Review 31's Books of the Year 2022
by Review 31
Zaffar Kunial, England’s Green (Faber)
You’ve probably read from England’s Green by Zaffar Kunial without realising it. ‘Foxglove Country’, the opening poem of his second collection, was widely shared after it was published online. Though they prefer the partial shade of a hedgerow or woodland, foxgloves will grow almost anywhere in England. Kunial’s poetry is perhaps even more generous and abundant.
His knotted poems teem with shires and dales, but the language of the green takes root wherever it may; be it far-off in Kashmir where his absent father was born, in a ‘mostly missing forest of Arden’, or Eden’s Garden cricket ground. This verdancy can be fertile as it can unruly. The cricket green is always kept not kempt, however, and Kunial is a master of knowing when to prune and when to propagate a phrase to spin out another (foxglove becomes ‘glisten’, ‘lock’, ‘glow’, ‘love’, ‘gul’).
Words like flowers have roots and stems, and Kunial nurtures their vagaries and off-shoots as though they’re accidents of inspiration. Writing of a kind of butterfly effect in ‘The Nonsense of Observing Outer Space’, a black hole is described as ‘that dense and nascent universe / that spooled our sent-out star’. This spooling density is also characteristic of Kunial’s writing. Even when his touch is lighter than an insects’ wing, it still commands a weight and gravity that resonates beyond any single instance of ‘nonsense’ wordplay or sleight of hand.
England’s Green is revelatory in miniature ways. It’s playful yet uncontrived. There’s a near-perfectness to the book, in the same way ‘Tulips’ is ‘two lips’ in his poem of (almost) the same name. With each double-take, you feel constantly at the edge of meaning, right at the boundary. But from what little I understand of cricket, this is exactly the place to hit for. Simply brilliant.
James Buchan, A Street Shaken By Light: The Story of William Neilson, Volume 1 (Mountain Leopard Press)
This year I stopped reviewing fiction almost entirely. Perhaps not coincidentally, ever since I stopped I’ve felt so beamingly well-disposed towards books that I’ve enjoyed almost everything I cracked the spine on, up to and including Dead Babies by Martin Amis. Of the new novels I read this year, my favourite by some distance was James Buchan’s A Street Shaken By Light.
This engrossingly original book tells the story of a young Scottish man seeking his fortune in the early eighteenth century. The first of six projected volumes, it’s a triumph of sentence making. Buchan’s prose is a robust surface scattered sparely with jewels of emotion and beguiling humour. An example will help. Early on, imprisoned in the Bastille as a young man, our hero is charged with the care of four kittens. ‘Our preferred game was as thus: I would herde my charges into a corner and, with threats and oaths, vow their immediate extinction. They trembled in a mewing ball, begging for quarter; and then, by some secret signal, sprang under, over, round and through me, and collected in the far corner, where the action was refought. Then they fell asleep on my chest. I thought: by this age of life, Alexander of Macedon had won a pitched battle.’ It left me eager to read the next five instalments — and how often can you say that?
Charles Boyle, 99 Interruptions (C.B. Editions)
I have read more quote-unquote serious books and certainly longer and darker ones this year, but such books hog accolades, and where sheer readerly pleasure is concerned nothing published in 2022 has topped Charles Boyle’s 99 Interruptions, a book so brief it possesses no page numbers, each ‘interruption’ comprising its own section and limited to a few hundred words at most. Some of these are aphoristic, others personal in nature, many of them both. ‘Interruptions’, Boyle writes, ‘are gentle or not-so-gentle reminders that we have no God-given right to be here at all.’ I kept thinking, reading it, that this is what philosophy would be if contemporary philosophy were any good to read. His father enters the book, carried by the grace of his son’s brusquely elegant prose: ‘He sits down at my table and asks what kind of car I’m driving these days and when I tell him I don’t have a car he looks disappointed. My father liked his cars; his last was an olive-green Riley. He’s been dead for 65 years. He’s a rain god now.’ I liked this so much I had to close the book for a while. ‘I tell him we can’t smoke in here; we can smoke at the tables outside but it’s raining, so we’re just going to have to wait. He looks at me as if I am a complete stranger. After this long we are strangers’.
