Fealty by Ricky Ray.
146 pp. Eyewear Publishing,
8 June 2018. ISBN: 978-1912477227
While many new writers have seized on expanding opportunities for publishing poetry collections, New York poet Ricky Ray, still in his thirties, has been biding his time, waiting nearly two decades to publish Fealty. His debut collection reveals an evolved writing style that relies on a deft combination of lyricism and prose techniques as the poet negotiates a precarious path between preachiness and frank sincerity. Surreal and fantastic elements appear in these poems with some regularity, yet the verse is clear and direct, often taking readers off guard as the poems deliver a message that is always intelligible yet frequently enigmatic:
Rising from the wheelchair,
my legs hold me up—
two withered twigs.
I love dead wood,
the way it keeps daring
lightning to strike again.
And I love lightning,
the way it keeps reminding
the heart it’s on fire.
While it is true that Ray has a unique voice, it may be more to the point to note that he makes use of a well-worn language particular to him that readers grow adept at parsing and his poetry becomes addictive as his language is more readily grasped. His poems embody a path of inquiry for the writer as well as readers, and his message is often a question although it may be wrapped in an enigma:
Being aware of awareness has become,
like liquor or liking too much, hard to handle (…)
Something wants to call it wayward,
then doubts what it wants.
The tongue’s a question-mark
that answers itself in the mouth
because the causeless cures reason,
and dried-apple pies taste
sweetest after too many hours
ﬂattening one’s metatarsals.
A bark becomes a kind of hello
one throws like stones:
to see what comes back.
To describe an emerging poet as “a new voice” is a cliché. But Ray’s voice is not merely new; it recognizes itself and is recognized by others as it holds out a promise of endurance. Ray’s poems exhibit a bardic quality in that they speak for a community of readers rather than just to them, sometimes resorting to a philosophical discourse that is occasionally opinionated but never dogmatic.
In this sense, Ricky Ray is no Zen master: his poetry appeals to readers because he is a seeker on the same path and his voice is their own, addressing readers in a plain conversational tone that often suggests reader and writer are in the midst of an intimate chat. Although frank sincerity runs counter to current fashion in American poetry, Ray’s confiding tone is a cornerstone of his finely honed style, a fundamental tactic in a strategy to gain the reader’s attention. In “The Exchange”, the poet recounts an everyday encounter invested with transcendental meaning:
He sold vegetables from homemade wooden crates,
used sun, soil, seed, water, and a healthy dose of ornery.
I gave him money and my face to remember.
So did my wife. Our dog just gave her face.
“… [he] said there’s only one piece of advice
I can give you: grow things.
And now I know there’s more to what he spoke,
like: they’ll return the favor
In “Preparation”, the conversational tone catches readers off guard as the verses move towards an enigmatic conclusion:
My dog bit a bee,
spit it out,
no sign of stung.
A lesson for the poet
who bites at life
eager to be bit back
Ray is frequently identified by readers and commentators as an eco-poet and this categorization is founded to some degree if we take note of the description of purpose displayed in the digital literary magazine he publishes: “Rascal is an ecology, literature and arts journal”. More interesting, and perhaps more to the point, is the journal’s more specific stated aim:
to wake the inattentive mind out of its doldrums
and compel the shrinking heart to care.
But if Ray identifies with the notion of ecology, it is not so much in the sense of the 1960s appropriation of this term to signify a narrow environmentalist agenda but rather in the original sense still used in the life sciences: a branch of biology that studies the interactions among organisms and their environment. Ray’s ecology should be seen in the broad sense as a way of apprehending the connectedness of all adaptive systems in our little corner of the universe, that is: what is and why; the ways in which living and non-living systems relate to and interact with each other.
Ray’s poem “A Place” is a lengthy manifesto of over 100 lines dedicated to his wife Safora and to the poet and essayist Wendel Berry. Infused with a transcendentalist sensibility, it begins as follows:
If we’ve never known home,
how do we get there
aside from the way we get everywhere,
the way we receive looks that say keep moving,
the way we understand those looks
and keep going until one day,
we look around,
take stock and think yes,
this must be what it feels like to belong
Ray continues in the third stanza.:
There must be a place
where this cycle can be broken,
a place where the habit of homelessness
can be traded in for a habit of homemaking,
but I’ve not yet found it,
and the buses every day
are full of others who haven’t either;
And further below:
I will not sell my mind one office day at a time
until there is little left of it to otherwise contribute.
