James Byrne/United Kingdom
James Byrne is a poet and editor, born near London in 1977. His most recent poetry collection Blood/Sugar, was published by Arc Publications in 2009. Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets, published in June 2012, is co-edited with ko ko thett and is the first anthology of Burmese poetry ever to be published in the West (Northern Illinois University Press, 2013). Byrne is the editor of The Wolf, an internationally-renowned poetry magazine, which he co-founded in 2002. He won the Treci Trg poetry festival prize in Serbia and his Selected Poems: The Vanishing House was published in Belgrade. He is the co-editor of Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century, an anthology of poets under 35, published by Bloodaxe in 2009. He was the Poet in Residence at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge and a Stein Fellow of New York University where he completed his MFA in poetry. Byrne’s poems have been translated into several languages including Arabic, Burmese and Chinese and he is the International Editor for Arc Publications.
Early to rise for knowledge of the garden—for the fringe of a gossamer hammocking.
I watched the painful sum of its catch and knew the eeriness of death for the first time.
The spider trapezed his web, a thin ball of coal discovering its prey in filigrees of ash.
His victim, trapped in the jewel case, huddled appallingly for its life. A sudden drop
in the breeze and the kill was fished clean. Books have never taught me these things.
Seated between the knuckled limbs of the tree house, I spied on a swarm of wasps
nuzzling at apples; their glassy colour-code and spoiling tails cranked with venom—
emblematic fire. In France, later that year, my mother broomed a nest and was fanged
by an army of them. A quickly pumped prescription pulled her back from an inch of life.
Full of the feast, a wasp landed on my hand and looked at me like a god, perfectly evil.
For what seemed an era, I clutched at the giant slab to win one look under its shadow.
With a gravelly belch the stone pulled loose and revealed to me its secret archive—
the dark unendingness of a disused well. Peering in, I conjured the anaemical fix
of my father’s stare and shouted down until my face burnt red: This is my garden!
There was music then. The chambered echoes passed through me to their reunions.
One sighs heavily down the telephone
Another pours the assassin’s quicksand
One leaves the garrison lonely as a bullet
Another fills white tubs with kerosene
One is surveyed from the border glass
Another guards against the darkness of trees
One clinks to the enemy’s thimble
Another fantasizes death in a flyway
One slugs the sitter at his pianoforte
Another takes shade under a fig tree
One discerns bloodiness from the siren
Another brandishes the manacles
One juggles dust between his hands
Another combusts the basecamp
All night the Commander,
With a high, baronial laugh,
Peels a scent of sweet mandarin
From the waist of a waitress.
They will heap mud over her eyes.
The boy soldiers entered the house
And rounded up the market gardener,
His two sons, his fiery old grandfather,
And shot them where they crouched
In their shadows.
A mother counts penitence in her rosary.
The baby in her stomach grows eyes.
At the tribunal, the army secretariat
Blamed Mother Nature herself—
A great and sudden simoom that caused
The sorry fire. And nobody can condemn
The amnesiac history of the wind,
Or the amnesiac history of fire.
They did not mention the bolted doors,
Or the gasoline tanks strewn like tooth stumps.
The frost-bound face of a government judge
Deemed the newly-widowed witnesses
The village has been stripped to a wound.
Two scorpions scrap in a crucible of sand—
The question mark of their tails singeing the air.
The boys have made a giant playhouse
From the rubbled stanchions of the razed compound.
Two kid Generals line up teams
For a game of Guns vs. Swords.
And then the swashbuckle
And then the rat-tat-tat from their mouths
To make the guns seem real
For the onlooking father’s of the Revolution
Who pick sides, shout and cheer.
At the far wall of the bombed-out mosque,
A prayer tannoys back the Prophet’s take
On forgiveness during times of anger.
But the muezzin dragged in the dust by his collar
Now cracks and cracks again
Against the tantara of his voice.
These are two of the postcards that could not be sent.
Beetle-nib eyes under the slivery sheet of a moon
That quakes over her sea-wrinkled face.
The profile of the skeleton
Who visits her by night,
His mechanical arms
At the military mountain base,
Five men are led down its steep side
Then deep into the shallows of a grove.
Nobody will tell the story here.
The mountain is quiet and infinite.
The buzzards silent in their appetites,
Only the olive leaves hiss back to the sky.
Let me imagine you coming home
from the dark, between body and mind,
making evidence of yourself
the way a tree waves up from its shadow.
There are dinner-halls you have silenced
with a single spark of wit,
there are men you have governed
through pure scent, pure posture.
Now for your most difficult trick:
to restart a life that ends by turning into gold.
In September (the month that tends to all others)
let me be able to conjure your best side,
to have some kind of grip on the intactness
of living, the way mirrors do.
How slowly dark comes down on what we do.
Theodore Roethke, ‘In Evening Air’
If you drink from the shuck of the storm
you will always be tainted by its darkness.
The lacquered surface of the canal at night
is darker than the darkest shroud of Jesus.
One thing darker than the roses’ shadow
—the cold fire of the roses after thunder.
Far murkier than possession—the shiphold
shackled to the hells of human darkness.
The panmongolist was so afraid of the dark
he asked to be buried in a candlelit coffin.
The stare he gave his wife whilst dinnering
was like a bullet shot through with darkness.
When the rusted machete cut back the cane
it sharpened darkly in the emperor’s silence.
Amnesially waiting in the cinema’s darkness
—it cannot be separated out from loneliness.
A death-pecked cry darkens the entire city
and is hoisted through the shrieking world.