New Poets Prize Reviews by Reece Merrifield

Ben Ray’s The Kindness of the Eel:

Exceeding already high expectations, Ben’s winning pamphlet is a treasure trove of niche historical detail woven together so superbly you come out of it with a much tighter-knit sense of community that spans across the entire European continent.

            ‘Interview with Female Members of the Solidarność Movement’ is a profound poem, tying five women’s experience of communist Poland into one cogently unified ‘voice of Solidarity!’. It is a linguistic achievement of the highest order that strengthens the poem’s narrative, a deft skill that defines Ben’s range and breadth of poetical expertise. You get surreal combinations, such as ‘their lungs / with rolodexes in our heads’, mixed in with brutal realities like ‘all of Warsaw was alight as if on fire again / I cried.’, covering all bases of the entire mood amongst not only the five women but almost all of Polish society under communist rule. It sucks you into that world so intimately, producing a tangible document of accessible worth that looks to smooth ‘each bump in the road’ of ignorance, becoming in itself ‘a small step leading to a better place’.

            Another example of unification – this time in the form of objects – is brilliantly put together in ‘Distance and Closeness: a tryptic’, specifically in ‘II. Inventory of the contents of my grandparents’ suitcase on their journey from Bulawayo, Rhodesia to Heathrow, England’. A mesmerising mesh of items that provides a strange yet wonderful insight of the immigrant experience, purposely bulging to outline how much is necessary to enter a whole new world. From the practical ‘2 pairs of custom-made sheepskin jackets’,  to the sentimental ‘4 small African masks’, the emotional ‘1 box of secrets’ and the political ‘1 original document of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence’, it is a thoroughly engaging poem with comments on colonialism, identity and memory, a list made to look so simple it is easy to forget how well honed and crafted a poem it actually is.

Each and every poem is a genuine delight and deserves to be a part of the New Poets Prize. You can read my review of Ben’s previous pamphlet – https://foxtrotuniformblog.wordpress.com/2019/09/27/review-what-i-heard-on-the-last-cassette-player-in-the-world-by-ben-ray/ – to get a further glimpse of his work, a lot of which is contained in this pamphlet also, but the additional poems in this work is absolutely worth getting a hold of. Ben is a very exciting poet and I’m eager to see what he has in store next time around.

Jay G Ying’s Katabasis:

A war-torn landscape pulled together into a devastating comment on the horror and helplessness of being in ‘the zone : From which no civilian returns’, Katabasis is an immense work that can be both complex and varied but also simple and uncompromisingly true.

            The opening poem, ‘Forwarding’, is an excellent introduction to the whole collection, fusing evocative and specific vocabulary to create utterly original images of noteworthy distinction. ‘I burnt War’s photographs over a grave by the fountain’s dovecote’ contains a multitude of meaning in one finely executed sentence; images of fire, water, death, peace, hope and violence creates an umbrella for the themes Jay explores throughout the pamphlet. There’s also lyrical beauty in an ironic ‘tender address to endless War’ and damning statements of ‘searching for a neck to hang from inside’ that makes it all the more impressive considering it is all contained within such a short poem.

The italicised collection of poems summarised as the ‘the great below …’ or ‘the underworld …’ holds no punches, providing thunderbolts of repetitions to hammer home the message of fighting, of escape and of defiance. There are harrowing similes, such as ‘She cries out in a voice that is as loud as the extraction of coal’, and images that linger disgustingly in the mind, ‘A carcass to be hung from a hook on War’s wall’, and threads seamlessly into one another as a powerful statement on the grim realities of war yet offering some form of hope and resistance, reminding the reader and character to ‘Refuse’ the so-called ‘gift[s]’ and ‘exit[s]’ of ‘War’.

A collection so tightly dedicated to its theme that never goes wayward and always produces creative surprises, Katabasis never ceased to pull me in and acutely made me aware of the injustice happening around us.

Abbie Neale’s Threadbare:

Sometimes subtle, mostly piercing and fiercely liberating, Threadbare is an honest account of poetry, encapsulating the problems of misogyny through deceptively simple yet much-needed ways of cutting to the heart of the problems.

            There are tender scars running through the current of this pamphlet, ‘winc[ing] at the thought of flowers’, ‘how it could take months to fold but seconds to fall’, unaddressed pain that needed an outlet, a balm not only to soothe but to heal as well. In ‘What the Women Wore’, there’s a crumb of redemption in a mother becoming ‘a little but smug’, getting a sort of one-over the previous man in reclaiming ‘a pink dressing / gown, long and loose, lined / with fleece for the winter nights’, not just for herself but for ‘the woman who came before’ and, you sense, for the women who come after. Towards the end, tip-toeing around the subject is thrown to waste in ‘Reclaiming the word’, bursting through taboo in ‘The forest where we fucked’, ending with a beautiful melding of nature and intimacy – ‘I suck the tips of the spreading purple perennial and serve / myself up, like the rain in the curved spoon-shaped leaves.’.

            The poem I had myself going back to was ‘Long distance’, a four quatrain pantoum that inevitably descends but, in its form, tries almost to tug itself back to the fond memories that come with ‘a nose bump and a bristly kiss’. The use of the pantoum perfectly fits with the theme, making not only the couple’s words but the words on the page ‘weigh on us like rain’, evocative for anyone who knows the weight of ‘another goodbye’ again and again.

            Threadbare is necessary for those who need an uncomfortable read, to reflect upon your actions and be aware what you can do to help unload the weight of pain that comes with toxic masculinity. More poetry like this needs to hit the pages, and soon.

Callan Waldron-Hall’s Learning to be Very Soft:

Callan’s water-filled pamphlet floats above the surface with some neat insights and allows its vulnerability to shine through in places, but I found myself flowing in and out of the poems unable to take too much away from it all.

            Chest Compressions starts us off with a clever usage of line breaks within lines themselves, giving us images starkly and uncompromisingly, a boy ‘coughing out water / the way he’d shudder’ doubly jarring with the break as well as the onomatopoeia that makes you ‘think of the past hour as practice’ chillingly more real. I Could Never Save Someone on a Full Stomach is a surreal narrative of a lifeguard’s thoughts, anxiously riddled with the fear of not saving someone from becoming ‘bloated / Any other day and I could have held the entire pool / in the dip between my ribs and hips.’

            Practice’s experimental structure gives the poem weight through the gaps between lines and words dropping quicker than they usually do. There is a nice back and forth between ‘Victim’ and Rescuer’, and also an interesting message of both learning and re-learning, going back to ‘fake drowning / when you can swim’, a back to basics in empathy allowing others to learn ‘how to save victim’. Something also catches you off-guard with the final line, ‘it is like learning to be very soft’, breaking down defences or barriers that once made you comfortable, but learning instead that to be comfortable sometimes means to be very vulnerable with others too, letting them take you in.

            Callan has obviously been able to unearth a wealth of experience and knowledge in the matters of water, and this undoubtedly helps his work on the page. It will be interesting to see if his next work delves into topics deeper than he has gone before.

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