Underlying any extended meditation on the fragmentary, of course, exists the fantasy of wholeness, of the continuous and unbroken line, of chronology unfurled and time transformed into eternity. The tension between this fantasy and the interruptive nature of reality forms one of the book’s greatest pleasures. ‘I’m much older than my father ever was but of course now that we’re sitting together I’m still a child.’ In the meantime, writing, art, rain, and what Boyle quotes Louis MacNeice as calling ‘the drunkenness of things being various’. He confesses: ‘In the early years after I stopped writing poems a few lines slipped through, as if at the doorway the man I used to be had turned and begun to say something more before leaving but then thought better of it.’ The rain ceases. A quiet book and one which increases the overall measure of quiet in the world of the reader, like a hot shower on a cold day. Just what I needed this year.
Jessica Au, Cold Enough for Snow (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
It’s difficult to believe that Cold Enough for Snow is only Jessica Au’s second novel. So tight, so controlled is the prose that to read it feels like an encounter with a writer who has spent years observing the world, then rendered those years here in one slim, perfect title. The book is narrated by a young woman, an aspiring writer, on holiday with her mother in Japan. The two travel by train, threading their journey between art galleries, churches and canals. Each stop gives way to another micro story. These are not so much digressions for the narrator’s monologue as they are additional pieces to her slowly appearing portrait.
The technique is clever because it does not make its objective obvious: it epitomises the old advice for writers, show, don’t tell. Au makes one gesture towards this when the narrator recalls her time as a waitress, and a customer who would attempt to talk to her during the restaurant’s busiest hours: ‘I could not understand how the man was unable to tell the difference between my actions and my feelings.’ Au’s prose, in the same way, distils the narrator’s actions into sentences so stripped-back that we have to work to unearth their emotion. A description of the mother’s neatly packed, tiny suitcase might read simply as just that on the surface – an object that looks ‘almost new’, but has been used for the mother’s ‘few’ other travels — yet it also holds all of the narrator’s irritation at her mother’s economy, her own. Gradually, the narrator concludes that she is more similar to her mother than she would care to admit: ‘I would finish up the leftovers of every meal. . . I had joked about it too, but what I had not said was that it was her frugalness, not mine, that I was repeating.’
These conclusions are the best parts of the novel. And they feel particularly crystalline because the mother-daughter relationship does not span the storms of adolescence, nor the pains of old, old age, but instead, a meditative in-between. In one startling moment of insight, the narrator envisions what her duties will be after her mother’s death, ‘sorting through a lifetime of possessions, packing everything away.’ We wonder if by then, she will have satisfied her main desire: ‘to know someone and to have them know me.’ This monologue presents as a deep, probing attempt to achieve it.
Arthur Rimbaud, trans. Mark Polizzotti, The Drunken Boat: Selected Writings (N.Y.R.B. Poets)
One of the best books published in 2022 is a collection of pieces written between 1871 and 1875. Introducing The Drunken Boat, the translator Mark Polizzotti talks of Arthur Rimbaud as a ‘precursor of surrealism, the Beats, and hip-hop’, an influence on Dadaists and Oulipians, on lyricists and novelists — in sum, a visionary who pioneered the use of sex, drugs and international travel in literature.
These poems, miniatures and letters have appeared in English before, but none of Rimbaud’s many translators had Polizzotti’s panache. Grappling with the age-old translator’s dilemma — to be faithful or to be free — he chooses ‘to both believe in the essential power of poetry and fundamentally not give a fuck’, and the results are impressive. Polizzotti plays with Rimbaud’s language, now modernising it, now preserving the idiom, sometimes in the space of a single poem. In ‘Tortured Heart’ (possibly a response to a gang rape; more likely an ‘intentionally humorous’ riff on sexual betrayal), ‘shag’ appears next to ‘ithyphallic’, and then the translator brings the tone back down, explaining in a note that the term means ‘something much less lofty. . . a hard-on’.
