Poetry review: 27/10/20
THE KINDNESS OF THE EEL
By Ben Ray
"... consideration has gone into how the poems interact and complement each other."
There are not many books of poetry as effortlessly able to transcend time zones and periods as this one. It also flows remarkably well: consideration has gone into how the poems interact and complement each other. This is often overlooked, and can sometimes let a collection down – nobody would curate an art exhibition without figuring out where each piece of artwork belongs or how its placement affects the audience’s interpretation of it. Why should a book of poetry be treated any differently? Poems deserve to be treated with just as much consideration as the ones in this book clearly have been.
Equally, there is great joy in the deliberate disjunction between many of the poems in this book, and the way they refuse to ‘spell it out’. I have not had to Google this many historical, mythological or political references when reading a book since I first read The Waste Land by TS Eliot, although this is perhaps more of a reflection on how I should be more well-read than the quality of Ben Ray’s poetry. Many poems are beautifully written and sound pleasing when read aloud, but make the mistake of spoon-feeding the audience, but these poems achieve a balance between refusing to do that while also remaining playful and unpretentious: ‘Land reform: a radicalist’s manifesto’ suggests we “Move all climate deniers to the coast” and “Relocate London to the North, and ignore it” while ‘The Last Druidic Bard in Wales’ “writes odes whilst on the piss” and “misses another deadline for the opening of a youth centre because the rugby’s on”.
In this book we find references to genocide, destruction and nationalism amongst love poems, but in a way that is never clumsy, or worse, preachy. Poetry about politics or social issues can fall into the trap of sounding overwrought or moralising; we all know (or should know) that homelessness, poverty and war are bad, and it could be argued that it is not the job of poetry to remind us of this. This is not to say that these topics don’t deserve to be written about, or that poets should not continue to write about their experiences or issues that affect them, but that good poetry does not need to be performative about it. It is difficult to find poetry that manages to move you but also avoids hand-wringing, or being so densely academic it’s completely inaccessible. “Instead, there is just you two, here: her handhold is tight, the knuckles white and strained trying to keep you in this moment: trying to keep you from that fishbowl shaken city where the walls are all halved and people do not dare to cross the street”. Poetry can discuss terrible things – it can talk about loss, death and intergenerational trauma – but it shouldn’t have to over-explain anything in order to communicate its message.
One of the marks of a successful poem is that it subtly forces you to reconsider your perspective by couching something ordinary in strange or unexpected terms. This, together with the way these poems hop between continents and eras, creates a sense of movement and a feeling that we are hurtling into an uncertain future. Normally this might make a reader feel uneasy, but the poems are also optimistic. Perhaps if we follow this thread of poetry from the past into the future, we might end up somewhere better than here.
Review: Bethany Goodwill
BEN RAY - The Kindness of the Eel
The Poetry Business