The Kindness of the Eel, Ben Ray
Smith Doorstop, 2020 £5.00
Poetry as history
I like poets who confront historical record. If, at the same time, they use epigraphs, they float my boat even more. There’s a risk, though, that the epigraphs might be more interesting than the poems — especially if almost every poem has one. Happily, Ben Ray uses them wisely and sparingly. Better still, he avoids the trap of his history poems being so fact-filled one might call them ‘Wiki-poems’.
The nineteen poems (several with subsections) in this pamphlet are so rich that doing full justice to them here is nigh-on impossible.
The opener, a prose-poem of sorts, ‘The Thoughts of Charles Byrne’, concerns the 18th century Irish ‘giant’ who, like Joseph Merrick, was toured around Britain as a ‘freak’, and whose skeleton has, until recently, been on display in London’s Hunterian Museum, ‘against his will’, as the headnote-epigraph says. Its seven stanzas, bar the last, are in Byrne’s voice and footnoted by a quote which (apparently) derives from historical records. Ray’s ventriloquist language is convincing and poignant:
I said to George, I told him, don’t let them take me, my earthly carriage
is my own — bury me within the water, I beg you, don’t let them touch
Other poems address, among other things, the Yugoslavian war’s horrors, ancient Scotland, Polish history (the Solidarity Movement and a little-known World War II genocide perpetuated by Ukrainian nationalists) and, seen through Ray’s family’s perspective, British colonialism in Africa.
A three-act, multi-scene poem — ‘The Knee Plays’ — is scattered through the pamphlet. Whether as first-, second- or third-person narratives, Ray’s work is gripping, and allied to superb, diverse use of form. He instinctively knows how much (or little) white space to give his poems. The titles are fabulous too, but mostly too long to exemplify here, alas.
Ray is just as good at poems which are seemingly set in the present. The title-poem starts unforgettably:
You opened your mouth
and an eel came out —
sliding from between your lips
gasping into the air.
This publication is a delight, and contains more treasure than most collections twice its size.