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.
-From “Mirror Stage”
Taylor Byas continues to prove she is one of the preeminent voices in poetry today with the release of her chapbook, Shutter, from Madhouse Press. Like her debut chapbook Bloodwarm, this is a collection that illustrates Byas’ absolute mastery of form. Byas blends a keen technical understanding of craft with a firm grasp of voice that renders even the most familiar forms fresh and exciting. Shutter is equally successful for its accessibility and relatability, centering poems that are at once concretely grounded in personal experience and immediately familiar to any reader who experiences self-doubt, heartbreak, and loneliness.
“Nikon Coolpix, S210,” the last poem in the collection, is one of the most successful pantoums I have ever encountered. Byas frames the poem with the line “Once, I wanted a camera, another set of eyes…” As the poem progresses, the speaker grapples with the desire to be seen and desired, only to culminate in the realization that trying to appeal to an outside spectator prevents the speaker from truly becoming herself. With “Photography,” Byas utilizes the duplex form created by contemporary Jericho Brown. Like the pantoum, the duplex is built upon repetition. “Photography,” which appears early in the collection, seems to act as a precursor to “Nikon Coolpix, S210,” as the speaker draws meaning from the photographer who captures her.
Shutter is about more than form, of course. With this collection, Byas waxes philosophical from the opening poem, which responds to Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage. The poem uses a literal mirror as the medium for self-reflection, presenting two moments a decade apart that demonstrate the speaker learning to love her physical form and “the I [she’s] been straining to touch for years.” Byas also takes a hard look at the etymology of language, specifically the terms “bitch” and “cunt,” in a pair of odes to the words. These poems critique the ways in which misogyny manifests through the normalization of derogatory terms for womanhood.
Though Byas experiments with numerous forms and structures, Shutter finds cohesion in its central conflict. The collection presents a speaker who relies on external validation, leading to a relationship that turns toxic and damaging. As the collection moves forward, the speaker shows a deeper and deeper sense of self, ultimately reaching the understanding that seeking approval results in a loss of herself. Byas presents deeply vulnerable and painful moments with candor and grace, all while creating a collection that moves ever closer to joy and an acceptance of self.
Shutter is as clever as it is tender, as technically sound as it is invigorating. This is a collection you will return to often, each time learning a little more about the poet, about the self.