‘I tramp through the definition of absence’

Emily Berry, Dear Boy

Faber & Faber, 64pp, £9.99, ISBN 9780571284054

reviewed by Željka Marošević

At the centre of Emily Berry’s debut poetry collection Dear Boy is ‘Shriek’. The poem introduces a creature which recalls Ted Hughes’s’ Crow in being a thing but also not a thing, a concept personified, something to be feared as well as pitied. Berry’s Shriek is presented in a world whose elements are borrowed from fairytale; Shriek lives in a tower and the villagers have gathered to chant and taunt him. Other faux-historical details continue to pastiche the children’s story mould: ‘That day at the tower there was a gala affair with bunting / and black ribbons and a thundercloud of ravens’. Berry skilfully inhabits the language and diction of this mould while playfully pointing out how unreal it is – and exploring what opportunities a made-up world allows her. One opportunity is the ability to seamlessly introduce the contemporary world into an unfamiliar setting, thereby highlighting its own curiosities. When, at the end of the poem, Shriek is living in the speaker’s walls, very close to our world of ‘coffee percolators and cat flaps’, the reader is left blinking at quotidian objects that now seem absurd.

The reader grows accustomed to this kind of scene-setting in Berry’s collection, where folk tales and old stories often come spiked with the contemporary, or perhaps vice versa. In ‘Our Love Could Spoil Dinner’, the male lead, named in an old-fashioned style after his profession as ‘the biographer’, stays with a father and his daughter, the speaker. While her movements may appear like a series of 18th-century theatrical poses, her expressions are thoroughly modern, ‘When we pass / in the hall I fling my arm back and say things like: / ‘Am I strung out or what!’ The final dénouement is deliciously cheeky:

That day my mouth felt wetter
than usual. I asked the biographer to check. He used
his tongue. ‘This may affect the results,’ he said.

Berry slips into her characters with the ease of a ventriloquist, each of which know more than they at first seem to, and whose experiences find close parallels with their contemporary counterparts. ‘A Short Guide to Corseting’ describes in strained breaths the experience of being measured for a corset that gets tighter and tighter with every fitting. Entire lines are completely monosyllabic, speaking dictums that have been painfully learned, ‘Pain is the spine of life. It holds you up.’ Enjambed lines reveal the inherent nonsensical nature of the belief-system: ‘I wear a corset for these reasons: love came / sideways, like a crab.’ The word ‘sideways’ evokes disappointment by showing us a love that enters awkwardly from the wrong direction (this made me contemplate how love usually arrives in lyric: it hits from above, comes out of nowhere, or is a depth fallen into) but it is the final clause, ‘like a crab’, that is utterly bathetic.

The speaker slips into phrases that are eerily familiar, ‘we were in a loving and supportive relationship’; ‘enough to teach you how to / give yourself away’; ‘This is harder for him / than for me’. They might have been taken straight from women’s magazines or a manipulative Daily Mail column, and dropped right into the text. Their presence has the reader draw comparisons between the corsets our historical sisters wore, and the restraints imposed on women today, not only in lingerie departments but also in the psychological arenas of media and advertisement. Her poem’s power lies in the subtlety of its argument, in great contrast to another corsetry ‘moment’ in contemporary culture, the line in The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Legend of the Black Pearl that made Kiera Knightley’s career. As she fights a man, Kiera jeers, ‘You like pain? Try wearing a corset.’

Berry’s dark fairytale imaginings are at their richest in a duo of poems that feature a figure named Arlene — here the melange of fantastical details moves dangerously towards the cultish: ‘We’ve confessed to Arlene: knees to our chests / in the usual position, we repeated our ritual of shiver, breathe.’ This poem is a layering of facts and the ‘worrisome nature of details’, a combination of long lines thick with strange details that keep being added to and that continue to complicate the poem. Short utterances build tension and convey deep anxiety: ‘Arlene has us in one room.’; ‘It was peace of some kind. But we couldn’t trust her.’ When the narrative voice calls for help, it calls to her ‘baby’ to ‘Take me home.’ To our relief, near the end of the poem, ‘We woke / on a plane and my head was on my baby’s lap and I thought Arlene / had left us.’

