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Review: Blood / Sugar, by James Byrne

A House for the English Mythologies

This almost-recent release of James Byrne's new book follows on from Passages of Time, released seemingly many moons ago, although it may be worth stating that 'follows on from' gives only partial illumination on what Byrne is up to these days.

While the earlier collection was a testing ground for a number of different attitudes and atmospheres, Blood/Sugar is more focused, distinct and stalwart than the previous collection.

While many poems have clearly defined subject matter or more rounded or enclosed narrative devices, the majority are happy to leave their respective themes open-ended; node stones for a particular passion or belief, or fascinations and reading matter (after Ezra Pound, who is quoted a number of times throughout the collection) as indications on the always incomplete journey of human learning.
Blood/Sugar, also, is a lot more clear on the poet's thematic and literary lineage than Byrne's previous collection. An early poem, Apprentice Work, clearly demarcates the territory of influence in the wake of the death of the British poet Peter Redgrove, the poem ending with the solemn (and useful) piece of advice:

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

everything is invitation

...also a good way into this text as a whole. Everything is invitation. Read it again. It is important.

The other aspects of the book very much traverse, and are in conscious conversation with, other poets, and poems, past and future, and display a wide range of reference across realms of poetry and assorted theory... to be noted only in as much as this attitude is absent from much new poetry. Poems, here, are patchworks of personal significances, rendering up interesting connections between people and things, the atmosphere of a search for a form of life code is ever present, again much absent from contemporary poetry, and celebrated here. Also questions of translation, and life as translation, come up (in all their forms), naturally enough for a poet no stranger to translation:

If it cannot be translated as it was...
A 'version' empowers me:
Pain is inevitable...
(how we clown after it)
Suffering is optional
(the first rule of confession).

There is a calmness and distance here which allows that truth to sink in. I watch young children as I watch uncles, aunts, fathers, mothers, strangers... and ask for a process that allows us to see where time thrusts its hands into us as spiritual awareness rather than the same reactionary behaviours. Pain is inevitable... / (how we clown after it). So I read these lines again. They are important.
And from Two Phonecalls at 4 am:

Lacking the mirror-work of Cocteau's Orphee
or the white throat of a Busoni sonata,
mismouths become crosscuts,
the blue-black spell:
garlic in the roses.
We offer anecdotes:
Li Po drunk on Saki.
Li Po bent mad over books.
Li Po remade as a lithical martyr by Deng Xiaoping.

All these lines intrigue, in how they've been arranged on the page, in how they cross from the physical to the psychic, the historical... what is missing are perhaps voices that conclude. But the poem is less about connections and more about how the individual is mysteriously revealed in its most pungent aspects, something timely perhaps, in that history is so well read and analysed in our era (particularly in the utmost assuredness of the British psyche) that the founding reasonings behind its multiple existences often escape us. The individual, against it, is reduced to simply a hapless listener, hopefully choosing the correct narratives. The poem, here, stands on the side of the individual/the reader... and this reader wishes for a more forthright spring from which histories are seen as just as fragile. Perhaps the significance of this poem is what it offers, however, rather than its urge toward conclusion...

At a slightly different angle, Blood/Sugar concerns itself with how forms of history harden themselves through the looking glass of the common place (again, a big Poundian theme) in as much as Byrne marks himself out by being very much a questing poet in search of the new; meaning; the 'unreported', that which lies below our official histories, as in The Buddhas of Bamiyan:

'The death, even the disappearance, of something holy
is unreal to me'
says the tour guide,
a local Hazara, trained by Tarzi, who,
when the Taliban torched villages around Kush Mountain,
had to bury all the men in his family.

The entire poem intrigues, and yet the notes don't provide any sources and we are left with questions over whether this is first-hand narrative from the poet, filtered through the normal mainstream-liberal-conservative medias via the usual twisted roaming global authorities.

The poem, then, could strengthen the usefulness of religious idols in assuming their energetic spiritual strength as the only form of cohesion between people, instead of objects of division, stabilization and control... while, as ever, it assumes that something other than Islamization is better while not questioning the entire crucible of religions, as is necessary, and gives no explicit alternatives. It is a poem of problem over solution, and as such, seems oddly unfinished. Forms of cruelty are forms of cruelty, and shouldn't be dignified by any religious reference... and the Buddhas of Bamiyan might be viewed in that regard... perhaps in this way the poem is at least partially successful. The key, here, is that not some thing is holy, but everything is holy. Any dilution of this constitutes social control, a dissonance in the harmony between man and world. But how to acquire wholeness in its positive aspect? To allow those invitations to do their most efficient work?

