Book Review: The Soul We Share // Ricky Ray

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When I received the galley for Ricky Ray’s latest book, The Soul We Share, my first impression was one of surprise. The table of contents organised the collection of poems and short meditations on life into five movements, complete with prelude, interlude, and coda, and my gut reaction was to question the choice. The only five-part symphonies that I could think of were Beethoven’s Sixth and Mahler’s Second, and the comparison – which struck me as somewhat self aggrandizing – primed me to approach the collection critically.

And I was critical at first. The prelude opening Ray’s collection is opaque to say the least. The four-part poem, ‘The What of Us’, seems at first glance to concern the ‘aging poet, broke and broken’ that he describes himself to be. Like its structure, which cannot seem to decide between septets, couplets, quatrains or quintets, it is unclear whether the poem is about his disability, his dog, Addie, his childlessness, or an existentialist crisis. 

But the prelude gives way to more clarity. Poems like ‘Aches, Quartet #1’ need no more than three lines to make themselves felt: ‘For a decade, I watched the wind / shred the plastic bag on the fire escape / because there were no trees.’ Others like ‘The End of My Brother’, a homage to his childhood dog Rascal, evoke the loneliness of grief: ‘Pass me a beer, I said to someone who wasn’t there / I just want to hold it till all the cold is gone / and I wasn’t talking about the can.’

These vivid images populate the book and are Ray’s chief strength. They infuse life into his poems and provide the reader with something to grasp long after his poems have faded from memory. Language becomes a puppy, the body a cart mired in a bog. Ray’s writing has a displacing quality that makes the reader think about subjects like loss, love and nature in a new way. 

This same quality is found in the collection’s tendency to express itself in plain terms. It avoids the trappings of the contemporary poet trying to give their work the sheen of authority through a mid-twentieth century vocabulary and instead calls upon language of our time. You only have to read a passage of ‘Petty Theft’ to know that The Soul We Share was written today: ‘My reincarnation was a bastard / stole a dog and a car, got slapped with a felony / used my social security number to tarnish my good name’.

The collection is not without its false notes. The prose passages found in the book are weaker than their counterparts, lacking the self-sufficiency of the poetry, and giving the impression that they might have been airlifted from a diary. Earth’s deification is disconnected from the world at large and oddly irritating. The didacticism found in passages about the environment are equally off-putting. 

Overall, however, The Soul We Share does what a poetry collection is meant to. It puts forth ideas distilled to their very bones, which shine through the memorability of the images they put forward. It convincingly recalls memories of Ricky Ray’s past, be they about his dog Addie who the book is dedicated to or about his own hardships. It provokes, teases the ear, and lends itself to being reread. It may not be for all, but it has something to offer all, if you are willing to give it the time of day. 

The collection can be preordered from Fly on The Wall Press and will be published on 24 July.

Words by Elkyn Ernst

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