“Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic” Sarah James (Verve Press) – book review

Sarah James Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic book cover

Sarah James was diagnosed with type one diabetes at the age of six. With treatment, those with the condition can live a ‘normal’ life but treatment involves insulin injections and near-constant monitoring of blood glucose levels. Dangerously low levels can trigger confusion, drowiness or a fit. High levels can cause a bild-up of ketones and life-threatening diabetic ketoacidosis. It can also lead to gangrene build-up which might need amputations, loss of sight, kidney disease or increase risks of a stroke or heart attacks. Technology helps, but it’s not a cure. Media stories frequently don’t differentiate between types 1 and 2 (the latter may be managed through diet rather than insulin injections and is often linked unfairly to obesity). Unsolicited, often ignorant, advice is unhelpful. “Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic” is an exploration of life impacted by diabetes. It starts with the diagnoses in “Diagnoses” a six-year-old reacts,

“I can’t yet string together the letters and sounds of this oddness. I will come to understand it as a list of sweet things I should never eat. I will learn to measure ‘better’ in glass syringes, injecting oranges and then my leg. I will will my skin numb.”

A child who struggles with the word ‘diabetes’ has to learn how to inject herself with insulin and learn which foods she can’t eat. Although teachers and school dinner supervisors can be told a child is diabetic, they are not experts and will not necessarily know which foods are off limits or the importance of allowing snacks and regular eating times. The child has to become her own expert and advocate. And that’s before the reactions of other children and parents are taken into account.

A hypo is a dangerously low blood sugar level which can happen at night when sweats, shakes and nightmares try to act as alerts. Glucose is the treatment but care must be taken not to over do it because too high glucose levels also cause problems. In “Diabetes’ unWell of Night Hypos”,

“2)
nightmares chase me…………….me-chase nightmares
I have to wake up……………up-wake to ‘have I?’
….to escape the real…………..reel the escape to…
…..monster – diabetes;……..diabetes-monster!
……….I eat glucose…………glucose-eat, I
…………..to survive, try…try survive too
…………….to thank the nightmares
………………for keeping me alive

3)

sweat shake sweat shake sweat shake
hypohypohypohypohypohypohypohy
hypohypohypo help! hypohypohypoh
hypohypohypohypohypohypohypohy
wakeup! wakeup! wakeup! wake up!!!”

The lanuage takes shape on the page, part two is an arrow-shape, two strands verbal mirror images of each other until the last two lines, “to thank the nightmares/ for keeping me alive”. The nightmares are dream signals to wake-up to boost glucose levels. They are terrifying, as are hypos, so sleep offers no respite from the constant management of diabetes and its complications. “wakeup!” is ambigious: it is a command to wake from the nightmare and deal with the hypo, but also an indicator of the consequence of not waking, a slip into a diabetic coma or worse.

“Women Not to Be” explores fairy tales and the child’s brief respite into a seemingly-normal life. The girl is growing up and rejects Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and considers a matryoshka,

“The tiny figure in the middle
is so small, I drop her every time I look
for a heart, purpose or deeper meaning.

No. I mould myself with words. Stuck
and re-stuck, each sticky layer of mâché
hardens to a mish-mashed enamel

so thick that even I can’t read me.
I try not to wonder what happens
to fairy-tale princesses who can’t feel

the pea buried beneath their mattress.”

The pea beneath the mattresses was a test to see if the girl was a real princess. In the story, she passes the test. In real life, who would pass such a test?

There are the inevitable “Questions not to ask a diabetic”,

“It’s because you’re fat, right?

No, not at all with type one diabetes.
My body attacked itself after an illness
triggered some genetic factors.

Why do you store your mobile in your bra?

It’s an insulin pump, not a phone,
attached to me by a cannula and thin tubing.”

The questions say more about the ignorance of the questioner than the diabetic. It’s true that no one bothers to learn about chronic illnesses or conditions unless they are or know someone who is chronically ill. But it shouldn’t be down to the diabetic to educate you. Managing the illness is a full-time job without the burden of others’ ignorance. One of the questions was about sex, which is explored in the title poem,

“One long kiss, tongues and breath
entwining. A touch or two, and our bodies

lose both scent and music. Our blood pulses
faster and louder than the room around us.

faster and louder than the room around us.
lose both scent and music. Our blood pulses

entwining. A touch or two, and our bodies
One long kiss, tongues and breath

This is an incomplete extract from an effective specular (a verbal mirror image poem where the first half is repeated in reverse to form the second half of the poem). The words in faint grey appear to disappear on the page, the narrator’s focus slips. She can either give herself to the moment or leave the moment to monitor blood glucose levels. A later poem, “Thwarted” is about a bicycle ride planned around rain showers ruined by a drop in blood sugar levesls, “Thwarted again by my own body, my anger/ will last longer than the approaching rainstorm.”

There are poems that don’t focus on diabetes – falling in love, marriage and children – and enjoying periods of respite. “Freshly Baked” is a memory of baking bread with the narrator’s mother,

“bringing warmth and sunshine

to the start of each long week.
Time has taught me that memories too
should be softened and proofed.

Not all of my childhood was illness.”

“Self-forgiveness” touches on this too,

“And yes, it’s true
that perhaps I’ve come
to love this ‘fault’
that I hate most,
not for the disability,
but through accepting

that without it,
what little would remain
of the me
I’ve come to see.”

Diabetes has not defined the speaker but it is part of who she is and managing it has forged the adult she has come to be. Her achievements have not come despite her diabetes but because of its successful management.

“Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic” is a contemplative journey from childhood to adulthood of life with type 1 diabetes. Sarah James has a compassionate ear, she never turns to self-pity even when being mocked or describing the sense of unfairness at being disabled: having plans go awry or letting people down because of her diabetes. It’s a journey through acceptance and learning to live with its consequences through powerful, thought-provoking poems.

“Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic” is available from Verve.


Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

2 Responses to ““Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic” Sarah James (Verve Press) – book review”

  1. Launching Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic & other news! Says:

    […] I’m very pleased too to share a snippet from another review: ‘“Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic” is a contemplative journey from childhood to adulthood of life with type 1 diabetes. Sarah James has a compassionate ear, she never turns to self-pity even when being mocked or describing the sense of unfairness at being disabled: having plans go awry or letting people down because of her diabetes. It’s a journey through acceptance and learning to live with its consequences through powerful, thought-provoking poems.’ Emma Lee, full review here. […]

  2. Launching Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic & other offers/news | Sarah James Writes Says:

    […] I’m very pleased too to share a snippet from another review:‘“Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic” is a contemplative journey from childhood to adulthood of life with type 1 diabetes. Sarah James has a compassionate ear, she never turns to self-pity even when being mocked or describing the sense of unfairness at being disabled: having plans go awry or letting people down because of her diabetes. It’s a journey through acceptance and learning to live with its consequences through powerful, thought-provoking poems.’Emma Lee, full review here. […]


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