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. 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. 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.