Withdrawals, James Byrne

Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2019   £7.00

Withdrawals that pull us in

There is something counterintuitive in presenting twenty-five poems collectively called ‘withdrawals.’ After considering what each of the poems seemed to be withdrawing from (e.g. smoking, family, relationships, war, political union, neighbourliness, duty, responsibility, a conversation) I was left pondering what ‘withdrawal’ actually meant in the context of the work.

The word ‘withdraw’ itself only appears twice in the collection, and in both instances its usage, like much of the vocabulary in the collection, is slightly off kilter. Here, for instance, is poem 7 (the poems are numbered, with no titles):

Double-thickness of blood. Today is your birthday
            and I—absent ghost—am trying to love you new.
Regret inebriates. So many days spent in the mouth.
Your voice changes, moody as cognition, and I withdraw
                                    to the distant shock of your face.

Withdrawal in this poem and the others seems to accommodate withholding, separateness, lack of understanding, a failure to connect or continue. Attempts are made to call, write letters, speak; to read the voices and faces of others, to find some community. The reader is often left puzzled by what is going on, perhaps reflecting the way that the speaker is puzzled by the behaviours of others and the repeated failures of connection. This is in poem 2:

I live
like something missing
in the conventional reading
of a book

And this, from poem 12:

Your voice, within walking distance, walks away.

But if the poems are explications of a type of failure, they are nonetheless beautiful. The large format pages of the KFS pamphlet are a true joy, the poems, often with gapped layouts, have the air and space they need to play out on the page.

The words themselves are wonderful to voice. They should be spoken aloud, heard. There is pure pleasure in their sound and rhythm, even if sometimes the sense is just out of reach. It doesn’t matter.

These failures to connect are themselves beautifully crafted engagements, presented to us to consider. Which is, I think, the opposite of withdrawal.

Heidi Beck