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This review is taken from PN Review 195, Volume 37 Number 1, September - October 2010.

VERBAL HAEMOGLOBIN JAMES BYRNE Blood/Sugar (Arc 2009)

As editor of one of the most forward-looking and edgy of recent poetry magazines, The Wolf, and co-editor of an illuminating anthology of British poets under thirty, Voice Recognition, James Byrne might be described as having his finger on a pulse of the contemporary scene. The slight surprise, then, on first looking into Blood/Sugar, is how unmodish his second volume is; how like the work of an already-accomplished practitioner – subtly wrought, allusive, demanding of rereading – and how far from the all-too-immediate middlebrow offerings many poets of his generation are producing. In renouncing shortcuts and stock- patterns and resuscitating the difficult, intellectually challenging work one associates with Modernism and its later adherents (Pound, Lowell and Hill are important influences), Byrne is fol lowing through the critical project of The Wolf in clearing a space for serious-minded, carefully crafted poems – whether they derive from mainstream or avant garde contexts – to gain a new currency among readers jaundiced by prevailing orthodoxies.

The title, with its slashing oblique, hints at a a negotiating of incompatibilities. If ‘blood’ connotes (among other things) family/violence/bitterness (of taste), it is set against ‘sugar’, with its connotations of romance/love/sweetness. The two are inseparable: blood-sugar is a compound essential for bodily survival. Byrne concurs with Blake that ‘Without contraries is no progression’, but we should avoid reading Blood/Sugar in terms of binary oppositions. Rather, the collection as a whole skews the antinomies it initially sets up, working towards complex open- ended dialogue.
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