Feature : A river of poetry

An El Paso alchemist turns fire into a river of poetry

If you ever have the chance to meet author Lee Merrill Byrd, and I hope you do (she’ll be appearing June 5 at the Twig), I think you’ll notice that there is something metaphysical about her. She seems to exist in a plane slightly exalted from our earthbound pettiness. Her husband, Bobby, the poet and co-publisher (with Lee) of El Paso’s Cinco Puntos Press, is all dirt and sweat and blood; Lee is light and air.

But Riley’s Fire, her debut novel published this spring by Algonquin Books, is about a 7-year-old phoenix, who rises, page by page, from the ashes of a terrible accident. The book is based in part on a playhouse fire that injured two of the Byrds’ sons. Those boys now recovered and grown, that long-ago fire has been transmuted into a river of thought and emotion, much of it channeled through the mind of the story’s protagonist, Riley.

“He was sure `his parents` had tried to prevent his destiny just like Sleeping Beauty’s parents had tried to prevent hers,” Riley explains to an imaginary audience as he lies in his bed at the original Shriners Burn Unit in Galveston, Texas. “But it hadn’t done any good. The fire had called him, just as sure a thing as the needle on Sleeping Beauty’s spinning wheel — the match was lit and the journey began.”

The novel’s hopes, fears, and observations clearly spring, however, from the mind of the mother, who is tasked with the most difficult recovery of all: She bears the family’s fragile future on her shoulders, and by the end of the tale, she is unbearably frayed and frightened for her son, who must make his way in the world with a new face. Mentally and emotionally depleted, she doesn’t yet comprehend the profound metamorphosis that Riley has undergone inside his new skin. Byrd conveys this exquisite hell through the minutiae of the day, the doctor’s visits, the annoyances of other patients’ families, the long, idle hours.

The book’s success, though, ultimately hinges on Byrd’s successful melding of American literary pragmatism and a touch of the magical realism so common south of the border. It makes for a very Texan magical realism; one we would expect from a metaphysicist from El Paso.

- Elaine Wolff