Review: After the Poet, the Bar

Benn Sheridan delights in the life and language intertwined in Ben Ray’s first poetry collection

TOver the summer, Lady Margaret Hall student Ben Ray released After the Poet, the Bar, his first full poetry collection, and one billed as “a loving exploration of Ben’s home in the Welsh borders”. It might seem strange, then, that the first poem pivots round the Mutiny on the Bounty, half a world away, and the second, an inclement Edinburgh. Not a Welsh border in sight. Except, of course, it’s not strange or slightly out of place because this collection has no geographical bounds, but is, as its eponymous verse which comes tucked away in the last few pages reminds us, an opportunity to have “lit another”, or as I’d like to think Ray means, to communicate to the reader his sheer joy for poetry. And he really does: reflective, self-consciously beautiful poetry (see ‘Rain Clouds Over Edinburgh’ or ‘Twin Ambitions’) bounces off dark poetic barbs (his send up of Simon Armitage is sublime) and pithy, playful poetic-jokes. Taken together, the collection becomes less a reflection than a celebration of poetry and, most powerfully, the role of the poet in itself.

His compositions are fluid, easy reads – so easy, in fact, that you could read the whole collection through, as I, though loath to admit it, did first time round, without pause to reflect on the precision of the diction. Lines like “A nucleus compressed to a dot / by the clear cobalt around it, tight embrace, / held by the brilliant blue of a billion atoms…” is ostensibly ‘pretty’: the image of life bursting forth even at a sub-atomic level. But it becomes ever more tremendous on second glance. “Tight embrace” is itself enclosed by the expansive azure; “nucleus” becomes “a billion atoms” – the vastness of life is reduced and exploded simultaneously, with the components of being broken into the smallest parts then multiplied and multiplied so the smallest of creatures becomes giant.

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On a less quantum note, After the Poet, the Bar is echt-Oxonian in what it describes, and how it describes it. Ray’s homage or two-fingers-up to the tutorial system is suitably erudite in subject matter – clearly he’s paid attention from time to time – and in its deliberate, desperate wittiness: the strained intellectual one-upmanship familiar to anyone who’s ever had a precocious (and better prepared) tute partner. It is difficult to put it better than Nancy Campbell’s praise of Ben’s “canny understanding of life and language”, because this is his fundamental strength; in After the Poet, the Bar, life and language are so intertwined that to delight in one, is to delight in the other.