White Panties, Dead Friends & Other Bits & Pieces of Love is Bobby Byrd's latest book of poetry. The book is divided into three sections of poems: White Panties, The Hospice Poems: In Memory of Steve Sprague, and Other Bits & Pieces of Love.
This afternoon while the hot sun
clattered through the summer sky
like a nail in search of a coffin,
I found a pair of your white panties
you had misplaced in my underwear drawer,
so simply surprising … oh, I couldn’t help myself.
I sniffed at the panties.
The panties were so clean and fresh with soap and Clorox.
We are getting old, huh?
Me and you
almost 40 years we’ve slept in the same bed.
And yet there I was like a dog
sniffing at your clean white panties.
You are in Tulsa
visiting with your friends, the ones
I argue with in my head, the ones
who believe that a kingly god governs the world
and so in my lonely summery daydream
they question my devotion to your white panties.
They would tell me, I believe, to put
the white panties in your underwear drawer
where they belong.
They must have their reasons.
I have mine.
Outside the window despite the heat
our cat and a mockingbird were playing their game
to decide who will live the longest.
The cat was lying serenely in the thick green grass.
He waved his white-tipped tail as a flag
to entice the mockingbird to dive closer and closer.
The bird pretended she didn’t understand.
She squawked in defiance at the cat’s claws.
You and I know that the mockingbird will lose the game.
Already this summer we’ve found the feathers
of three mockingbirds scattered in the green lawn.
But I want to write a love poem for you.
This parable of the cat and the mockingbird
has intruded somehow into what I want to say.
Please let me try again.
I want to tell you that
I truly want to forgive your friends in Tulsa.
I am trying to forgive myself for the anger
that I carry in my heart like dirty laundry.
I tell myself, We are who we are.
Thank God our bodies can become such innocent travelers.
Any time of the day our bodies will forgive us
like hummingbirds buzzing our ears
like unexpected desert smells
yes, like rain
like that night last week
the night before you left,
little bits of trash muddying my love for you,
but when I climbed into bed beside you
my heart miraculously becoming clean and fresh,
your white panties misplaced in my underwear drawer
Oh, my love,
your panties are the sails of a womanly ship
afloat in a holy but dangerous sea.
The ship is sailing to the end of the world,
and I am waiting for you to come home to me.
Okay, let's cut to the chase: I really, really like this book. It's a spunky new collection of poems, with the delightfully insouciant title of White Panties, Dead Friends and Other Bits and Pieces of Love by a man named Bobby Byrd. White Panties, Dead Friends is not your typical book of poems (whatever that may be). Like many books, these poems reflect on aging, on love, on loss, death, and on other inescapable truths of the human condition. The difference is that they're written with a quirky humor and a touch of a bizarrely Southwestern-Dharmic hybrid of the surreal that make them absolutely yummy.
Most of the poems are long, elegiac at times, and full of unforgettable characters and situations. Lorenzo, "short and stout with big hands," Osama bin Laden's soul, Art the sax player and James the Cadillac driver, as well as other unique and startling characters from the author's life and imagination make their appearance here. Even Pancho Villa has a cameo appearance.
There's a long sequence of poems in the center that reflect on the lingering death from meningitis of Byrd's friend, Steve Sprague. The sequence addresses the connections and relationships one makes in a life, and how those left behind struggle to give meaning in a situation where no meaning seems to be available. These poems are serious, and are seriously moving. Byrd sustains a quality of writing here that is superb, giving voice to anguish, hope, and loss with quiet dignity, and proves that he can write straightforward poetry as well as anyone.
However, it's in his other work that Byrd's voice really stands out, as in this excerpt from "The Soul of Osama bin Laden: A Very Short Novel."
The day began with October darkness and wind blowing dust through all the cracks in the house. A train was moaning, going someplace else, anyplace else. I turned on the radio. National Public Radio was announcing that Osama bin Laden's soul, tainted and crippled by fundamentalism, had escaped her master's body. A woman reporter in Baghdad was stating that the tall bearded Arab with obsessed eyes had announced the news on a video tape broadcast by the Al Jazeera network. The leader of the al-Qaeda brotherhood did not seem to care. He believes he is doing the work of God, and he suffers no doubt. Now, without his soul to plant confusion, he will do as he wishes. Prominent Muslim theologians, the reporter continued, have theorized that Bin Laden's soul must have listened to the cries of the dying — she must have wept, watching the souls of the dead men and women and children become food for the moon. The moon is always hungry for souls. Thus, the soul of Osama bin Laden escaped the body and she became a bird. She went looking for a place that looked to her like home.
I find this whimsical, irreverent, haunting voice compulsively readable. In fact, I breezed through the whole book in one sitting, and then read parts of it again. Check him out: try "Why I Am a Poet #7," "Traveling by Air," and "The Day I Met Pancho Villa in the City of Angels." Trust me: you're in for a treat.
- Chris Faatz, October 12, 2006
What’s Up magazine
Lunch With Poet Bobby Byrd
I was first introduced to Bobby Byrd's poetry 25 years ago, when I collaborated with him, sax player Art Lewis and bassist Manny Flores on an improvisational performance aired on KTEP. Bobby read his poetry as we musicians reacted to the images and emotions shaped by his rich words.
