Review: Byssus by Jen Hadfield

by Katie Hibner

It’s like an intricately-versed, extra-high-definition nature special. Although its imagery is vivid, determining meanings in Jen Hadfield’s poetry collection, Byssus, can be as murky and sticky as trudging through a bog of mollusks. You may often struggle to peel the parasitic, wonky dialect and labyrinthine imagery away from the core message behind each piece. I find, however, that the drudgery is worth it: the collection obliterates the barrier between the barbarism of the natural world and the supposed “civility” of humanity, unleashing its shellfish to rove through your subconscious. 


Thankfully, Hadfield chose to supplement her esoteric dialect with a glossary of jargon from Shetland, a series of Scottish islands she frequents. Some gems from the glossary include “ootadaeks” (outside the hill-dykes), “spoot” (razor clam), and “whaup” (curlew). As whimsical as this slang is, Hadfield installs its playfulness to serve as a foil to the darkness of one of her primary themes: the symbiotic relationship between beauty and brutality. “Byssus” is not a Shetland-specific term, but its meaning is central to the crux of this collection. It refers to the cluster of sticky fibers that allow mollusks to attach to rocks and other objects. As a mollusk clings to stone, brutishness latches on to grace.

Not only does Hadfield include a glossary, she features a poem titled “Definitions,” cleverly re-envisioning the creatures and characters populating our lives, from the bitter orange to our parents who still (disturbingly) act like young lovers. The definition of the collection itself can be found in her summary of a puffin. Creatively, she exemplifies it not in life, but death, as “a tangled marionette, strings of jerked sinew…An arabesque of smelly bone, meat for flies and the darling turf. The head may be full of meat; the large beak, faded: a Fabergé egg.” The puffin has both been reduced to stringy, smelly meat, but preserved like imperial jewelry. Brutality follows beauty and vice-versa. The juxtaposition epitomizes Hadfield’s arresting imagery, searing with its contradictions.

Unfortunately, these images sometimes smother each other. Like animals fighting over carrion, Hadfield’s sensory details compete in lines such as: “[Pain’s] back-combed beehive / of tawny fur / thickened to a grizzly’s ruff; a compass” (“You were running a bath, and being Gulliver”). All the images glitter individually, but when they unite, they blind. The close proximity of the animal comparisons makes the line all the more convoluted and confusing.

The poem redeems itself in the upcoming stanza, however; for Hadfield writes that the arc of the aforementioned pain describes a moth “wing’s dust-art of shaded triangles and intersecting lines; twinned, symmetrical / coffee-coloured dots.” These stanzas communicate not only the proximity of allure and suffering, but also their interdependence and how one spawns the other. Once again, Hadfield stuns her readers with breakneck contrasts. She crams the conflicting shards into their minds, forcing them to flex so they can accept and grow from the oppositions. Such moments exercise creative muscles— this is definitely a read for budding writers.

Although nature’s paradoxes are fascinating, Hadfield intends for her TV special to puncture through the small screen and reach humanity itself. Her heavy themes are occasionally perked up with snarky social commentary such as “We climb the hill in the dark and the children are finally given back their iPhones.” A not particularly nuanced, but still amusing take on society’s technological dependence, natural imagery penetrates the human realm in this piece, as the children “cracked open their phones like geodes.” In “Equus Primus”, another definition poem, Hadfield equates imperfectly-created animals, “another batch of underdone horses,” to “[a] tribe of blackened emoticons, blackened as plugs.” She seals the gap between man and nature in “Saturday Morning.” In this scorching prose poem, Hadfield likens our nervous digits to thirsty roots we conceal beneath our personas, claiming that “at least half of you’s still below the surface, probing the pillow with xylem fingers, and so wishing for a body to match yours that you would even love your enemy…”

Not only does Byssus allow us front-row seats to marvel at the glorious gore of the natural world, it shatters the pixelated boundary keeping us cozy on the couch, thrusting us headlong into its glamorous gladiator games. It also dunks your mind into a sea of sticky contradictions—your creativity grows stronger as your spar your way through.

We’re revisiting our archives today—this post originally appeared on January 7th, 2015.

— Writer Katie Hibner hails from Cincinnati, Ohio.