Emily Berry, Stranger, Baby (Faber & Faber, £10.99).
Emily Berry’s second collection, Stranger, Baby – published this year by Faber & Faber, is luminous green and hard to put down. Berry’s first book Dear Boy (2013) is, as its title suggests, openly concerned with the nature of address. From the first line of the first poem – ‘We always breakfast with the biographer’ – the book is full of notes for other people, addressed to specific friends, doctors and lovers. They are jokes and anecdotes that we, the audience, are involved in, overhearing them rather than being spoken to directly. We hear for the first time in one of the last poems ‘Manners’ the story that takes centre stage in the second book:
It means I’m both precocious and heartbroken,
but that’s no excuse for bad manners.
This is thrown casually into a conversation with a doctor, and by now we are so used to hearing other guises and voices that we are immune to the farfetched claims of the poems and take every comment with a pinch of salt.
The big jump from Berry’s first to second book is shown in these first words of the first poems. It is the brave leap from that ‘we’ to this ‘I’:
Sleeves rolled up to my shoulders.
My fringe lifted to the wind in a long salute and I pushed it back.
This ‘I’ is not merely a voice but a physical body with ‘sleeves’ and ‘shoulders’ and a ‘fringe’ and the muscles used to ‘push it back’. This poem sets up a book in which its author comes out from behind the costumes and props and takes control of her own story.
This is not an easy thing to do well. It is the kind of writing which acts as if it is giving everything away, even though it is the most embarrassing and painful thing in the world to do. It is the kind of writing ‘biographer[s]’ live for.
Berry does it very well. She avoids cliché by showing she’s aware of it, for example the poem titled ‘Now all my poems are about death I feel as though I’m really living’ where she speaker states: ‘I photograph myself in the cemetery’. She knows that by choosing a personal subject for her book she has become an actor in her own one-woman show, as she acknowledges with her script-poems such as ‘Tragedy for One Voice’:
By manipulating the information given using different formal techniques, Berry demonstrates her complete control over her subject. The later poem ‘Freud’s Beautiful Things’ includes a direct quote from Freud that: ‘What makes all autobiographies worthless is, after all, their mendacity.’ Here, Berry uses a specific photograph as evidence of the real-ness of her mother, despite the fact that this photograph is ‘veiled’ from the reader and could easily be another dream or invented memory.
These poems are written in the voice of a person mourning for a lost mother, someone who lost their mother long ago, and has had a lot of time to process and manipulate that sensory information into language. In the final section of the sequence ‘Picnic’, where the lost mother is mentioned for the first time, the speaker exclaims:
The image of crying in front of a mirror is paired with that of language ‘crawling’ like an insect ‘all over me’ as a metaphor for the attempt to translate the reality of grief into words using artificial devices. Just as what you see in the mirror isn’t really you, grief put into words isn’t really grief, which like ‘the language of trees, […] can’t be transcribed’ (‘Canopy’).
While Dear Boy used endless guises and awarded little nuggets of personal information as a reward for the ‘biographer[s]’ for getting through the fiction, in Stranger, Baby the relentless painful revelations are interspersed with comforting distractions where we are carried into the minds of others using translations and ekphrastic poems like ‘Song (after Luna Miguel)’, ‘Sleeping (after Paula Rego)’ and ‘Drunken Bellarmine (after Renee So)’, which ends with what can be seen as either a warning or a perfect advertisement for this book, depending on which way you look at it:
Raw, murky and fluorescent, you couldn’t take it.