Chapbook Review: SHUTTER by Taylor Byas
By Aarik Danielsen
(Madhouse Press, 2022; $10)
The self is a many-splintered thing.
Forces ranging from abiding trauma to a careless comment slipped between banal beats of party chatter send our souls into shards; their jagged edges wound from the inside out. Taylor Byas understands this complex phenomenon and its ever-present threat.
“In the mirror, I trouble my existence with another self. I have just learned of whole / things and too soon do I learn of splitting,” Byas writes in “Mirror Stage,” the lead poem from her revelatory new chapbook Shutter.
Within Shutter’s pages, many moments split Byas’s speakers and—through empathy extended—her readers: a glance in the mirror; the male gaze; your image blurring into focus, imposed upon a Polaroid print; multiple meanings of the word bitch, how a person sees themselves through bottle-dark glass and the dizzying liquid within.
Byas concerns these poems with locating true north and true self for her own sake—and especially that of her female readers (Shutter is dedicated “to every woman still finding herself”). Thankfully, her words are both the surgeon’s magnifying glass and the stitches sewed. These verses examine our wounds, even recognizing the beautiful geometry they sometimes bear. And they encourage the space and tenderness healing requires.
Byas approaches reconciliation through perception, first naming the many slivers of who we are or might be. Opening the collection, “Mirror Stage” establishes its elusive purpose; flirting with “my second self” in a pane of glass, Byas’s speaker spies different sides of the same soul.
“Decades later, I eye the I I’ve been straining to touch for years,” she writes.
This nimble bit of wordplay underlines the nature of truly knowing ourselves. Serious yet like sport; imperative but slippery as hell. Byas writes, knowing some unfathomed part of the soul recognizes, respects and even needs the game:
“I lean in and the self leans in. I step back and I step back. I press a / finger to the glass and we point at ourselves. I split again, from two, to four, to eight, / to more. Another I, another eye—another I for me to answer to.”
Pieces shatter and potential selves arrive in various moods and colors. “Photography” tethers cold, blue dissociation to alluring stares; the promise of finding oneself in the beholding eye of a camera (“In the flash, I’m only real if you capture me / looking into the lens.”) with the speaker’s awareness of how she’s being used. Byas repeats it like a resigned mantra: “my body develops apart from me.”
Terror produces another version of the self in “For the Word ‘Cunt’” as Byas’s speaker faces the quiet, too-familiar menace of a man behind an F-150’s wheel:
“You’re church-girl quiet / in the heat of his truck’s engine, quiet enough to hear a / jukebox clicking its next record into place, quiet enough to / know that this moment is just a sky going green before / lightning strikes.”
Language is a lens in “For the Word ‘Bitch’,” as that fraught word splits itself. It’s a term that can yield belonging, might be heard before being broken, or becomes “music and you sing it.” The poet’s depth of field changes in “They Call The Party The ‘Set’ Because,” pulling as many expectations as faces into the viewfinder. “Watch and see how they all slip into their roles, how each frame makes a stranger of / everyone,” Byas writes.
Desire becomes a channel in which to find, be found, or at least experiment with possible selves. Byas shows complete mastery of sensual language. Whenever she writes of indulgence, either in sex or food, her words seem to shake and stir cocktail ingredients. They reach over to the stereo, turning up the bedroom ballad from a ‘90s girl group, hearing both the sizzle and sadness in their four-part harmony.
Whatever divides particular senses, whatever degrees exist between physical hunger and soul desire are swallowed up in ravenous language, by the grammar of the flesh. “I think of the word hunger, both a noun / and something my hands are capable of,” Byas writes in “The Therapist Asks Me ‘What Are You Afraid Of?’”
She then projects that definition over poems such as “Your Husband Says Let’s Try Something New,” in which one hunger feeds another. “A Valentine’s Day Poem to Myself at 25” sounds the call to please oneself, knowing any satisfaction diminishes if performed only for someone else.
“All these years, / and you never learned to fully taste / anything—all the notes in a glass of wine, / yourself. Got all those mirrors / in your bedroom and ain’t practiced / a thing,” Byas’ speaker preaches to herself.
To be the only one looking is to be free, the poem suggests: “Look yourself in the eyes and know / that you can love yourself if just so you / can watch from the door, if only to look / damn good while doing it. Say your name. / Can’t nobody say it like you anyways.”
Shutter arrives authentically, full of promise and absent perfection. Byas crafts her lines from whatever corner of the room she converts into a confessional booth. She still succumbs to other gazes—and admits we might never fully shake them off. But in these poems, she gestures toward progress and palms several keys that might unlock a more integrated self.
“Here, let me translate—I’ve unhoed / myself I’ve pulled myself from loose soil I’ve / rewhittled the word as gauze to pack my wound,” she writes late in the collection.
Seizing language, Byas proves it’s possible to unite your many sides. Or, at least, to fashion a whole self from your favorite fragment, the shard that catches enough light and life to become a stained-glass window. After all, as Jane Hirshfield wrote: “a self in exile is still a self”; Byas’s poems labor to end the exile.
Shutter gently, compassionately calls readers into reckoning. I understand the book isn’t intended for me. And as a white man, Byas’s poems offer a lens to examine ways in which I split myself daily, and how my gaze initiates fracture in others. I’m grateful for the unflinching look it encourages. Other readers will locate themselves differently, specifically, as Byas’s very intimate poems cultivate a common language for gazing from outside in and inside out.
Shutter ultimately exists as an act of compassion, extended first from Byas to herself, then to all who read along. Paying herself just a sliver of the attention she deserves, Byas models right attention for the rest of us.
Aarik Danielsen is the arts editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri and teaches at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a regular column, The (Dis)content, for Fathom Magazine, and has been published at Image Journal, Plough, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, EcoTheo Review, and more.