Cyril Wong reviews White Coins by James Byrne
by James Byrne
ISBN 978 1908376 47 3
Reviewed by CYRIL WONG
White Coins by UK poet, James Byrne, is a collection that operates zealously across the rich surfaces of semantic interconnectedness and imagistic playfulness. Not unlike more conventional lyric and confessional voices, perhaps, the poet here begins at “a ransacked house” or a home from the past, serving as a familiar starting point for segues across time and dimensions of meaning. The first poem, “Historia,” as the etymology of the title also suggests, is a concerted attempt to gain new knowledge or renewed insight through poetic investigation. There is a vulnerable acknowledgement of once being “six and made of violins” or having experienced how “love blunts.” But there is also a rejuvenation of perspective, such as when a singular leaf becomes a “scapel-like finger”, simultaneously revealing the speaker’s humility at not taking credit for a space of lofty detachment (the leaf “not pointing towards a balance-act”) but yet achieving (“balancing”) that serendipitous equipoise, nonetheless, between an intense emotionality the past evokes and a present opportunity for imaginative reinvention.
The following poem, “Economies of the Living,” a series of dictionary-like entries of aspects of our world refracted through a surrealist lens, furthers the strategy of sustaining a balance between startling description and emotional expressionism. From lyrically sweeping comments on violent mothers, word-portraits of animals to imperative statements about eternity, Byrnes reveals himself to be aligned with the Romantics in their connection to nature and in that yearning to rejoin the spiritual sublime. In the section addressed to “Immortality,” for example, the speaker promises: “I will watch the raked light of sunset over Shardeloes and find you via memory.”
But first and foremost is the poet’s faithfulness to an unceasing concatenation of expansive associations and symbolisms. Take these lines from “River Nocturnes,” for instance:
labyrinth trails in a sonical stormlash
pronged overexposure of lightning
a skybull stamping out spherical thunder
Byrnes’ priority or clear sense of artistic glee is clearly in the description of the thing. Personae introduced through the poems are more ideas than characters, even if they include family members, as the sustained strategy across the poems is to paint an enriching textual layer that generates ever-revealing semantic outcomes. A deliberate emphasis on descriptive playfulness does not, of course, mean that deeper and ethical urgencies are absent. As the poems progress, the experience of which is analogous to moving through a museum of surrealist art, laser-like criticisms regarding political and social ills can unexpectedly arise. In this section (“To Measure Another’s Foot By Your Own Last”) from the long poem, “Phrase and Fable,” the writing becomes denser with meaning or more compact with moral urgency, without at the same time losing the rhythm of the poet’s imaginative segues already generated elsewhere:
Like politicians first-footing on humanitarian issues,
foreign policy is a butcher, reflective as its blade.
Hide history’s measuring tape, the battlefield chemists
and dioxin hotspots, the attics of clumsy gas masks…
Foreign policy dictates to always find one’s own feet
before putting the boot down upon the neck…
Later in “Soapbox” during the part of the book now marching towards including more implicit to explicit social commentary, Byrne breezily sums up, mockingly decries or satirically categorises metonymic objects or ideas that point to fundamental human fallacies, pairing each object or idea to a specific country in both provocative and evocative ways. This is executed with verve and vim bordering on delirium and the comic. But the poet still manages to seduce the reader into pondering meaningfully over every liberating rapid-fire connection:
Egyptian chevrons / Saudi princeships / Kazakh autocracies /
Greek dawns / Russian hooliganism / Burmese chalkboard /
Singaporean spyglass / American liberties / Israeli intifadas /
Nigerian Shellsuits / Japanese waterworks / Chinese whispers
Imagist, social commentator or symbolist, the poet acknowledges and pays stylistic tribute to literary influences from symbolist poets, Verlaine and Rimbaud, to Ashbery in the poem, “Rimbaud Villanelles,” by revealing next-to-nothing about his literary heroes (only that Rimbaud “popeyed on absinthe” or that Ashbery’s Illuminations go delicately on Scarborough”) and focusing instead on banalities, sense-impressions, the passing gossip and white noise of urbanity these poets must have confronted to fuel their work, etc. Surrealist painters and symbolist poets repeatedly subvert expectations to demonstrate that truth-making is never certain (thus permitting endless possibilities for meaning across the canvas or page) or that there is always room for an unusual interpretation. But one must be reminded that play, in such artistic contexts, is never just play. Byrne demonstrates, for instance, that the grumblings of one’s political conscience can–or should–be woven (consciously or otherwise) into any bewildering tapestry of symbolist presentations challenging the knowable through aesthetic subversion and reinvention.
Quoting ironically from Jeremy Paxman at the start of “On the Ordinary” about how poetry has “connived at its own irrelevance,” Byrne proceeds to show how his own brand of poetry, even in its seeming “irrelevance”–interpreted here as literary jouissance at the level of aesthetic effects and imaginative flourishes–can quickly turn “serious” or “relevant” when hard-hitting questions float to the surface of the poetically meandering mind: “How do an entire people lose themselves?” A more implicit answer might be (in my own mind): “By allowing oneself to be easily categorised.” And as Byrne writes in his poem, half-quoting, half-asserting: “Art is not the ‘fixed or regulated sequence…customary; usual’. We are mysterious to ourselves.” It becomes a matter of conforming to social class and elitism, from which poetry should break away in order to wrap itself authentically around our deepest mysteries, the unknowability at the core of existence. The poem ends with this: “All people are either ordinary or extraordinary maniacs.” It is clear which the poet prefers to be. To be a “maniac” in this case is to forge one’s original poetic voice while still remaining reflective (even as the primary stylistic urge is to deflect, subtly destruct, delight in disorder) of humdrum to harsher realities.
At the same time, however, I keep returning to an earlier sense that after the enjoyment (for both writer and reader, I’m sure) of unpacking or merely delighting in startling word-play and the sometimes mysterious connections between ideas, I am still moved centrally by that Romantic imagination operating (I’m convinced) behind this scintillating surface of ever-shifting language. That quiet acknowledgement of the Romantic sublime as presented through nature is evident throughout the book, waiting just beyond the unceasing layers-upon-layers of meaning; as if given a chance, nature provides not just a boundless source of metaphors, but also respite and a curiously embracive calm beyond human-made uncertainties or semantic fragmentation; as when the book closes with a line like this to remind the reader of that which is all-encompassing already abiding in us all:
all these lives of sea
filling out in our ears
CYRIL WONG is the Singapore Literature Prize-winning author of poetry collections such as Unmarked Treasure, Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light, The Dictator’s Eyebrow and After You. He has also published Ten Things My Father Never Taught Me and Other Stories and a novel, The Last Lesson of Mrs de Souza. Cyril has served as a mentor under the Creative Arts Programme and the Mentor Access Project, as well as a judge for the Golden Point Awards in Singapore. A past recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award for Literature, he completed his doctoral degree in English Literature at the National University of Singapore in 2012. His poems have been anthologised in Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (W. W. Norton 2008) and Chinese Erotic Poems (Everyman’s Library 2007).