Another poem that intrigues and stands out is Prospecting Several Instances of Active Imagination, which has Byrne referring to Jung's theory on active imagination in his notes (as a meditation technique often used to translate emotions into images or narratives). This is where, I think, the poet is at his strongest... Byrne delineates lived experience with an exceptionally heightened form of acceptance and tolerance, and the borders between conscious and unconscious experience are where he is at his most consummate... from the final section, which asserts a living history as directly in tune with, and in collaboration with present life, i.e a 'carried history' ('I was dreaming you...')

Light as anthem covering
Cloud-baled mountains.
Chillon's moratorium in bloom.
On a column, under glass:
BYRON. Beside him, my scrawl:
'could not love then as I do here'.

This also brings me to the stronger sense of Byrne's more-clearly defined work ethic, not fully exposed under the more indulgent lyrics of his first collection; the unearthed and utilitarian suggestion that fragmented or linearly separated experience still has a wholeness that the writing of poetry discovers... and that the collection of significances is, in and of itself, NOT the recapitulation of post-modern working methods (the lie of world as unfathomable void in which spiky bits of profundity jut out from the giant morass of the unbearable human 'condition'), but a positive method of retrieving the unity of conscious, sub-conscious, unconscious and super-conscious psychic material, in pieces of original form, or transferred form. This collection exemplifies and frustrates that tension, however, regarding our need for wholeness and narrative.

The method is missing, however, in this poetry (the mytho-poetics mentioned in the book's blurb) in that it chooses to become the wellspring or 'direction' for everything of an individual's frame of reference. The imagination, in this M.O, becomes the director of what sections of world, via all the senses, become the stuff of the poem; to interpret Olson... the poem is transferred energy taken psychically, from where physically the poet got it, meaning the transcendence of self and world, or individuality of world.

Although it's unclear as to how much of the poet's mind moves toward narration and providing answers, or the channeling of a single voice, what should be noted is the abundance of quotes, both literary and experiential, pointedly to 'pick up signals'... like this beautiful final icebreaker from Avoiding a Close Reading of Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns:

Magic is for the staggeringly gifted.
The rest of us are furniture.
We move from room to room.

There is a strength and weakness here, the strength being the ability, the ear, to pick up on this particular conversational jewel... along with the seeming inability, in a collection where the conversational element is so brilliantly 'made use of', to provide a counterpoint, or answer (you could have a whole sequence of poems that jump off from this reflection, it's stuffed full of potentialities, particularly where the study and use of magic in the 21st Century is concerned). Byrne, though, is more happy to leave the plurality of voice intact without being guided toward a lyrical heaviness or the will of one purposeful narrator.

Where mytho-poetic poetries have taken on tinges (and sometimes super-tinges?) of the magical it's to be hoped that Byrne takes on this slant more forcibly in later collections, and I wonder if this ambivalence between fracturedness, narration and plurality of voice, both physically and temporally, is something of a new poetic art of its own, and am happy to leave much of its ambivalences hanging...

As in much of Redgrove's most pointed and persuasive work (and, for me, his ethic was more optimistic and explicit than say Ted Hughes's darker will toward the human within the animal, or within the inanimate land) in Blood/Sugar there is a resistance to framing these bowls of significances too heavily. And, while much of contemporary poetry has grabbed onto the profuse multiplicity of voices within the individual, few have put all these individual eyes (and I's?) so purposefully to work, as displayed here. And work, for this writer, always implies quest.
Having said this, the sequence Inclub Satires, a collection of gossipy reflections on the London poetry circuit, impresses less... if only for its ignorance of satire, when on the printed page, simply becoming another club-unto-itself (fun in conversation, less so on the printed page... maybe this piece may work better when read aloud? Hopefully to the people it is intended to debunk?) Again, here, we see shades of the younger Pound that may only deflect in as much as they seem out of place in a collection of more visionary and mostly overtly metaphysical and 'serious' poems. Perhaps the intention behind them was made particularly so as to have a counterpoint, one can only guess... if so, as entertaining as they are, they're only partially successful within the context of the book entire.

To temper that last reflection, I would definitely refer the reader to The Ashes, which seems to use the gossipy-ness of the satires toward a more interesting purpose, a poem about a man attempting to drink down his father's ashes in order to more effectively grieve. To this reader, this is perhaps an unintended reflection on the sloughing off of each passing generation or the impatience of trying to go one's own way in a world of seeming absolute multiplicity and variety which still reveals itself as un-emotional mass and homogeny... the kind of heartfelt and generous angst which Byrne's poetry is mature enough to be able to accept and shun in equal measure.

What one receives from this collection is partially what one is willing to bring to it... the need for a poetry that may just transform as much as it is able to digress and debunk... this; along with its ability to describe and reflect while still tolerating as much of what the psyche is able to give out without that very 21st Century urge toward self-censorship. In short; something that will, while re-invigorating and unpicking a lineage, calmly open doors for lucid and forthcoming voices in poetry... voices that, while having studied, lived and considered obsessively, are still willing to go all out and say this is what I've discovered, this is what I think about it, and this is how I think it.