Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic: Sarah James, Verve Poetry Press
I’m a sucker for a rock reference in poetry and Sarah James’s playful borrowing of the title of a classic rock album for the title of her collection is a masterstroke. Not only is it playful for the fact it perfectly encapsulates the essence of this fine poetry collection, from her lifelong struggle with type one diabetes, to the occasionally erotic poems that come at you off the page, to the magic of the seasons, beautifully represented throughout the book; it’s also playful because the pedant in us just might be screaming: You’ve missed a comma! I can’t recall laughing before I have even opened a poetry collection before.
The collection begins with the main theme in the collection: blood sugar. In the incredibly moving ‘Admitted Nov 30. 1981, age 6: diabetes mellitus’, we share the poet practising how to inject herself as a six-year-old: “I teach my fingers to force/the needle deep into an orange./Then I press in the plunger’s/citrus sting of cold insulin.” Not only does this stanza introduce the poet’s daily routine but also shows us her poetic skill set via her subtle use of rhyme and rhythm. And it’s so powerful, as the realisation of how this enduring illness will affect her life hits the reader: “First an orange, then my leg./The world shrinks, small/ as this sphere.” Sometimes, her simple yet startling approach to her subject reminds me of Zaffar Kunial, another poet in complete control of a lyricism that seems to come so naturally.
In ‘Prognosis’ when James finally asks the questions that have been hanging from her lips, probably since childhood - a question, incidentally, revealed via the answer from her GP - she finds out, “It’s not a question/of life expectancy ... Good blood sugar control is key.” But in ‘Questions not to ask a diabetic’, James shifts the focus from her tiresome daily routines to the stigmas attached to type one diabetes itself: “It’s because you’re fat, right?” Her replies are polite at first, but it’s not long before the poet’s patience starts to fray: “Can you still have sex?/ Yes. But not with you./Would I catch it?/ It’s not an infectious disease; my fist/might catch your chin though …”
In the title poem, we learn something else about this incurable disorder, namely, even in more relaxed and intimate moments, her blood sugar has to be taken into account. But in ‘Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic’ it’s not articulated as a hindrance, more a part of the ritual of lovemaking:
First, I check my blood sugar levels are good.
He chooses the tunes, I set incense burning.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers throbs;
Gentle smoke unwinds its sensual magic.
One long kiss, tongues and breath
As these private moments intensify, the actual words on the page fade and we are left with
In this clever poem, James transcends her daily struggle and creates a little magic while doing so. It’s a poem so erotically charged, and so deliciously formed, it leaves the reader wanting more, and in the following poem, ‘Promise’, James doesn’t disappoint: “And again. I am a mouth organ/with many quivering reeds.” By sharing intimate sexual moments, one feels James is owning her disorder. It’s a subversive, moving act, which goes beyond the almost intoxicating eroticism to something else far more powerful and ultimately life-affirming.
This is often a collection not just rooted in its themes but the seasons in which the poems are set, too. In the enthralling haibun, ‘Along the Edge’, “Moorhens snip the surface; a swan ruffles up a lace dress with her feather-stitched wake towards her reed-moored nest.” Even when she’s observing the natural world, there is a robust sensuality to her language that is so positive and colourful. “This evening, the hedgerow is a chorus of bird chatter and May blossom.” Here we have a poet in love with life. No surprise there, given her health issues, and her continuing rebellion against them.
In ‘Beside the Bed’, “January is a skyline of pale light/through brittle twigs, and cosied up late waking.” These opening lines manage to express beauty, melancholy and love simultaneously before news of the pandemic comes sharply into focus: “then shock. News of coronavirus in China. Isolation hospitals, face masks.”
And yet, despite a slightly awkward yet ultimately tongue-in-cheek phallic association, precious love and life come sizzling off the page again, in keeping with the poet’s defiance against anything that threatens her existence: “Five hundred feet away, York’s Roman Column ... still standing tall and strong.” But this is not innuendo but the solidity and longevity of support from a loved one that is being playfully represented here. The poem’s ending is perfectly weighted and shows both the limitations and power of poetry at the same time:
Centuries of you wouldn’t be enough.
And I want to tell you – but how can anyone write
a decent love poem at a time of global crisis?
Of course, the irony is, the poet has answered her own question with an excellent love poem, full of the joys of living.
This powerful and beguiling collection is so well crafted and full of love, pain and everything promised by its playful title. Sarah James has that quality of any poet worth their stanzas: the ability to surprise. And this brilliant collection is full of surprises, whether she’s sharing her most debilitating pain or sharing her emphatic lust for life.