Home is where the narrator’s heart is, with her lover, while Arlene’s house occupies a terrifying territory of seemingly no origin. The fact that the speaker awakes reassures us that Arlene’s house was just a dream, until we realise Arlene has not left our speaker at all: ‘We carried her back to our house.’ Berry’s clever structuring of her collection is made evident (dear readers, a spoiler alert) 31 pages later, when we suddenly meet Arlene again. Berry creates a sudden moment of terror, writing: ‘Arlene lives in our house now and she won’t leave.’ Home no longer looks like home; things have become unheimlich. Berry’s work impresses because she uses the extra-poetic, the matter between her poems to advance their effect. The experience is akin to a reoccurring bad dream — troubling not only because we meet the same frightening elements repeatedly, but because each dream in the series includes new developments, different methods of causing pain. In this case, the haunting figure of Arlene is back, this time in the speaker’s own home. Her baby is ‘gone for good’.

The disappearance of the speaker’s lover is a clue that the poems might be Berry’s own dreams, or fictionalised versions of them. A line like, ‘Now I wash my hair / too late in the day and wake with it damp’ would fit easily into many of her love poems, which are the strongest note in this collection. The love poems are a response to Berry’s real life experience of dealing with a long distance relationship and the collection’s title, ‘Dear Boy’ captures the unifying idea of many (but certainly not all – there is a great deal of variety in the collection) of the poems, which Berry has described as ‘being like postcards or maybe emails’.

All poems are an attempt to conjure the absent, to bring forth through sound that which isn’t there at the time of reading. The issue becomes more apparent in love poems where the absence of the loved one provokes the writing itself. Many of Berry’s poems are written in this way, as apostrophes to a faraway lover, ‘My bird, since you left’, ‘Love, I woke’, ‘Dear boy’, ‘Dear island’ (where her lover now resides) and accumulate desperately in ‘Letter to Husband’: ‘Dear treasured, absent / husband Dear unimaginable piece of husband / Dear husband of the moon’. These references to an absent lover diffuse quietly into most of the collection’s other poems, too.

The final poem of Dear Boy, ‘Bad New Government’, confirms what we have suspected throughout, ‘I am writing my first political poem which is also (always) about my love for you.’ Her admission of the principal place of love in her work closely recalls Shakespeare’s Sonnet 76, in which the speaker defends his poetry for being ‘ever the same’:

O know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument.

As a political poem, ‘Bad New Government’ fails; it does not stir, nor does it seem committed to its cause. But this is because Berry has written a concrete poem in which the stronger argument of love dominates what we see on the page. A large jagged space is carved out of the first stanza, which has the visual effect of making the poem like a game of Tetris which cannot be finished. The central tetrimino piece, of course her lover, is missing, the piece that would reward the player (and reader) with a sense of completion. As the speaker attempts to make her argument about the present political situation, the reader cannot ignore this intrusive emptiness, struggling to read around it and to not be distracted by the lack. This technique occurs again in ‘The Old Fuel’. Berry inserts gaps between the beginning and ending of the opening lines to introduce cognitive dissonance in the poem: we hear that she is not thinking about her lover but at the same time we see his absence making room for itself in her everyday activities.

In ‘Zanzibar’, the gaps between words are smaller but more frequent, mimicking the two second delay that occurs over a long-distance call, and making her zealous appeal for her lover’s return seem futile: her final plea to ‘give him back’ comes like a stutter rather than a command. What is refreshing is that Berry does not pretend her poetry can summon forth her lover; descriptions of him are often used to reinforce his remoteness rather than to bring him closer: we see him ‘eating green oranges’ and asking ‘Who owns this monkey?’. In her concrete poems, she uses white spaces to acknowledge what her poems can’t do: bring her boy back, and what they can: explore the state of wanting. She writes, ‘I tramp through the definition of absence looking for a place / to rest’. But there is nothing tramp-like in her usage of gaps and spaces; these are fine examples of a poet defining and redefining the experience of distance, calling up absence and loneliness in all its guises.

The phone call in ‘Zanzibar’ takes us back to ‘Shriek’, and explains why in the poem’s third and final part Shriek has come to live in the speaker’s walls. Berry has used him as a foil for the female speaker’s loneliness and abandonment, and this grants him a sympathetic quality very unlike that of Hughes’s unearthly Crow. Shriek recognises the speaker’s sounds with a lover’s knowledge, ‘He knows me by my tread: heavy out the bath, soft / on the rug. He knows me by the thump of my heartbeat’. We know, though, that he is not her lover. We have spent the poem assuming Shriek was the lonely one, but it becomes clear that he is in fact a representation of the speaker’s fate. This becomes clearer when we notice each of the poem’s three parts is 14 lines long: the poem is a sonnet sequence spoken by a lonely lover. Shriek’s voice is described as ‘ringing’ in the first section, and now the narrator has become ‘afraid to speak in case my voice rings’. She wakes in the morning with a mouth that ‘tastes of phone calls’, informing us that her voice has been ringing in the night, calling out for another voice to answer it. Might she have been shrieking, too?