Elena Karina Byrne reviews Stella Hayes’ One Strange Country

One Strange Country, by Stella Hayes

What Books Press, 2020

Paperback, 92 pgs, $15.95

Review by Elena Karina Byrne

            This marvelous debut collection One Strange Country by Russian-American poet Stella Hayes calls forth Donald Revell’s expression that “The world is alive and languaging” (The Art of Attention) between those physical and metaphysical truths we hold as sacred in poetry. Language is sight and insight–– a place for refuge. Here, the poet directs our attention along her own “invisible trail of restlessness & despair.” Between action & mediation the poet discovers a new country where belonging is a necessary part of survival. In many of her poems, Hayes makes it clear that exile is the “struggle of one among many,” a force of gravity that battles the spirit. In “Walking Through the Underworld” she says,

            … you won’t recognize me. I see a twin likeness in the shadows, 

            under a thin light. we will be shadowless; skipping through somewhere where we can’t

            or won’t want to be from 

The self as other, as interlocutor, reappears on this course of transformation. The book’s geography of home becomes her shifting ground where “postwar boulevards” can be found wherever we look. Yet the scope of Hayes’ vision is broad reaching where she unifies philosophical manifestations of the personal with political history and loss with love. Like the “deflating atlas” in the poet’s hands, the speaker aptly surmises another kind of displacement:

            If silence had a sound, it would sound like loss without a heartbeat   

                        A ghost moving in for good

Because quite simply, “Resting in exile,” the mind knows no bounds, has no boundaries but those belonging to each hour’s undoing. Inside “her own hologram/ which keeps splitting & splintering off,” the poet’s language figures as time, forever “compressing years    to seconds.”  This theme scientifically comes alive in her poem “Day’s Break.”

            The map resetting the brain, one syllabled synapse at a time.

            Forming & reshaping a carbon footprint & possibly carbon making up

                        The pieces of infinity

Each meditation is an act of translation, whether a “deteriorated mix of weed-grass” or “the hair to unpin,” and upheld by the poet’s visual language of metaphor. The reader will find a natural cadence of the heart in the same way “a blossom enclosed in itself a whisper” somewhere between the daring heavens and the darker earth. 

            ; This intelligent first collection rises inside a quiet joy; it defies what John Ashbery describes as a “visible core” in his seminal poem “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” where once, there may have been “no way out of the problem of pathos vs. experience.” Her “repudiation of now” reconstructs fresh expectations for the “indefinite future” still full of past conflicts. Nevertheless, whether employing accident or will, this writer liberates the energy we need “to get it right” in the next life that only the imagination can offer. 


Elena Karina Byrne, Poetry Consultant for The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and Literary Programs Director for The Ruskin Art Club, is a freelance editor and professor. Her fifth collection If This Makes You Nervous (Omnidawn) arrives October 1, 2021.