In her second column, Afshan Shafi reviews prize-winning poet Emily Berry’s latest collection, Stranger, Baby, centeredaround the loss of her mother. Confessional, almost bullying of the child she had been, Berry’s writing is tinged with grace and humour.
Much has been written about the death of a parent, and the gravity of that loss. Few have captured how that loss shears the bearer to a startling unmooring, to perhaps a new psychic landscape all together. My recent acquisition of British poet Emily Berry’s collection Stranger, Baby drew me into that world of lucid grief, both poignant and disarming.
“Berry is part of a new wave of British poetry that possesses a modern friendliness bordering on grace”
Berry is a much lauded and inventive poet. Her debut collection Dear Boy was described as a ‘blazing debut’ and won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection (2013). Emily Berry writes with a humor-laden rectitude that is hard to contextualise. If pressed to place her work in a canon it would be as part of a new wave of British poetry that possesses a modern friendliness bordering on grace.
Stranger, Baby, a meditation on the loss of her mother, is deeply confessional. The poems often read like wry, conflicted monologues or oneiric conversations between Berry and the voluble child at her center.
“Stranger, Baby, a meditation on the loss of Berry’s mother, is deeply confessional”
The collection opens with the epigraph ‘the loss of a mother must be something very strange…’ from the writings of the legendary psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. The aloofness of Freud’s phrase and the keenness of Berry’s poetic grief make for a curious conflict.
In the poem ‘Freud’s Beautiful Things’, Berry speculates on the nature of psychoanalysis with rare objectivity:
(I feel compelled to express myself poetically)
I am not normally a hunter of relics, but…
It was this childhood scene…
All the while I kept thinking: her face had such a wild look
…as though she had never existed
Stranger, Baby offers the reader a softer look at psychoanalysis, likening the counselor/patient relationship to collaborating on one’s own portrait where the analyst and the subject connect in a beautiful equality.
“It’s a misconception to assume that poetry’s aim is to be understood… A good poem understands itself” ~ Emily Berry
Berry is at home with doubleness, with things splitting into twos, into imparticulars and sheer vagueness. In one of the opening poems in the collection titled ‘Tragedy for One Voice’, Berry confronts loss by slipping off the vestment of one’s skin, perhaps the one screened by the world, to confront the other, perhaps the one left by its mother in an act of tragic abandonment.
[Alone onstage with a coffin. Windchimes]
ME ONE: There is a part of me that will always miss what I lost
ME TWO: They all said the same thing in their letters… I hope she will be okay, poor little ____
ME ONE: I went back to the burned house
ME TWO: Day of the week: immaterial. Time of year: immaterial
ME ONE: Who was there: me and another girl, also me (you) [gesturing to ME TWO]
ME TWO [angry] During leave-taking from mother: ‘without ceremony, the children were far more distressed than if mother left with the proper rituals’
CHORUS: Give us this day our proper rituals! Give us some ****ing ceremony!
This fragment illustrates much of Berry’s originality, and her daring in confronting and in naming her vulnerability. By naming her abandoned self ‘Poor little ____’, Berry affirms the pathos of the child in all of us.
Berry knows of grief as an unearthing, a re-birthing perhaps , as she brings forth the voice of the child who cannot accept the blind mystery of death, and is meek in confronting it. This inner child’s abjectness comes to bear upon her adult self with disarming ferocity in the wake of grief, rendering her present maturity, listless and dumb. The loss of her mother, and a mother’s love, riddles the poet’s authority of self, it sets love itself on its head, pummeling it with lack and shame.
From ‘Drunken Bellarmine’
I cannot make manifest this collection of feelings
But look at me: I want to be loved for the wrong reasons
I mean I want to be hated for the right reasons
I have been lonely. Every time I say the word ‘I’
I am ashamed’
Berry’s approach is deeply moving, for in christening her former self, she is partaking in the covert bullying of her own person. As a bully sizes up the softest parts of its victim, to pry open for the proverbial twist, Berry brings her inner child forth to interrogate. Yet, Berry’s act is not one of capitulation, instead her verse is an admission of how all her selves are acutely tenacious, and ripe for confrontation and rough dialogue.
“But look at me: I want to be loved for the wrong reasons
I mean I want to be hated for the right reasons”
~ Emily Berry
Like all good verse, Berry’s poetics demand an engagement beyond the obvious ache, the incipient premise. In an interview, Berry illustrates perfectly the appeal of her own craft, and offers a lesson to young poets in the making:
‘You can still understand a piece of classical music if it moves you, just like you can understand a poem even if you can’t explain what it means… it’s a misconception to assume that poetry’s aim is to be understood… A good poem understands itself.’