|PLATH IS THE MOTHER OF US ALL, IN SOME WAYS|
BY EMILY BERRY (FABER, 2017)
"ANXIETIES OF INFLUENCE, THE CONFLUENCE OF POETIC RESPONSES TO BEREAVEMENT"
I hesitate to call this a review - it isn't - it's an appreciation, and a comment. I should say that I think Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry is one of the best books of British poetry you are likely to read in 2017; and that it seems to me to be at once better, and slightly less good, than its predecessor, Berry's feted debut, Dear Boy, whose title similarly played on various meanings. I once was Berry's "poetry tutor" - for several key years in the now-famed MAIDA VALE GROUP I ran through the POETRY SCHOOL - other members included Liz Berry, Helen Mort and Phil Brown. I recall seeing almost all the poems in Dear Boy in early stages.
I have seen none from this new manuscript, though I predicted, even urged it to appear, in my several reviews/essays on Dear Boy, where I said (also in private conversation) that Berry needed to write about her mother's death. It seemed to me that what was best in Berry's poetry was primarily not yet on show - that her surreal, pained, remarkable sense of humour bordered on expressionism, and hinted at hinterlands of anguish and psychic drama the rather tricksy poems on BDSM (mostly using techniques learned from Luke Kennard's toolkit) could hardly bear.
Now, Berry has gone away from London, metaphorically, and yet stayed, but gone to UEA for a PhD with two major poetry thinkers/poets - Noel-Tod and Denise Riley. This new book of Berry's, frankly, is stamped, on every page, with Riley's ideas and advice, regarding language, identity, the body, and the strange. I know because I also did my PhD with her, and also have written about death, identity, the body, Freud etc, for many years. The uncanny thing about reading this book was not that I recognised it as my own, or Riley's, but that it has emerged, as its own style, but with family resemblances. There may be a UEA school of Agamben-Riley poetics.
Of course, Riley is the pre-eminent poetic genius on these isles now, along perhaps with Prynne, Ford, and one or two others. Her last book Say Something Back clearly should have won the TS Eliot prize a few days ago, but was beaten by a book that will be forgotten. Riley's will be read in 200 years. The reason? It proposed new ways of thinking about language and death, mourning and play, in poetry, by taking all models, forms and poetic options as pliable, open to reformulation. It was a harrowing, witty, beautiful and profound master-class in the human, yet aesthetic, consolations of poetry.
Berry's book is exactly the same in that its twin poles are mourning/grief/loss/bereavement and the language problem/how to speak that bedevils all lyric and innovative poets. Simplistically, it is different, in that Riley mourns and writes as the mother-persona, speaking to her dead child. Berry's uncannily mirror-opposite book is written by a child, mourning her dead mother, speaking as best she can, in poems under extreme pressure. Therefore, in some sense, this is the companion, the Other, to Riley's book, though I would daringly interpose, in true Freudian fashion (pace Bloom) that one needs to place my poems, about my dead father and unborn children (from Winter, Winter Tennis and When All My Disappointments Came At Once), into this conversation - since they antedate both these books, and also explore language, Freud, Winnicot, mothers and babies, and death/grief, in almost the same terms.
This is hardly far-fetched: Berry is familiar with my work, having edited some of those poems for me. I often spoke in my tutorials with Berry and others about the advice that A. Alvarez gave me (I had befriended him) - and Alvarez guided my book on death and my father, Winter, Winter Tennis, which takes Plath and language-play as its poles; and we know Berry thanks Alvarez in this new book. And Riley was my tutor when I composed them. I am not claiming to have inspired these people - they may well have inspired me - they did of course - but the maelstrom or vortex of death/grief and the need to write out of that is endlessly complicating and complex, and can hardly be attributed, as if copyrighted, to any one poet. It is a community of linguistic grief we work out of, a pool of shared tropes, and ideas.
We all speak after, say, Homer, Dante, Donne, Eliot, Plath and Heaney, who may be the preeminent poets to discuss death and the underworld in terms of poetry and poetic speaking, on these subjects. What Riley did was to make the exorbitant, overwrought mania of Plath turn into a more witty, philosophical introspection, still highly feminist and alert to ideas and feeling, but more ironic; Berry continues the ironies of British poetry, which constrains full throttle emotionalism (usually), in this book, but allows herself to signally break free, time and again, into extremes of expression and symbolism that make Plath look like a polite tea-time. In short, Berry's contribution to this field is to accept both the constraints of Rileyian ironies, and the unlimited expressionism of Plathian self-revelation.
What this means in practice is that Berry's poems are formally contrived - signposted as artifices, constructed platforms for assays into the same theme, over and again, obsessively turned this way and that - worried at endlessly - the fetish being, how to speak about and to my mother who committed suicide when I was 13. The speaker (a persona, but arguably Berry also) is a little victim, but now big, grown up, and, oceanically rising like a wave, to take on the vastness of language, death, poetry and the unconscious. In other words, she is doing the impossible in many voices. So, formally aware, and ironic - but then, astonishingly crude, awkward, shocking, rough-hewn, sharp-edged, blurts, stutters, shouts and yelps of pain, fear, wondering, doubt - horror. Berry's theme has long been that life is a horror show, and yet poems can be funny ways of dealing with that (funny ha ha and funny strange).
Dear Boy was more ha ha, this one is more strange. Depending on whether you think self-expression/lyricism needs to constantly renew and refresh itself, or can simply be tossed aside, you will read this book as self-referential whingeing, or a work of extraordinary poetic ability and frankness rarely if ever before seen in British poetry. I value lyric-modernism, and so welcome this book. Like a necessary nightmare, a session with the analyst that comes too soon, but was booked long ago.
review by Todd Swift
MAIDA VALE, LONDON
22 January, 2017