apart and put it back together again in new and surprising ways right before your eyes, like a card trick or a tricky transmission or a psychic Tristan Tzara? Two poets, one from California and one who claims never to have been to California, have written very different books that nevertheless exhibit a common facility with language and intellect, a love of words and ideas, and a respectful understanding of the distance between them. Elena Karina Byrne’s Flammable Bird is a terrific first book, crackling with linguistic energy and burnished with a lovely patina of desire. Rodney Jones’ Kingdom of the Instant, his seventh book of poems, continues his canny rhetorical assault on American idiom and assumption in his characteristic molasses lyricism, backed by a knife-quick wit.
Byrne’s poems at their best want desperately and veer like swallows near cliffs, even when the subject would appear to appeal more to the intellect, as in several poems challenging the limits of language (“Ghost: A Love Story,” “When Words Fail the Body,” “Pigs Eye”) or in poems exploring relationships between science and religion (“God’s Watch,” Kierkegaard Knows No Shame”). “Darwin’s Windows,” for example, about a woman with a head injury who can’t copy squares but can draw church windows, reacquaints science with the human. The poem ends:
In a world of division, space means naming; a wasp curls into
A sweet pea and the world is enlarged all over again outside
Her window. You sit across the room, out of order
And the unnatural selection of History stains the church glass
Above you both: glass anonymous, glass-haunt, glass-us, glass
Of water and Darwin’s earth colored ghost kneels below
As if in overt reverence, with a pencil in one hand, the other full, closed on
Consideration, closed on the counted, colorless squares of broken glass.
The poem exposes the ambivalent relationship between religion and science, revealing deeper relationships between subjectivity and objectivity that scientific objectivism misses. Byrne attempts to tip the balance the other way, not to dismiss science, but to ameliorate the absence of the personal that science too frequently misses. So for Byrne “you are physics/ When light praises light in the insect skin of leaves.” Her language insists breathlessly and playfully, moving from pointed observation to specific image in a turn like, a bee to the next blossom. Her best poems are mercurial and possessed, enjambing through a tumult of images and ideas that surprise and arrest. Even the poems primarily driven by formal experimentation exhibit substance and power. Byrne has crafted an excellent, surprisingly mature first collection of poems.
Marty Williams — Book Review, SOLO 6 2003