The Stars Inside, Ayala Kingsley’s debut collection, is a delight. Knowing that her poetry had already appeared in several publications such as The Oxford Magazine and had won several awards, including the Troubadour Poetry Prize, I approached this work with high expectations. I was not disappointed, and had the joy of discovering another poet I will undoubtedly revisit.
The entire collection flows, seemingly effortlessly, despite Kingsley’s sharp attention to detail. The imagery is beautifully simple yet far-reaching. The poems move in and out of one another, weaving an entire narrative (about love and loss), but they can also survive when isolated. “Water Dancer”, which is quoted in full on the cover design, is a perfect example of Kingsley’s ability to encapsulate a whole world in a single character or item. Her imagery appears a little indulgent at times, but it is stripped right back in the lines which follow that richness, for example in “Water Dancer” the second stanza is overflowing with rich imagery before being pulled together to a satisfactory close:
In a petticoat of unstudied red,
frilled, gill pleated – the flounced mantle
of the sea-slug Spanish Dancer;
or the silk within the torn sil of rosebuds,
or the blood behind her eyelids .
In a black gown sharp as a blade,
as long as an afternoon spent sleeping.
Unquestionably, Kingsley is keenly aware of this need for careful balance and is in control of all the currents in her work. There’s a fluidity in this poem that is mirrored throughout the collection. Indeed movement is a key theme throughout and the poet’s commitment to the dance form ‘Butoh’ clearly is a huge influence on her work. Such is the power of that sense of loss, or love that the reader is likely to need to pause to recuperate before proceeding.
The concept of an overall narrative end to the collection is somewhat disconcerting, other reviews suggest that the collection tells the story of an intense and ultimately failed relationship. However, The Stars Inside seems to me to be telling several parallel stories, including those of relationships – between lovers, friends, mothers and daughters … but it also veers off into the depths of history, imagining real lives and real people. “Unoriginal Sin” visits the Holocaust whilst “One Stop Before Black” explores one person’s internalised angst.
For Kingsley, no person, relationship, or experience is too big or too small to research and examine. Every subject is dealt with in the same manner; all with extreme grace and honesty. Whilst there is a huge sense of helplessness and sorrow conveyed by this work, equally there are admirable and substantial threads of hope and strength delicately woven throughout. Again “Unoriginal Sin” comes to mind with the poignant lines:
I carried my burden of tears to where the light spilled,
pooling from cool skylights, and the eternal flame burned.
One of the greatest attributes of this work is its interpretation of the relationship between the outer appearances and inner emotions, with the colours and presence of nature. “Trees Perhaps…” and “Heaven on Earth” are two examples of this marriage.
Kingsley exhibits control over all of these panoramas, with the selectiveness and dexterity of a landscape painter. Her occupation as graphic designer might give her the ability to cling to minute details and create from them an entire narrative, but it is her skill as a poet that allows these elements to breathe fully on the page.
The Stars Inside is an exciting and thought provoking read which strikes me as the kind of collection that will keep growing with the reader. I will be curious to find out which poems connect most with me when I reread this collection in later years but overall I sense that there is something distinctly “real” here that will keep this poetry fresh, regardless of how often the pages are thumbed.