Emily Berry: Stranger, Baby – a review by Jane Simmons

Jane Simmons is a retired teacher/lecturer who is now studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. She has written several short stories and is currently working on her second novel and a collection of poetry. She is a member of the Lincoln-based Pimento poets and Outspoken Poets and regularly reads/performs her work in the Lincoln area. Although her main interests are poetry and prose fiction, she has written a short play which is to be published and performed in summer 2018.  Jane says she does not know how she ever found the time to go to work. Jane lives with her husband in a village outside Lincoln. They have one daughter – who is a vet, and Jane’s number one reader.

 

 

 

Emily Berry: Stranger, Baby

Faber & Faber

ISBN: 978 0 571 33132 1

 

 

Emily Berry was born in 1981 and studied at university in Leeds. She has also studied Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, and in 2008 received an Eric Gregory Award. In the same year, her pamphlet Stingray Fevers joined tall-lighthouse’s Pilot series, edited by Roddy Lumsden. In March 2013, her debut collection, Dear Boy, was published by Faber & Faber, and went on to win the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the Hawthornden Prize. She is a contributor to The Breakfast Bible and editor of Best British Poetry 2015. A selection of her work appears in Penguin Modern Poets 1: If I’m Scared We Can’t Win. She has recently been appointed editor of The Poetry Review. She was announced as one of the Poetry Book Society’s ‘Next Generation Poets’ in 2014, and is studying for a PhD in Creative & Critical Writing at UEA. Her second collection, Stranger, Baby, was published by Faber in 2017.

 

 

 

Stranger, Baby is about the death of Berry’s mother and focuses on the poet’s relationship with her mother and her response to her loss. The collection opens with a quotation from Sigmund Freud, the loss of a mother must be something very strange which seems an unsympathetic description, viewing the motherless not with empathy or even pity, but with clinical curiosity. Emily Berry takes Freud’s clinical curiosity about the strangeness of the loss of a mother and examines it in the light of her own personal experience. She tries to make sense of a situation which is senseless and attempts to take control of an event that could not be controlled.

Although Berry uses Freud’s language and shares his fascination with dreams, she resists his pitilessness and recognises that his theories can only give her limited help. References to therapy as a way of dealing with grief are mostly negative. Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person she says in Picnic:

I tried to do that

all that year I visited a man in a room

I polished my feelings

The criticism that she makes of the therapeutic process is applicable to poetry too, and it is  a criticism she is not afraid to consider:

there was a feeling

but I wrote it down and it ceased to be a feeling,

became art

However, ultimately, poetry for Berry represents a valuable method of attempting to gain control over her feelings.

The poetic persona in Stranger, Baby is autobiographical and it screams and screams without any self-control. In the play-poem ‘Tragedy for One Voice’, the screaming forms a noise which echoes through the entire collection. Sometimes the poet tries to distance herself from her subject, asking Can you distort my voice when I say this? so that people don’t know it’s me.

Berry is inventive in her use of form and structure to convey meaning. The collection contains a number of concrete poems set out in narrow columns down the length of the page; each of these poems has only a few words to each line. Aqua is one of these tightly constructed poems:

I filled a bowl

with a little

water praised

it slightly a feeling

of daughterliness

came over me

I adored her

of course water

cannot hold

an imprint she

kept repeating

it’s no use you

can’t help me

The line breaks and the absence of punctuation encourage multiple interpretations of the words and multiple readings of the poem, while internal rhymes and half-rhymes hold it together. The combined effect of all these features is to create a poem which is far more complex than its simple appearance on the page leads the reader to expect. Berry uses these techniques again in other poems: She had it; New Project; Once; Flowers.  In the poem So, these techniques are taken to the extreme: each line consists of only a single word. She continues to experiment with form elsewhere in the collection: some poems are prose-like, one converts the speaker’s conflicting feelings into voices in a play.

The poems in Stranger, Baby are full of references to water in both the subject matter and the language and imagery: tears and crying; rain and raining; droplets and mist; rivers; lagoons and waterfalls; stalactites; spillages and floods; bathing, floating, rowing, washing. There are containers for liquids too: glass, bowl, bain-marie, fountain. In Freud’s interpretation of dreams, the sea stands for the mother; Berry turns to the sea again and again in these poems with multiple references to the sea, the ocean, waves, the tide, the underwater world, and mermaids. She talks to the waves; she stands at the dangerous shore in an attempt to be like the shells on the beach, rubbed smooth and cracked open; she cries the way the sea cries when it has swallowed a river.  In one poem she says I wrote: The sea! The sea! As if that might be a solution but the title of this poem Everything Bad Is Permanent shows that she really knows that it is not. Similarly, in Sleeping, she writes if it was up to me, I would not have her back, before acknowledging in the next line it is not up to me, and she is not coming back. Elsewhere in the collection, references to water are replaced by images of heat and fire. The reader is told of the way home on fire and the burning house. Domestic activities are linked to emotional experiences in images which connect fire and water the heat of cooking … cracks my ice-caps. The outside world and the inner world are combined in the language of grief just as the grief itself takes over her whole life.

In Now all my poems about death I feel as though I’m really living, Berry explores this further:

Under the trees, on the wet ground, with the staggering crows.

I photograph myself in the cemetery.

I kneel and speak to you and I observe myself doing it.

The crows observe themselves.

The dead can answer us only in our own words.

Can you imagine? Of course, you can’t imagine.

Your silence reaches out from inside me and meets itself on the outside.

A sign says: Some memorials may be unstable.

But what is silence like, someone wanted to know.

Tell us something, in your own inimitable style.

It’s raining in the cemetery.

I pose and yet I cannot pose.

I knelt, I spoke, I cried, I wrote this down, regretted it.

Through her use of form, structure and language, Emily Berry makes a brave attempt to face the discovery that people you love can be removed from the world and the destructive power of their absence. This attempt to manage the chaos of loss through poetry has resulted in a deeply moving collection.

Listen to Emily Berry reading from Stranger, Baby at

 

LISTEN: Emily Berry reads from Stranger, Baby