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Everything Broken Up Dances by James Byrne (Tupelo Press, 2015)

Reviewed by Jonathan Wilson

With Everything Broken Up Dances (2015), James Byrne displays a keen awareness of the civic duty of a modern politically sensitive poet. Byrne is very much a global artist, having co-edited a collection of poetry from Myanmar, Bones Will Crow (2012), with Burmese poet ko ko thett. His work has been translated into numerous languages, such as Arabic and Mandarin. It is clear that he is not constrained by regional barriers.

In this collection, not only does Byrne demonstrate his linguistic prowess and mastery of form but also his skill as a translator. He translates not just languages and dialects but also ideas and emotions. The intimate and personal is translated to the universal. The distant is made immediate.

Through the use of stark, vivid imagery, the pain of a Syrian mother in mourning is felt on some level through the page. The hellish heat of war seeps through Byrne’s ink. He is not afraid to invite the reader into a traumatic scape of loss and human suffering. He offers us an unairbrushed depiction of the world as it is rather than what he wants it to be and pushes us to empathise with its most tragic characters.


The mood within this collection is often dark but tempered with hope and the resilient joy of the human spirit. He writes of the great dichotomy of humanity. In his poem ‘Postcards’ there are kids playing frivolously with toy guns while the ‘onlooking fathers of the revolution’ watch knowing the cold reality of those weapons. There is hope after oblivion in the ‘bombed-out mosque’ – an image that encapsulates humanity’s capacity for simultaneous love and hate: a beautiful contradiction, a broken-up dance.

There are few barriers within his poems, thematically or nationally, as he hops from Burma to New York, from van Gogh to football. He flexes his lexical muscles like a sorcerer with a wand. He is versatile in every sense, from his vocabulary to his use of form, writing couplet and prose poem. It is fitting that his work remains unscathed by borders, given that art in its purest form is a common global language accessible by all. Byrne recognises this as he attempts to convey his message.

The poem ‘1977’ is a strong example of his thematic fluidity as he navigates numerous historical landmarks of that year, juxtaposing the biggest film releases with the significant political and personal moments in his life. In this book, Byrne is not just a poet but a translator of the zeitgeist, clarifying the indecipherable with precision and heart.

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