Two Voices Vie, and the Better Wins, in Poetry Debut
A Contrary review by Grace Wells

        The pleasure of Billy Ramsell’s debut collection resides in a backbone of well-crafted poems, modest but assured, offering the reader diverse themes and meditations. These hand-stitched poems are pleasing and seductive. We read them, or try them on, as though we’ve been guided to the colourful studio of a bespoke milliner, the hub of whose work is a lavish mix of quality, form, design, and inventiveness, revealing the flair and labour of an artisan. Though Ramsell’s language is predominantly plain, he knows where to place small, stunning “cobalt” jewels of words. Rhyme and half-rhyme are woven into a subtle grammar that underpins the whole. Within poems, Ramsell juxtaposes statements and ideas to give a stimulating, energetic read, and the fulcrum of the collection becomes a sharp, directed voice imparting a solid world.
        The trouble or complication here is that a second, decidedly uncertain voice is also competing for our attention. This hesitant Ramsell introduces himself early on:

        These things—‘streetlights’, ‘guitar’, and ‘rain’—
        what do they know of the names we have for them
        or that we name them at all?
        Still they offer themselves day after day
        for the naming, making poems possible,
        and enter them gently, uncertainly,
        just as your life enters mine.

        At first we’re charmed by the quiet sensitivity, but then as Ramsell continues to use his poems as a place to pose unanswered questions, we begin to loose confidence in his authority. Sometimes we sense Ramsell is playing with us, using abstraction and vagueness to tease and mystify, but beneath all is a serious personal dynamic, which draws him in ‘Four Darks in Red’ to articulate for Rothko:

        It was an aching for clarity that forced him to abandon
        mid-winter and the flight of swallows,
        sunlight, snow.

        The ache for clarity becomes our own as Ramsell charts the vagaries of life, pulling us deep into the territory of uncertainty, focusing on the unreachable and unattainable, on the airy distances between, negating the solidity of what is.

        You have eleven laughs 
        and seven scents
        and I know them like a language.
        But what will it matter when the bombs start to fall
        that you could never love me?

        Hesitant Ramsell dwells in a realm of thwart where he can never “alight”, never “come close”, establishing a rambling, indefinite counter-current that works to the detriment of the collection’s stronger, more assured voice. Indeed uncommitted readers might be forgiven for never reaching the solid territory of the milliner’s studio, losing themselves first in Ramsell’s landscape of the vague. Though there is something trivialising about using the simile of a milliners to describe poetry, the choice was rooted in the unsettling, insubstantial feeling Ramsell’s uncertainty engenders. Vagueness isn’t sexy in men or poetry unless it’s safely contained by the boundaries of suggestion, and Ramsell’s unknowing takes us far beyond those borders. This isn’t to say Ramsell’s work isn’t erotic, ‘Complicated Pleasures’ is a very sensual read, but the tension of the juxtaposed pleasures and their incompatible complications only works where they are tied together by Ramsell’s assurance. His authoritative poems can be puzzling and provocative, but you work at them, and something breaks free.

Reviewer Grace Wells is a British poet living in Ireland. Her poems have appeared in the Autumn 2007,  Spring 2007, and Winter 2006 issues of Contrary.

 Index of Reviews...>

© 2003-2007  |  all rights reserved
xml feed  |  Contrary ® is a registered trademark of Contrary Magazine  |  write to usfeed://
Complicated Pleasures
by Billy Ramsell
2007, Dedalus Press
commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | winter 2008

On the Contrary

Archives | Search

Contributor Biographies

Submission Guidelines

Receive Alerts


Support a Writer


Return to Front Page