Monday 13 June 2022

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney of "Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic" by Sarah James

The front cover of Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic by Sarah James makes it very clear that much of the material found within this poetry collection is going to deal with impact of living with type one diabetes - charting what it feels like to have to continually deal with the highs and lows of living with the condition.  

The poems that deal directly with what it felt like for the author to be diagnosed at the age of six are incredibly thought-provoking and moving. In ‘Admitted Nov 30, 1981, age 6: diabetes mellitus,’ James recalls the painful experience of teaching her 'fingers to force the need deep into an orange … First an orange, then my leg / The world shrinks, small as this sphere.' Whilst in ‘Diabetes’ unwell of Night Hypos,’ the child is plagued by 'Flesh sweats and shivers, the brain quakes.' To show the shifts in high and low blood sugar levels, the poet has individual words and phrases scatter and then re-configure towards the end of the page in rigid, claustrophobic constriction.

James proceeds to map her journey with diabetes and the route to some sort of acceptance, within herself, first and foremost. Intriguingly, this is coupled with a second narrative: that of a dead sister whose life ended as the younger twin’s began. In ‘Not quite the changeling,’ James admits 'I was born from my dead sister – embryo berthed in her water-logged lungs, bones moulded in her absence.' For the poet, that point in time when she came into the world comes to signify that moment for all of us when the path we are on hints at what could be or might have been: the possibilities of other selves and other identities. In ‘Constantly Reliving,’ we learn 'The girl who isn’t my sister / won’t stop laughing / at the narrative she’s made of me.'

James is an extraordinary poet. She is often wildly inventive but also respectful of traditional forms, imbuing each of her poems with a confessional tone that is reminiscent of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Carol Ann Duffy. Like the very best of the female poets, she examines what it is to be a modern woman and alive to the potential of life, employing unique methods to share her experiences with those willing to listen. James herself notes in the ‘Foreword’ to the collection, ‘Diabetes happens to be one ghost implicitly looking over my shoulder when I write.’ The power of this collection is in the fact it uncovers and dissects the ghosts that haunt not only James, but each of us – shaping our nightmares as well as our dreams. 

About the reviewer     
Paul Taylor-McCartney has recently completed a PhD in Creative Writing with Leicester University. His research interests include dystopian studies, children’s literature and initial teacher education. His poetry, short fiction and academic articles have appeared in a range of notable UK and international publications including Aesthetica, The Birmingham Journal of Language and Literature, Education in Practice (National Association of Writers in Education), Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine and Dyst: A Literary Journal. He lives and works in Cornwall.

You can read more about Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic by Sarah James on Creative Writing at Leicester here

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