Emily Berry – Stranger, Baby

Disclosure: I gave Berry’s first collection, Dear Boy, an ignorant as hell review, now deleted. The book explores trauma of which I have very little experience. Have not met the poet.

‘Some people don’t put question marks at the end of questions any more
In case anyone should think they’d be so idealistic as to expect an answer’

(‘Everything Bad Is Permanent’)

Review: Stranger, Baby is a book-length exploration of the emotional fallout from the death of the poet’s mother, an often gut-punching, sometimes remorselessly frank collection. Unlike many elegiac projects, particularly the monumental kind poetry culture has historically adored, Stranger, Baby has an acutely self-critical conscience, persistently adjusting and complicating its narratives and arguments when the ability to speak plainly and sincerely (let alone passionately and grandly) is found wanting. Among this wrangling between speech and silence, sudden, fleeting but painfully moving moments of clarity pierce the darkness:

‘If it was up to me, I would not have her back.

It is not up to me, and she is not coming back.’

(‘Sleeping’)

One of the central questions in Stranger, Baby, which is never quite tethered to a question mark, is not so much how the poet’s mother might be remembered – she appears only briefly, elusively in the book – but how the poet might faithfully make sense of something almost impossible to encompass, how a situation of such unremitting sadness might be survived. It does so with an unflinching, bleak sense of humour and a willingness to investigate the unspectacular, mundane aspects of grief and loss: ‘I feel like that grubby place / beneath the door handle, the place everyone touches / as they leave’ (‘Girl on a Liner’). The book moves with remarkable poise between self-erasing despair and cool distance without falling into either, and the very act of proceeding through the carefully plotted and paced collection is a bold, heartening experience. One thing Stranger, Baby does better than almost any book I’ve read is in its intensity of care for the reader, its careful management of the poems’ often brutal subject matter. The book doesn’t aim primarily to shock or appal the reader with its ideas, but it doesn’t shy away from them either. Rather, it leads the reader through the fine, painful details of a time of massive psychological pain and seems in the end to say look, you made it. It’s a rare and admirable achievement.

One of the book’s recurrent thoughts is how the act of grieving is located physically, an incontestable bodily impulse whose open expression, the book implies, brings shame on the grieving individual. This is tied to the book’s assertion that poetry is a natural facet of existing as a human body, as ‘Part’ argues: ‘I wanted to put my body into these words / I wanted this to be a part of my body / This part of my body’. Several poems render this embodied embarrassment (metaphorically or ironically) as a burden or an endlessly recurring emotional trap:

‘I veiled my tended wound. I veiled my narrative. […] I run out into the street. I find someone. I tell them everything. ‘I have got it in me!’ I shout. ‘Undigested! Whole! The dead body of a woman!’

(‘Tragedy for One Voice’)

‘I stopped agonising because it started to seem as if agonising was hurting me’

(‘The photo that is most troubling is the one I don’t want to show you’)

The irrational blocks against the natural expression of grief are expressed rationally and systematically, often with devastatingly bleak comic effect. It’s worth noting how often the poems seem to critique professionalised care, perhaps how certain modes of thought reinforce harmful mores: ‘They did not ask if it hurt when they did not touch me’ (‘Ghost Dance’); ‘“I am afraid of…”’ they explained, / ‘might be better rendered as “There is a fear of…”’ (‘Girl on a Liner’). These lines might be somewhat ironic, but the pitch feels weary, as if these attempts to help fall some way short of addressing the messy, ugly, unscientific hurt.

If it’s not clear already, a major part of the book’s texture is in making clear just how much work it is to address and confront prevailing prejudices regarding grief and mental illness. In similar fashion to Denise Riley’s Say Something Back, Berry’s poems are a kind of defensive action against silence, simultaneously a refusal to fall to the pressures that would silence her writing and a refusal to ignore the force those pressures exert. Also like Riley, these poems do not fear being read as ostensibly ungainly or clumsy (remembering Riley’s ‘one glum mum’) at the expense of giving a faithful voice to their emotional realities. They operate in full awareness of their artifice, remaining sensitive to the unspoken contract between reader and grieving poet: this is a book about mourning, and to some extent, the reader will anticipate some performance of sadness. Standing back and looking with a cold eye at the much-vaunted elegiac tradition in English poetry, being a reader of such work and gaining aesthetic pleasure from others’ suffering is, well, more a bit weird, and Stranger, Baby seems perfectly alert to how grim the whole affair could be without due sensitivity. A few of the early poems address this matter at oblique angles, negotiating this very odd generic arrangement. For example, in ‘Picnic’:

