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Review: Blood / Sugar, by James Byrne

Helena Nelson, Ambit 200, Spring 2010

I liked this collection best when I read it backwards. That is to say when I started with the Notes pages (which I welcomed) and went in reverse order. There is a reason for this, about which I shall come clean.

If you start at the front, the first poem is Recovery, a lyric in two-line stanzas which demonstrates beautifully how aware Byrne is of the dramatic intensity commanded by delaying impact, by stretching sentences to their limit, by working the white space:

There are dinner-halls you have silenced
with a single spark of wit,

there are men you have governed
through pure scent, pure posture.

I start to be less comfortable on the next page when the white space gets bigger, ellipses appear in little clumps (sometimes inside brackets) and asterisks invade. Asterisks do something to my sensibility I don't like. If I were at school, I would be the kid making a venomous hole with the point of my pencil through every evil asterisk. This reaction is neither rational nor helpful.

So let me recommence at the back of the book, where the asterisks take longer to appear or are less intrusive. I am fine with the modestly asterisky Thieves' Society, for example: the language is gorgeously dressed:

In Garry bars the once-ambrosial. Rounds of Happyslap. Hophead.
Stick in the gullet blade. Two taps to bald the face of a kitchen window.
The boiler suit fits all. The foursquare room with a chain-bit libbard.

It is Doctor One-Eye before there is serious asterisk invasion, and although I don't really understand this poem, I'm desensitized by now. I'm clocking the fact that this is intelligent stuff, lots of allusions, some humour, playfulness and - hey - not all my cup of tea but I like enough to make me think this man repays proper scrutiny. I think Avoiding a Close Reading of Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns is excellent; and I like The Ashes and Entry (Cornwall 1991) a lot. I don't subscribe to the blurb on the back cover, which suggests I should be knocked off my chair by Byrne as 'phenomenon', but he has my attention. He has my attention...