Communing by Ben Banyard

Reviewed by Angela Topping

Communing is a beautifully produced, perfectly-bound pamphlet from Indigo Dreams, a publisher who is really striking out these days, with an ever-growing list of fine poets. Ben Banyard is the editor of Clear Poetry, a title which makes me think of mountain streams. I had a feeling I would like his poems, and sure enough, the first line is an immediate hook: “We carry our dead around”, from ‘Phantom Limbs’. I also connect deeply with ‘Firsts’; I love the dialect words, often used in my own family and I suspect many others: “Whatsername”, “Thingybob”, “Doodah”. The detail of listening to Kate Rusby, that wonderful folk singer, creates a tender moment, but the last stanza twists the knife:

There aren’t many more first times left;
They’re so quietly chalked off that sometimes
I don’t even notice them flit by.

I love the two poems dedicated to Lillian Flannery: ‘742 8145’ and ‘Ancestry’. What is it about telephone numbers that sticks in the mind? Tony Harrison wrote of “the disconnected number I still call” in his sonnet ‘Long Distance’; Banyard goes a step further and describes the old fashioned telephone so evocatively I can feel it, smell it and hear it, as in my mind I too ‘push my / fingers into the uncomfortable / holes around the circumference’. The line breaks mimic the gaps between each number. Banyard lovingly recreates Flannery coming in from the garden, waving to the bin man before picking up the phone: the lexical choices of “tremulous” and “faithfully” sum up her character, and reciting the number is, of course, what people used to do.

‘Ancestry’ explores a photo album. It’s tender and real, as Flannery sits peering at them in her ‘maisonette’, and again Banyard delivers a killer ending:

They kept their feelings in heirlooms.
I wish I could remember their names.

This pamphlet is peopled with observed characters, strangers in pubs counterpoint with close ones, looking to the future as well as the past. ‘Communing’ is a pitch-perfect funeral poem, restrained by tight couplets. It acknowledges the awkwardness and embarrassment of funerals, and forgives us for it:

We get through it, passing the smokers
on our way out, armed with silver, rice, soil.

‘Early Days’ is a tender poem of fatherhood, a man doing his best for his vulnerable babies, learning how to love them and keep them safe. Delight is in the detail, “bony as a kitten”, “pigeon pair”, as the 35-week twins were brought into the light of the poem:

just in the nick, to turn our world
immaculately on itself and focus
love to two bright points.

There are also poems of place in this debut; the poems connect on several levels, but their variety is also impressive within the short range of a pamphlet. Banyard celebrates those little moments of quiet, the noticings of a poet when they have all their “ears alive”, as W.S Graham puts it. I feel confident that the promise Banyard shows here will continue to develop and flourish.