‘I like it when I am writing a poem and I know that I am feeling something
To be poised and to invite contact
Or to appear to invite contact’

This correction reverberates throughout the book. The entirety of ‘Tragedy for One Voice’ feels like an attempt to convert some essence of lived experience without inviting reductive terms like ‘confessional’ or ‘autobiographical’. The speakers are very clearly labelled as fictional/dramatic constructs, and, as Ralf Webb points out, directly quote the psychiatrist Sandra L Bloom and the critic Al Alvarez; although their words are not authored exclusively by the poet, the effect their exchanges produces absolutely is. The poem feels self-consciously self-conscious (noting that the poem is anything but for ‘one voice’), as the characters ‘Me One’ and ‘Me Two’ appear, according to the stage direction, ‘Alone on stage with a coffin’, and deflect from the specificity of their story: ‘Day of the week: immaterial. Time of year: immaterial.’ What seems to underwrite the whole process is the sense that telling it straight or making it explicitly personal would be insufficient, even embarrassing. The last spoken line – ‘Me Two + Chorus (of baritones): –SAVE HER’ – feels disarmingly melodramatic, a kind of deflationary tactic in a poem fizzing with tension.

‘Drunken Bellarmine’ takes a different tack, driving headlong into poisonous social tendencies and wearing them as a badge of honour. It asserts that, ‘shame is also revelry, and a body / is a spillage, or an addiction’; drawing attention to the body as the right and natural home of unruly, uncontrollable feeling, the poem is glorious and grotesque, and amid the defiance there’s a powerful celebration of the self, albeit wrapped in the charged language of bodily filth and impropriety:

‘I am a shitting, leaking, bloody clump of cells,
raw, murky and fluorescent, you couldn’t take it.’

It’s worth noting that these lines are earned off the back of an entire poem’s worth of self-correction and doubt, a full-hearted entanglement in repressive thought processes:

‘Every time I say the word ‘I’
I am ashamed. When I say ‘I want’ I am triply
ashamed. I want my shame to be a kind of proof
that deduces the world, and that’s the worst
shame of all.’

This is an intensely knotted and complex unit of thought. By articulating the circular logic that prevents someone in pain from expressing that pain, the poem makes space to resist it. One of the finest aspects of the collection is how meticulously it leads the reader through these traps, repurposing its logic into something that acknowledges the speaker’s humanity.

As a couple of critics have noted, fire and the sea are powerful, multifaceted symbols in Stranger, Baby. It’s worth exploring how they function throughout the book, hopefully without assigning them to too neat an imaginative system. Many poems deploy a flat or ironic tone, even when the literal action is highly emotionally charged: ‘Colour all over my hands, I get down on the floor of a tiled, white room’ (‘Summer’); ‘her ghost took / many forms […] it was / a lovely sunny day’ (‘Aqua’). At an imaginative stretch, one could map this voice onto the figure of the sea: calm on the surface with destructive faculties only suggested underneath. A handful of times this tone is interrupted by poems or passages of visionary brilliance, a blaze of near-Romantic faith in the power of lyric to contain a true feeling. Again, if you squint a little and are of a generous disposition, you could call this fire; fire imagery often appears during the book’s dreamy, parabolic moments. The sea and fire seem complimentary forces in the book, both capable of destruction (‘Tidal wave don’t sing […] Tidal wave crash’), both capable of arresting beauty:

‘My, yes, salty, wet, ocean-coloured eyes
Albeit that in the dark they were the colour of the dark, and on fire’

(‘Picnic’)

The book’s opening poem, ‘Sign of the Anchor’, is difficult to unravel, and features both these elemental symbols at its climactic moment. It opens with the speaker, ‘at the dangerous shore. / Sleeves rolled up to my shoulders’; she ‘picture[s] my protective symbols’, the eponymous anchor. However:

‘I opened my eyes and saw the sign of the anchor burning.
I had to go.
I shouted some words but they were lost when the waves crashed.
And ash rained from the sky.
I was far out, in wet denim, and the shore was a jolt when I looked back.’