He's published a new book of poetry, “White Panties, Dead Friends and Other Bits and Pieces of Love.” As he sat across the table from me answering my questions, giving life to ideas by reading lines from his poems, I felt special - like I was getting a private audience.
“The angels are fluttering overhead.
Their wings are idyllic, their voices perfect, their harps golden,
but they have no sex between their legs
and those fancy harps are innocent of mistakes
thus, no jazz is allowed.” *
Picture this being read in a lyrical drawl that rings of Beale Street in Memphis, only you're at The Pike Street Market in Downtown El Paso. Hear it for yourself Friday, when he celebrates the book's release at La Norteńa Cafe. The event also highlights “How We Will Know When We're Dead,” a spoken word / music collaboration with Sparta frontman Jim Ward.
Dan - What got you started writing poetry?
Bobby - When I was a kid, I thought it was weird to write poetry. To be a poet, not the manly profession, no? So I hid my poetry for a long time until a friend, Harvey Goldner, started showing me his work. It was weird and berserk. I enjoyed that. We started hanging out at the library listening to records of Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg. Harvey started telling me books to read. My God, Camus' “The Stranger” changed my life.
Dan - You've said that your work is narrative, in plain language, with a spirituality to it.
Bobby - If I had to build an American family tree of my poetry, then I'd start with Walt Whitman, followed by William Carlos Williams, the New American Generation, who are my immediate predecessors - especially, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Paul Blackburn, Philip Whalen, et cetera - all of whom really emphasize the American idiom and the importance of place in defining their poetry. My idea of plainspeak comes from this and my growing up in Memphis in the '50s where plainspeak was epitomized in the music I listened to - the blues, rhythm and blues, and the beginnings of rock-and-roll. And then spirituality - you don't come out of the South easily without a sense of the religious. But for me, Christianity didn't work. Ginsberg and Snyder especially were writing about Zen Buddhism in the '50s. That made a lot of sense to me, appreciating that basic religious experience that we all have; those special times when we look at something or someone - a flower, a mountain, a homeless man, a woman - and we lose ourselves in that experience. We lose our ego. We and the other person or thing are simply one.
Dan - So music is important to your work.
Bobby - Cadence especially, how everything flows. I love music, I love my poetry to be musical. I pay attention to that a lot. When Jim Ward was working out music for my poems, he told me that my reading had a musical structure to it, that it fit nicely into measures.
Dan - Tell me more about the CD you recorded with Jim.
Bobby - I recorded the poems and he listened to them and jammed with my voice, laying over various tracks that felt right to him. The thing I like, however, is that this young guy is interested in my work. It makes sense to him, and he's come forward to do this. It's his money, his time, his energy. I'm honored.
Dan - We haven't talked about the El Paso influence; you've lived here almost 30 years.
Bobby - El Paso has been very important to me. Especially our neighborhood, the Five Points area, and Downtown and Juárez. Lee [Bobby's wife] and I felt like we had come home in some odd way when we moved here. There's a certain romance about El Paso, its funkiness in the American psyche, a place where the imagination and so-called reality can live next door to each other like good neighbors, sort of. They can speak Spanish or English, they don't care. So El Paso has entered my poems as subtext, a place where Jesus Christ and Pancho Villa can walk around and get to know one another.
*From “Ode for 60 Years on the Planet.” Copyright 2006 by Bobby Byrd. Used by permission.
- Dan Lambert,
Bobby Byrd is the only poet I know whose work causes me to weep. This is not a metaphor. Tears well up in my eyes. True tears. True Tears come from the truth. Bigger than politics or games of money. Up from below where the black water sings. Spoken plainly. Life is real and never goes the way we expect. All of us get born, then go away. What shall we do in the meantime? Tears mean love. Cause no harm. Enjoy each other.
Byrd captures poetry of life along the border
"Publishing poetry is suicidal." At least, that’s what someone told Bobby Byrd many years ago. Thankfully, that hasn’t stop Byrd from writing it, and it hasn’t stopped Cinco Puntos Press, his family business, from publishing his poetry, as well as some of the most important writing from the Texas-Mexico border. Byrd recently released his latest collection of poetry White Panties, Dead Friends, as well as a spoken word CD, How Will We Know When We’re Dead.
Byrd’s poetry is a collection of conversations and arguments with Jesus and the devil, his dead mother and his old friends, Buddha and sometimes Mohammed, Dr. Atkins, as well as his wife of nearly 40 years, and of course her white panties. Most of all, Bryd’s poetry speaks of his anger and outrage at the injustice and hypocrisy he sees in the world. The cruelty of death at God’s hands, the brutality of war and the anger at the loss of friends slither through Byrd’s words like a snake making itself known to its prey. His confusion between what he feels and what he sees forms the basis for the struggles evident in his work.