I will sell it only so long as it takes to tear it
from the pockets of rich, unkindly men,
men who will never take the time to know me
Finally, as the lengthy poem moves towards its conclusion:
I will move toward the place
that I have been imagining with my heart,
and the heart of my wife,
and the hearts of the animals in our care,
and the hearts of the children
who will be born there,
the children who will be raised there
Ray is a seeker and so too are his readers. Logically, in his poetic exploration of ideas and existence, philosophical inquiry provides many entertaining moments. But Ray’s philosophy is a bit like window shopping: he examines many intriguing items on display and even considers trying a few on for size but inevitably goes home without a purchase.
When the wolfwind howls
and the ground
whispers crystals of ice,
if I wrap my feet
in ideas—whole philosophies—
they still freeze.
Or again, in these lines from “I Saw Myself in the Black Car”:
One truth says: goodbye to the red river of blood
is all there is to dying. Another truth calls each end
a homecoming, blood’s seep into the earth, where blood
is washed of salt and deed, then blood runs strong and clear
on the long road to the sea, where salt returns.
But if as a seeker Ray doesn’t know where he is going, he has a pretty clear idea of what he is running away from, and this is a feeling with which many readers can easily identify.
If poets tend to be fascinated with their own thought process and with events that shape their own lives, this preoccupation is often what makes them interesting to readers since what most interests people is other people. This observation is made evident by the success of television reality shows that exploit a morbid curiosity about intimate details of the lives of others.
But Ray takes an entirely different tack: he is more interested in readers than in himself. In his poetics, he is constantly on the lookout for paths that readers will be able follow and for formulations of his ineffable goals that can be communicated and ways to share these formulations.
Lately we have been returning in an alarming fashion to the Victorian notion that “a man’s home is his castle”, a sort of dime store formulation of sovereignty that cruelly turns the disadvantaged into oppressors and scapegoats. If our daily diet of texts and discourse is overburdened with half-baked truths and simplistic answers to complex questions, this is an area where the methods of poetry may give some satisfaction. And this is the territory in which Ricky Ray operates. His investigations more often than not result in a question, and when his questions yield an answer, it is likely be an enigma. In the end, his meandering, qualitative approach to inquiry may be more useful than a hyperrationality that cheerfully cranks out answers whose validity is always questionable.
As noted, Ricky Ray is a reader-oriented poet, and when he reveals details about himself, this revelation is likely to be a gambit in service of his search for ever more effective communication, a communicative move that says to readers “I’ll show my sincerity by revealing something about myself”. Something of this notion may be hinted at by the richly suggestive title Fealty. Ray is a useful poet who has achieved his usefulness by learning how to entertain and communicate.
In light of his distinctive voice and mature writing style, readers may wonder why Ray should have waited two decades to publish a debut collection but it is worth considering that every poet has his or her unique sense of time. What matters finally is what they are able to express in verse and how—not when they managed to do it. Curiously, Ricky Ray has chosen to publish his debut collection in the UK, where he is little known. While his poetry may have a noticeable American slant, as demonstrated by his frequent use of a prose-like verse style lately in fashion there, certainly a less American trait is his baldly sincere tone. In any case, his vocation is universal and a European debut amounts to a declaration of intentions in this regard.
Fealty is a book for readers that is difficult to properly do justice to in a review on account of its breadth and scope, including poems written throughout the past 20 years that nonetheless display an easily recognizable continuity of voice despite innumerable variations in form, subject matter, technique and mood.
The book’s appeal to readers should be quite broad since Ray’s verse is accessible and intelligible while embodying an impressive technique and impeccable formal qualities. At over 140 pages, the current hardback edition contains more than 70 poems, giving this volume more the feel of a collected works than a debut collection. Yet its length feels just right. On account of the abundant variations in form and content they encompass, the poems in this lengthy debut collection do not tire the reader. Fealty represents the foundation of a career in poetry that we can expect to be solid and enduring.