The poem’s loose rhythms become far more purposeful in that last line, the blunt force in ‘looked back’ perhaps speaking to the scene’s finality. The ‘ash rain’ in the penultimate line is a blend of the book’s two core images, and comes directly after the silencing effect the sea has on the speaker; fire/sea again seeming in some way emblematic of unrestrained expression. The collection has only a few of these more identifiably parabolic pieces, ‘Canopy’ (of which more below) and ‘The photo that is most troubling […]’ being examples; the latter contains the lines:

‘Skies suddenly so dark
And the way home on fire
Through the forest, loud and forgetful as a burst of rain
In case you could hear me
On the backs of horses’

It’s probably not coincidental that the moment in which the poem veers away from its internal struggle about speaking with the dead (‘My mouth opened and I breathed flame’), in which the speaker ironizes herself and her attempts to do so (‘Excuse these intense but beautiful bouts of emotion’), once again draws together fire and water. Working in tandem, they seem to underpin the book’s most powerful, image-driven passages, moments in which the poet speaks relatively unburdened by socially inscribed fear or shame. This reading might well underplay the flexibility of both figures in systematising them, however; what I hope it demonstrates is the uncommon intensity of artistic direction evident throughout the book. These extraordinary lines from ‘Procession’, for example:

‘Once I saw my mother rowing

At night across water

I called to her and she looked back

Smiling beautifully’

Or ‘Picnic’, in which the sea is connected directly to feelings which are inarticulable or impossible to faithfully reproduce, again raising the question of the poet’s capacity to do likewise:

‘Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person
I tried to do that
All that year I visited a man in a room
I polished my feelings’

Or the recurring figure of mermaids, figures perfectly at home and comfortable in the sea. Berry  recently interviewed Luna Miguel, a Spanish poet who inspired Berry’s poem ‘Song’, and for whom mermaids are an image that connects her to the memory of her own mother. ‘Freud’s Beautiful Things’, which begins ‘I have some sad news for you / I am just a symbol, a shadow cast on paper’ later asserts, ‘Not a mermaid, but a lovely human being’.  The symbolic afterlife (or the afterlife of symbols) is not free of responsibility to the living. Stranger, Baby is in constant negotiation with the fictional – that is, artful – nature of its work.

I mentioned ‘Canopy’ earlier, an example of the book’s parable-poems. For the first time in Stranger, Baby, I think, the poem’s central symbol is a tree, held up as an exemplary survivor:

‘And the trees shook everything off until they were bare and clean. They held on to the ground with their long feet and leant into the gale and back again.’

Not only that, but an enabling force, a provider of words:

‘They got inside us and made us speak; I said my first word in their language: ‘canopy’.’

The poem’s conclusion is utterly heartbreaking, a perfect resolution and continuation of the book’s concerns, a note of encouragement and, most importantly, a new imaginative realm, a new means of heading out into the world beyond the collection. It’s an incredible gesture, and I don’t want to spoil it here. You’ll have to experience it yourself.

As ever, there’s a hell of a lot going on in this book that I haven’t discussed. Its formal elements are fascinating, there are a bunch of poems one could close read for days, there are tiny, sort of funny, sort of crushing poems like ‘Safe’ and ‘So’, poems like ‘Aura’ which deftly combine form and substance to utterly heartbreaking effect, moments of hard-earned semi-triumph like the all-caps ‘The Whole Show’. It’s an unusual book, and it makes no effort to soften its edges, but it’s glorious in its idiosyncrasies, the dense and intricate language it uses to animate its inner world. Please read it.

Further Reading: Emily Berry interviews Luna Miguel at The Quietus

Charanpreet Khaira reviews Stranger, Baby at The London Magazine

Ralf Webb interviews Emily Berry at The LA Review of Books

Jen Campbell reviews Stranger, Baby on her YouTube channel

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