His poetry also speaks of his desire to connect with others and the importance of these relationships. "If I had to select a common theme in these poems, I guess I’d say I believe we will die, and I believe sexuality and religious experience are very much entwined together — the urge to be one with the other," he told The Monitor in a recent interview.
Byrd, 64, grew up in Memphis, Tennessee and moved to the Southwest in his twenties. He married writer Lee Merrill Byrd in 1967 and they settled in El Paso, where they raised their three children and founded Cinco Puntos Press, a publishing company focused on writings from the border and surrounding areas in the Southwest. Their writing and publishing has earned the respect of critics and authors alike, and they received the Lannan Fellowship for Cultural Freedom award in 2005.
For Byrd, the Texas-Mexico border provides not only the backdrop for his writing, but the creative inspiration for his thoughts.
"The border is many things: a confusion of people and language and poetics and spirituality, but it is also singular in its sense of being ‘the other,’ the outsider, whether that be outside Mexico City or New York City," he said. "All this has had remarkable impact on myself, my family and me. It has provided a place where we could become new to ourselves." Byrd also takes advantage of the Southwestern landscape and El Paso’s nearby mountain ranges to find fodder for his creativity.
"Yesterday I went hiking in the mountains with my son and a very good friend. On the way back to the car we were lucky enough to see a gopher snake that had just caught a chipmunk. We stopped and watched. I found the whole walk, punctuated by the parable of the snake and the rodent, really entered into my imagination," he said.
His imagination sprouts from the historical context of his adopted hometown as well. In "The Day I Met Pancho Villa in the City of Angels," he writes, "That’s when I saw Pancho Villa/sneering at me the gringo from two stools down./His mouth was full of scrambled eggs and sausage,/the famous moustache white and greasy/under his beat-up Stetson hat."
Byrd’s influences include the New American Poets, including Frank O’Hara, who appears in one of his poems in this collection. "Of course, William Carlos Williams and Walt Whitman stand back there like grandfathers," he said.
His simplicity with words sits well with his narrative style. In "Genesis," he only needs 16 words to convey his thoughts: "The cops found Adam on the 5th floor./Eve was dead./Noah was on the telephone." Living on the Texas-Mexico border, we see the poetry of life all around us. Thankfully, Byrd’s taken the time to write it down.
- Martin Winchester, Critic's Nook, October 6, 2006
What’s Up magazine
I got a package in the mail a few days ago from my friend Bobby Byrd. I've written about him here before: He's a local poet and publisher who runs Cinco Puntos Press with his wife Lee Byrd.
The package contained his new book, “White Panties, Dead Friends, and Other Bits and Pieces of Love.” I opened it up and starting reading. I read it from cover to cover. It is beautiful. I forgot how much I missed reading his poetry.
For the last couple of years I have been working on a project with Bobby. It is a record where he reads his poems and I write music behind it. I have been buried in it deep for the last few weeks to get it done. It's now finished, and there will be a big party at the end of September to celebrate.
During the process, though, I think I somehow became callous to the words. I listened to them a thousand times while I worked on the music. I knew the inflection of every word like my own hands. It slowly moved away from my heart and became a firm resident of my brain.
I didn't realize until I sat down and read his new book exactly how far I had drifted. It was like a rediscovery, really. It was like the first time in high school when I read his work and it moved my rudder - my direction changed.
“The Hospice Poems” is a section of the new book that absolutely floored me. It is a series of letters to a friend who's in a coma and slipping away. Anyone who has lost someone they loved will find this compelling.
The letters are filled with an almost confessional language, written to someone who cannot answer back. It seems like you would say more to someone when they can't answer back, when they can't argue or defer attention. Either way, it is simply tragic and beautiful.
I love finding an inspiration; it is one of my favorite things in life. To read a book or see a movie or hear some music and want to create as well is the best. I know that not everyone who reads this will go out and buy Bobby's book, but you should. Sure, he's from El Paso, runs an El Paso company and is a treasure for us to have. But it's more than that: The words are great. They will move you.
- Jim Ward,
Panties and dead friends. I have always been drawn to poems that express with realness-language and attitude that cannot be captured by another poet. This collection White Panties, Dead Friends, and Other Bits & Pieces of Love by Bobby Byrd, poet, essayist and publisher of Cinco Puntos Press, has lines that linger, long after the book is closed and shelved.
In the poem "A Visit from the Archangel Gabriel" (notes at the back reveal this is a found poem) is the line "she is addicted to seeing him die." The poem, about violence, living and dying in Serbia, is a strong representation of the found poem. The words "she is addicted to seeing him die" haunt the reader as we imagine the woman of poem watching her brother's death over and over. In my reading, the poem moves beyond the geography of Serbia and becomes the nightly news here, where tragedy and death are pounded to American viewers. The poem does not stop. It becomes so much more in each reader's mind. That is a gift.
This is a collection of poems that don't reside in one place. It moves. The poems come in three lines, or "a very short novel" about the soul of Osama bin Laden. Byrd does not step quietly around what he witnesses on the planet-war, injustice, inequality. When you read this collection, you will hear his voice triggering your own understanding of this world, and what happens in it. What else can you want from poetry?