The front cover of James Byrne’s collection, entitled Blood/Sugar, is intriguing and inviting; its rear cover houses two highly supportive testimonials, one by Australian poet John Kinsella, and the other by renowned English poet, Penelope Shuttle, which attest to the perceived riches within. The first impression that Byrne’s work evokes is one of admiration for his erudition; his routine and assured use of the biblical, the mythical and the historical might liken him to some ancient sage. An example of this can be found in Byrne’s poem of homage to Great War poet Rupert Brookes, “11.1.89 On Brooke’s Soldier”, where directly quoted lines are juxtaposed with Byrne’s own foot-perfect stepping through Brooke’s “Foreign Field”. Byrne offers up many examples in this anthology; each is clever and measured.
Byrne apparently divides his life between his home country of England and his half-home of New York City. Amongst his several literary quests and achievements he has famously translated the Yemeni national anthem into English. He publishes Burmese poets, has had his own work translated into Arabic, and has won Serbian Poetry Festival prizes. This would suggest that he is someone comfortable with literary worlds, and this is certainly borne out in Blood/Sugar. I say “certainly” with a hint of irony, because this anthology is (virtually) an adverb-free zone. Like the most gifted of writers, Byrne has no need to over-emphasise his descriptive mastery.
The second impression of this anthology is the utter versatility contained within, and this applies to the inconstant layouts as much as the catholic pin-balling of theme and style. The effect suggests an anthology of ice-sculptures, each awe-inspiringly different, each chiselled to perfection, each with obvious unflawed clarity, but each lacking, deliberately or otherwise, in warmth. Blood/Sugar is no bubble-bath of a read; there is no submersion in soppy semi-subtle alliteration and no similes lurch up like user-friendly puppies to lick your senses. Byrne’s figures of speech are as eloquent, sometimes even as grandiloquent, as they are shuddering. “Nucleotidal, divided as woman”, from the poem “Prospecting Several Instances of Active Imagination”, demands respect yet speaks volumes; his reference to “Her scent Earth’s unconsummated air”, in the same piece, is an example of metaphorical mastery.
There are 44 disparate pieces in Blood/Sugar, and the titles, such as “Incest”, “Chess in Kirkuk”, “Air Terminals” or “A Room in the House of Aries”, play perfect testimony to Byrne’s easy ability to fascinate and show Byrne’s ability to work on each of his chosen playfields. In reading all of these, the density of meaning makes it difficult to put this book down without feeling wiser even if the effect of reading leaves one a little enervated. Knowing that Mayakovsky had a brain weighing 300 grams more than average or the unerringly accurate assessment of the immensity of the Bamiyan Buddhas may seem more a catalogue of facts than the ammunition of poetics.
Blood/Sugar is a book to be put down and lifted – not devoured in pieces that might choke. To my mind, it would be a book whose ownership always lies with the writer rather than the possessor. It is thought-provoking, if only to serve the reader as a paradigm of another’s intellect — impressive in a cool sense — More to be remembered in the passing through of it rather than to be gently lodged in the mind.