Skip to main content

Guest Review: Jones on Byrne

Joshua Jones reviews
by James Byrne

James Byrne’s second collection is intimidatingly vast. It veers between silencing clarity and semi-placeable intellect and image, relishes hinging between ‘mainstream’ and ‘innovative’/ ‘experimental’ stylistics. The intimation of a stable self flickers in and out of an ever-shifting linguistic world, encompassing the obscurely personal and the retroactive incorporation of intellectual/artistic history, constructing and reconstructing a present out of the past, ducking and diving between the two and spanning continents in single poems. Kinsella points out in the blurb that not for a moment does ‘the intellectual rigour [diminish] the vitality of the work... It sparkles with wit and irony’. I half-agree – Byrne can strike the reader with a phrase of image – “let me be able to conjure your best side,//to have some kind of grip on the intactness/of living, the way mirrors do” – yet there are numerous moments when the writing seems to be stumbling through its own density and compression. Nonetheless, I am more than willing to forgive this in a work that has as much ambition as Blood/Sugar does.

In the introduction to Voice Recognition (Bloodaxe, 2009) Byrne wrote (along with Clare Pollard) of our “era in which we must quickly understand our impact on this planet”, along with expressing the desire for poetry “to be a powerful antidote to the daily drone of advertising and political propaganda”. Ecopoetry Blood/Sugar is not, but it does indeed prove to be refreshing, if not antidotal, in light not only of the societal and political situation of the contemporary Western world but of the often droning nature of a contemporary poetry fed by the “MA conveyor-belt”. Byrne’s resolutely ‘difficult’ poetics, paired with an incorporation of a more ‘mainstream’ ethos (compare his work with other contemporary poets such as, say, Keston Sutherland) and an international subject matter, breaks free of the dominant British poetic culture that is often still rather insular and Movement-addled and confronts big issues and ideas with a scope unseen in a lot of recent UK poetry.

Despite the evident influence of Pound, there is very little deindividualisation here. The ‘I’ is welcome, if never quite allowed to become comfortable. In ‘Days of 1973’, obscure family history is utilised in a dissection of the historicity of one’s memories. The speaker immerses himself in old photographs, constructs as much as he recalls (“We rolled down the stairs – she and I – /three weeks from birth”), but in the process conveys a vision of the past far more effective than the average childhood reminiscence poem which seems to be plaguing UK lyric poetry at the moment[1]. Here there is no stasis, no stability. “If it cannot be translated as it was”, Byrne writes, “a ‘version’ empowers me”.

‘Days of 1973’ also provides us with a key into how Byrne’s poetry functions throughout this collection:

          To walk in the shadows of the forest
          is to invite further shadows.

          The light astonishes from every exit point.

His poetry, when it succeeds (which is more often than not), functions much like this. The reader is invited into a world of private language made public, a honed diction and beguiling clarity, which acknowledges the impossibility of a referent outside of itself but pushes towards it, and even if there is no “exit point” of absolute meaning one can take from the work, there are glimpses through which “[t]he light astonishes”.

Some of the best poems in the collection are the ekphratic pieces, taken mostly from photographs. In these, language is either the endpoint, a sensuous game of signifiance (as in those inspired by Gerhard Richter), or quite the opposite (Claude Cahun), in which metonymic visions of history are filtered through unknown ‘I’s.

In an early poem, ‘Apprentice Work’, in memoriam Peter Redgrove, Byrne writes:

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

          everything is invitation.

It is possible that Byrne could be just that. His work displays the potential a truly hybrid poetry can have for lyrical innovation, international influence, political relevance and, perhaps most importantly, readerly pleasure[2]. It invites one into its private world, a world imbued with intersubjective observation, a world which is always gazing out of itself. And hopefully, it will invite more readers and writers to stray away from the safety of the conventional.

Joshua Jones published his debut collection, Thought Disorder, in 2010 with Knives Forks and Spoons Press. He edits the website Etcetera and is in the final year of his BA at UEA.


[1] A cursory glance through Identity Parade provides ample evidence for this.
[2] By which, I should point out, I do not mean ‘readerly’ (lisible) in the Barthesian sense.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Review of the new Simple Minds album - Walk Between Worlds

Taste is a matter of opinion - or so goes one opinion. Aesthetics, a branch of pistols at dawn, is unlikely to become unruffled and resolved any time soon, and meantime it is possible to argue, in this post-post-modern age, an age of voter rage, that political opinion trumps taste anyway. We like what we say is art. And what we say is art is what likes us.

Simple Minds - the Scottish band founded around 1977 with the pale faces and beautiful cheekbones, and perfect indie hair cuts - comes from a time before that - from a Glasgow of poverty and working-class socialism, and religiosity, in a pre-Internet time when the heights of modernity were signalled by Kraftwerk, large synthesisers, and dancing like Bowie at 3 am in a Berlin club.

To say that early Simple Minds was mannered is like accusing Joyce of being experimental. Doh. The band sought to merge the icy innovations of German music with British and American pioneers of glam and proto-punk, like Iggy Pop; their heroes were contrived,…

THE WINNER OF THE SIXTH FORTNIGHT PRIZE IS...



Wheeler Light for 'Life Jacket'.

The runner-up is: Daniel Duffy - 'President Returns To New York For Brief First Visit'

Wheeler Light currently lives in Boulder, Colorado.



Life Jacket

summer camp shirtsI couldn’t fit in then
are half my size nowI wanted to wear
smaller and smallerarticles of clothing
I shrunk to the sizethat disappeared

of an afterthoughtin a sinking ship body
too buoyant to sinktoo waterlogged for land
I becamea dot of sand

THE BEVERLY PRIZE SUPER SHORTLIST FINALISED!

Dr Bruce Meyer, a significant Canadian poet and writer, will be the final judge for this year's Beverly Prize For International Writing - the impressive super shortlist of 18 international poets and writers is announced below.
Any original unpublished manuscript, in English, by anyone living anywhere in the world, writing in any genre or on any topic, prose, non-fiction or poetry (even drama) is eligible, making it arguably the world's most eclectic "broad church" literary scouting prize. Last year's debut winner was Sohini Basak (her book is being launched in Bloomsbury July 5th, 2018).

The rules of the prize stipulate that any author chosen for the shortlist agrees to accept publication with Eyewear if judged to be the final winner; and may not be entered into other competitions at this final stage of adjudication.
Bruce Meyer is author of more than 60 books of poetry, short fiction, non-fiction, literary journalism, and portraiture. He was winner of the Gwendolyn…