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Review: Blood / Sugar, by James Byrne

The way the Peruvian avant-gardist poet Cesar Vallejo described language as being the dark nebulae of life that dwells on the turn of a sentence... can be applied here to the irrefutable poetics of James Byrne. For he has constructed a collection of poems of considerable imaginative pressure, a vice-like poetical ethos, which, in the majority of this book, subjects the language to a rigorous calibration of itself; poems of such exactitude and accuracy that it is almost as if Byrne is attempting to replicate and reconstruct his own jaw at the potter's wheel of his imagining. I suppose any 'rogue' poetical note would be for this poet something to betray the Hymn. According to Geoffrey Hill, difficult poetry is the most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings, and this can most definitely be said of the requirements of the reader facing these innovative poems.

Episodic, the spine: mother
as lunar sphinx. Her scent
Earth's unconsummated air

from Prospecting Several Instances of Active Imagination

Byrne is the editor of Britain's most important independent poetry magazine The Wolf, and his expert and scrupulous eye is applied rigorously throughout this book. From one poem to the next, he shrouds and unshrouds his own identity before the sacrament of his 'meaning', walking us through a Borges-like inner labyrinth of his own etymological and cognitive libraries, where we see 'glints' of his mind reflected and deflected, and thus his ideas multiply and mirror themselves into an enfilade of intuitive personal specks on the horizon. The spacing of the poems is such that if we breathe in the wrong places, then Byrne seems to instinctively create new linguistic lungs for us - while his own imaginative position is declared in his brilliant elegy for the poet Peter Redgrove:

We apprentice poets need an innovator
'verbal haemoglobin', not a casket key.
I repeat the only rule you knew as mantra:

everything is invitation

Apprentice Work

His ear also is exemplary, and we feel him 'set' nouns and verbs like subterranean stones into the mineral silence of the page. Images that hold as firm as geology against the geyser-pressure of the ink:

Silvery Mineral.
The cat's-eye winks
From its luteous coat.

Vitreous, though resolute,
Its kindly glamour

from Dowry for an Aerophobic

His poems are constantly moving and shifting the syntactical plates of the earth beneath our feet. Flash-points of poetical contraction occur that seem to re-brick the architecture of the poem before our eyes, so that by using his images as 'windows' he allows us to peer into his mind's darkest corners:

the way faces
shapeshift in knots of the wardrobe.
I wake to the dark, thinking of her.

from What Remains of Old Addresses

Byrne is a truly modern poet, diagnosing what Holderlin described as our 'germinating days' but from the vantage point of today. He has understood what the philosopher John Gray means when he remarks that ideas have consequences; but rarely those their authors expect or desire - and he tussles with these 'consequences' in every poem. For he has realized that there is not one single imagination and not one single mind, but only the infinite potentialities that prevent the mind from renouncing ideas before they have had time to bear fruit. Byrne picks up on this and answers himself in lines of unanswerable self-prophecy:

It is the pip in our own voice
that terrifies:
the voice of the sweetening epic

from Two Phonecalls at 4am

There are also a number of poems that declare something of a filial sentiment (The Ashes, The Minister's Daughter), but which in truth seem more akin to the interior-stricken gene-pools of the poet Trakl, whereby the past, the present and the possible future fail to syncretize into an audible 'now'. Such as in these lines:

Their strange breed of surface tension
is capable of locking a bedroom door.
The villain is a ghost in white sheets.

from Incest

It seems Byrne would have gained easy entry into Holderlin's 'aesthetic church' where everything and everyone must be brought up to full artistic and poetical perfection. And for this reason alone his poems might well appear too 'knowing' for some readers - that of course is the reader's concern, not the poet's. The literary and artistic references are many and wide, such as Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, Gerhard Richter, Mayakovsky, C.G Jung, Al. Mutanabbi or Katherine Mansfield, among others. However, this does not result in antinomies that he cannot resolve, but rather testify to the incessant evolution of his poetics and enables him to explore the widest literary terrain as possible on which to draft his own shadow.

Towards the end of the collection, the 'Inclub Satires' section reveals another side of Byrne's poetical consciousness, and is a necessary, devastating and much needed wake-up call for all those still deluding themselves that British poetry is in a healthy state. Byrne hurls his pen like a spanner into the clunking machinery of this lie, to force each new poetical clone (handling prize-winning cheque with a fake smile crowbarring the jaw) to utter each self-recorded cliché of an answer onto a loop:

Aside from distinguished friends
my most calculable of judges
Aside from those who clutch
- as we must in these times -
the common candle

Larkin's limpet-clinging proxy-squad' are well and truly thrown from the stage:

Witness the shitting of vowels,
the convulsive flux,
the bronze eye,
those familiar orchestral gesturing
turning away
to thoughts of legacy.

from Inclub Satires

What James Byrne proves throughout Blood / Sugar, a book of absolute and genuine originality, is that he is capable of being profound - what the British poet rarely, if ever, can be. Acute and heuristic, he has managed to decipher in deep poetical hieroglyphics the epoch around him. Byrne disarms history and the 'history' of the poem within the poem: and if each of them is a codex, a phylactery of meaning waiting still to be discovered, then so much the better.