Ben Ray, The Kindness of the Eel, Sheffield: Smith | Doorstop, 1 June 2020, 33pp.
Reviewed by Tash Keary
It’s difficult to summarise a collection which spans so many forms, topics and narratives. In this case though, that task is certainly enjoyably difficult. After a first read through the pamphlet, I was immediately likening Ben Ray’s writing style to water, and the way it’s able to fill up multiple forms and vessels with ease and fluidity. There were two reasons why this is the first image that comes to mind, firstly; because The Kindness of the Eel flows between monologues, interviews and tryptics with ultimate comfort and ease, and secondly; because Ben writes so tenderly and compellingly of water and the creatures, shipwrecks and gifts it yields.
A moment which clings in that respect is from The Schéchenyi Thermal Baths, Budapest: a love poem:
from cold to hot to cold again
sweat glistening on our arms and on our legs
our nakedness belying the volumes we carry with us
from pool to pool. You say something, but
it is lost, like this metaphor
in the steam
Thanks to careful formatting, we are literally taken through a series of stanza pools in this poem. The spacing which makes these shapes exact on the page lengthens the pauses between words in each line, slowing down the reader with the sensation of first entering hot water. In this piece, as in each in the collection, there is a striking meticulousness and conscientiousness in both format and content. Every pause is accounted for, every effect calculated and refined.
To continue the aquatic metaphor, Ray is equally committed to following the present back to its source. The historical allusions are too many to name, from Scottish pre-Christian rituals in The Bird Wound Man is in a Bedsit in Inverness to the skeleton of ‘the Irish giant’ from the eighteenth century in The Thoughts of Charles Byrne. Each allusion, though precise, is contemporized and kept accessible through wit and careful explanation. The second that an archaic reference leads you to expect a traditional lyric poem, you’re pleasantly surprised. The Knee Plays, which appear in three acts throughout the pamphlet, are exemplary of this:
Sc. 1. Scipio and Aemilia whisper to each other in the darkness
And after she has done it, she rises up his body
like the spring tide, to lie on his panting chest.
Silence presses in on their naked skin.
‘What shall I do for you?’ His lips brush her ear
‘Destroy Carthage,’ she whispers
(The Knee Plays: Act III)
These plays are ‘short, disconnected scenes interspersed throughout theatrical performances in the Tudor period.’ Equal measure wit, surprise and intrigue, they are among the numerous highlights of the collection and showcase Ray’s dexterity with just a few lines of text.
After a second or third complete reading, there are still new discoveries to be made in The Kindness of the Eel. This is a collection which is easy to learn from, which deserves praise for its ability to be both refreshing and familiar, both exact and abstract. To that effect, it seems apt to end with this grounding stanza from the collection’s namesake:
Eels, you said, do not stutter
look, they flow like liquid
they do not take more than they need
they are the best of us.
(The Kindness of the Eel)