Fealty by Ricky Ray
Eyewear Publishing, 2018. 142 pp.
Reviewed by Jonathan Maule
The poems in Ricky Ray’s Fealty focus on issues of chronic pain, mortality, and connectivity to the natural world via explorations of what it means to be human and what it means to be animal.
The book, which moves from verse to prose poems, includes thirteen for and after poems, with addressees ranging from friends to writing mentors. The speaker in these poems is conflicted, forced to examine entropy from a multitude of angles. Physical pain is interrogated in poems such as “A Neighborhood of Vertebrae,” where the speaker ponders, “What would it be like to feel comfort again, to wake and feel pleasure standing, to enjoy the stretch as the hands bring water and wash the face of sleep?” The speaker is forced to reckon with a life punctuated by chronic pain:
…what would you think of
me if I admitted to hearing the spine speak in ten different
One for each herniated disc, overlapping grammar
but each with its own syntax
for sending the brain its shades of pain.
In “Death, a Wife, and a Life of Broken Rules,” a poem in nine sections, the speaker again positions chronic pain in the foreground:
I want a broken back that has just experienced
an uncommon day of relief,
a spine stretching towards the heavens
that doesn’t recoil in pain.
And yet the speaker’s physical pain is positioned within close proximity to various animals, to surprising effect. For example, in the poem, “Arc of an Afternoon”, the speaker collapses the boundaries between humans and animals, declaring instead, “man and animal / manimal and life itself / are members of the elements.” In “Dreaming of Panthers” these distinctions dissolve further, and we come to see the suffering of all earthly creatures as worthy of attention:
A fog rolls in
with the taste of wild boar
in its heart, which seems
to be the most of it,
from the dream
to tell me a panther
and hunger and a man
drinking himself to death
are forms of a creature
I too inhabit.
In the prose poem, “Way of the Bear,” the speaker questions whether our connections to the natural and spiritual “worlds” have been completely severed, asking, “Have the ghosts lost touch or have we lost the art to hear them?” Ultimately, the poem unfurls with insights about reimagining a primal way of life, where the vitality of experience is renewed: “we’ll stand in that lost art of living where the bear tears open the body of Chinook and we of the imagination catch ourselves breathing its breath.”
In later poems, such as “Just a Moment”, the speaker summons the mythological power of creatures, rendering simultaneously the infinite and the banal, the essentially animal:
Come up, soul, horse, eater of bruises
and apples, I need your ancient nose
to tell me the what of am, your noble
nostrils to remind me that no scent
captures the dog, who, ruff, lingers
over the stain, pays her urine, trots on.
Ray’s Fealty initially makes the reader wonder, fealty to what or to whom? Whether a pledge to ourselves, our fellow animals, or the universal innervating suffering and beauty connecting us all, the concept of fealty ultimately becomes a vehicle for raising consciousness about the nature of existence. In the prose poem, “Two Postcards to Myself from April 1, 2017,” the speaker posits, “Maybe having one’s fill is beside the point, and one of the virtues of experience is that it belongs to an art of waking up.”
In “Ability and Restraint,” suffering is turned on its head, and the speaker goes so far as to welcome its transformative potential:
Though revelation may
arrive like a trainwreck,
though life may
break you into love,
let the pressure build.
Ray’s Fealty draws pain into focus and positions creatures side by side, animating suffering within the natural world. These poems signal how pain and suffering, indeed, all the ways in which our bodies slowly betray us, when viewed through the proper lens, might become a vehicle for raising consciousness, moving us closer to the conditions of our humanity.
Jonathan Maule is the winner of the 2014 Academy of American Poets Contest at Cal Poly, SLO, an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop in Tacoma, Washington, and co-editor of Aperçus: www.apercuslitmag.com. His first book of poetry, Dog Star, was published by Big Yes Press. His poetry and reviews have appeared in Askew, Talking River, Rain Taxi, and Phoebe. A former PEN America Prison Writing Mentor, Jonathan is currently teaching English and Reading courses at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, CA, as well as Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, CA.