Bronwyn Lang reviews Domestic Archaeology by Kelly Pilgrim-Byrne

Domes­tic Archaeology

by Kelly Pilgrim-Byrne

Grand Parade Poets, 2012


Reviewed by BRONWN LANG

This is Kelly Pilgrim-Byrne’s sec­ond pub­li­ca­tion.  Her first, Peo­ple from Bones, was co-authored with Bron Bate­man and the new col­lec­tion, Domes­tic Archae­ol­ogy, “has been ten years in the mak­ing and aims to take you on the jour­ney of infer­til­ity and out the other side with your opti­mism left firmly intact.”  Pilgrim-Byrne is indeed true to her aspi­ra­tions and it is the unflinch­ing expo­sure of the per­sonal that makes this col­lec­tion so charm­ing. What seems strik­ing about this col­lec­tion is the anthro­pocen­tric inven­tive­ness; the way Pilgrim-Byrne’s use of nature adds lay­ers to her per­sonal poems.

We Mums

 A third of Laysan alba­tross pairs are female and have been known
to cou­ple for up to 19 years.

We’re  Laysan Alba­tross Peo­ple
co-operatively breed­ing a new gen­er­a­tion
of squawk­ing indi­vid­u­als

Domes­tic Archae­ol­ogy offers the reader a detailed review of Pilgrim-Byrne’s bio­graph­i­cal expe­ri­ence and her famil­ial land­scape. Fer­til­ity / infer­til­ity are a cen­tral theme and through­out her col­lec­tion weave a sequence of poems which doc­u­ment the author’s per­sonal jour­ney through four and a half years of IVF treat­ment with her same sex part­ner and the even­tual birth of their daugh­ter. Pilgrm-Byrne is writ­ing for and from her times. The sub­ject mat­ter of her poetry is unique in its approach to  uni­ver­sal themes and their expres­sion in the con­tem­po­rary world.  She uses her poet­ics to spec­ify and detail the expe­ri­ence of same sex moth­er­hood in lyric and metaphoric layers.


the slice of her abdomen
the slick and slip, pull and tug
your quiv­er­ing arrival

deliv­ers the (other) mother


Domes­tic Archae­ol­ogy is a trip­tych, each ter­ri­tory of which is exceeded in size by the next. These sec­tions chron­i­cle the jour­ney between and beyond fer­til­ity / infer­til­ity. When viewed as a whole, this nar­ra­tive appears to begin in medias res  with  “Venus of Wil­len­dorf  … Her vulva trapped / between fold and fat, / a lux­u­ri­ous peak / of con­ver­gence” (9); this ekphras­tic poem also fea­tured in The Best Aus­tralian Poetry 2009 anthol­ogy.

Like lay­ers of sed­i­ment the three sub­di­vi­sions within Domes­tic Archae­ol­ogy, “Exca­va­tion”, “Fauna” and “Cat­a­logu­ing”, invite the reader into a process of unearthing, dis­cov­ery and con­struc­tion of narrative.

For those who came before

I feel as if I have let you down
scrubbed out all your hard earned
phys­i­cal hand-me-downs
bro­ken the chain–a thou­sand years
of pox on me. 


Yet here’s an intrigu­ing thing about fam­i­lies
–sim­i­lar­i­ties are not all hard-wired
and in our daugh­ter we see facial expres­sions,
overex­cite­ment, or the flour­ish of a hand ges­ture
that have been gifted from you by me to her
a pre­cious pack­age of inheritance.”


Despite the inti­mate focus of the nar­ra­tive, this col­lec­tion never slips into self-indulgence. In part, this is because the very per­sonal and con­fes­sional mate­r­ial dom­i­nat­ing the con­tent is tem­pered with works such as “My Maiden Aunt’s Lips” and “Snake in my laun­dry room (4am)” which view the author’s imme­di­ate sur­round­ings through a wider lens. Per­haps this is the most obvi­ous in Fauna which con­sists of a series of poems which are deft and ana­lytic in their exam­i­na­tion of var­i­ous liv­ing crea­tures. Any risk of sen­ti­men­tal­ity is also avoided through Pilgrim-Byrne’s wry sense of humour.

I’m going to build a mon­u­ment to infer­til­ity
where there will be no penises no breasts.

There will def­i­nitely be no vagi­nas–
though there will be lips
and they will be pursed and cinched
and of course, downturned. 

These lips will not be dusted red
and they will not be plumped,
they will be …


Domes­tic Archae­ol­ogy deals with pow­er­ful emo­tions and the expe­ri­ences of grief and loss. These poems appear along­side the ecsta­tic; har­mony is found between the felic­i­tous tone of these works and those of the darker poems such as “Home” writ­ten “In mem­ory of Raf­ferty James Man­hatan Downes 15/7/11 – 30/7/11” and “There’s a crack in every­thing, that’s how the light gets in”.

And I learnt that if there is a God  
prayer isn’t the lan­guage he under­stands
because if this Kris guy, after two years of liv­ing on the cusp of Hell
has been sent home to make books and videos for his sons …
if there’s no hope for him
then we’d all bet­ter learn to let the light in.


The longest poem in this col­lec­tion is “Juve­nesv­cence, vari­a­tions on a theme”. In this nine part piece apho­rism and pow­er­ful imagery com­bine in an impres­sive whole.

busi­ness stu­dents learn
how to rule the world, the arts kids shape it
sci­en­tists (for bet­ter or worse) change it


… Lis­ten
like drums
with their skin pulled tight
how the young sound


The poem from which this col­lec­tion takes its name is an excel­lent one from which to draw the essence of Pilgrim-Byrne’s solo debut. Here, evoca­tive imagery meets the unclut­tered strength of her free-verse.

Like exca­va­tors
we sift through sim­ple ruins
cul­ti­vat­ing peo­ple from bones.


Domes­tic Archae­ol­ogy is the third col­lec­tion released by Grand Parade Poets, a press which believes poetry “must be at once elit­ist and demo­c­ra­tic since it brings high-powered imag­i­na­tive enter­tain­ment and intel­lec­tual plea­sure to those will­ing to meet it at least part of the way. Grand Parade Poets wishes to pub­lish poets of music, pas­sion and intel­li­gence”[1] and, like Pil­grim Byrnes her­self, this pub­lisher also deliv­ers what it promises.


[1] Wearne, A.  An Acci­den­tal Pub­lisher: Alan Wearne on Grand Parade Poets and Christo­pher Ban­ti­nck, [16.11.2011]