The title poem, with its ‘slow rhythms beneath the dazzle of day, / Stronger than liquor, vaster than lyres’ and ‘isles whose mad skies to the wanderer open’, is fittingly intoxicating. The prose poems from Illuminations are equally striking in their imagery. ‘City’ (thought to be inspired by London, although who cares?) is haunted by ‘Death without tears, our active maidservant; and a desperate Cupid; and a handsome Crime whimpering in the street filth’. Reading it is like standing next to the author by his window, watching the procession outside, rejoicing in the knowledge that ‘Morals and language have been reduced to their simplest expression, at last!’
With the exception of the letters, the translated texts are accompanied by their originals, useful even if you have little French, given that ‘poetry could be less about sense than sensation’. Those interested in facts will appreciate a short biography of ‘the man with soles of wind’, whose affair with literature was as brief (he consummated it at seventeen and broke it off at twenty-one) as its legacy is spectacular. The Rimbaud legend, this book asserts, lives on, following his own prophecy: ‘I really am from beyond the grave, and take no assignments.’
Werner Herzog: The Twilight World, trans. Michael Hofmann (Bodley Head)
The Twilight World is an imagining by the veteran German filmmaker Werner Herzog of the twenty-nine years that Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda of the Imperial Japanese Army spent in the Philippine jungle, not knowing and then disbelieving that the second world war had ended. When he emerged to embrace a reconstructed civilisation in 1974, Onoda would only do so when the commanding officer who had left him to defend Lubang in 1944 was brought in, at the age of eighty-eight, to order him to stand down.
A journalist, Norio Suzuki, arrives to interview him, in the first of three assignments, his others being to find evidence of the yeti, and to observe the reclusive giant pandas of China — related quests for the evanescent and the apocryphal. Onoda has become a figure of legend to the local people, like the last member of an uncontacted tribe, and a cause célèbre back in Japan. 'Onoda's war, sired by nothing,' Herzog writes, 'is nevertheless overwhelming, an event extorted from eternity.'
In prose tinctured with cinematic visuality, beautifully rendered in Michael Hofmann's nimble translation, the director of the jungle epic Fitzcarraldo allows an absorbing narrative of dogged survival a reflective facet that catches the eternal twilight. Could it not be that Onoda was peacefully at home with his family, and only dreaming that his war had trailed on into a radioactive half-life? 'There was no proof that when he was awake he was awake, and no proof that when dreaming he was dreaming.' Like the Red King in the Looking-Glass World, his dream might be somebody else's reality. In these conditions, time itself loses its gravity. 'We think we live in the present, but there is no such thing.' There is only one infinitesimal point after another between the daylight certainty of a past and the black night of imminence.
On its final page, the text dissolves into a litany of allusive epigrams with an eastern tinge. 'The net of the sleeping fisherman continues to catch fish.' It isn't that there is a twilight world as a counterpart to the daytime version: the whole world is in permanent twilight. On his brother's ranch in Argentina in old age, Onoda feels at home at last among the cattle. They don't understand anything either.
Camilla Grudova, Children of Paradise (Atlantic Books)
The phrase ‘love letter to cinema’ is one of the most wretched clichés in criticism. Any work displaying affection for the form can expect to be labelled with this mindless tag. Children of Paradise, the debauched debut novel by Camilla Grudova, is an obvious target. Drawing on the author’s experiences as an usherette, it is set in the Paradise, a seedy, neglected cinema in an unnamed city. Each chapter is named for a classic movie: Midnight Cowboy; The Last Picture Show; Rosemary’s Baby. And yet this designation would be an insult. The love letter to cinema is twee and unchallenging; Children of Paradise is anything but. It is grotesque, erotic, alive. To describe it in this way would be like feeding a sedative to a writhing beast.
If not a love letter, then what is it? A macabre dream, for one. Decay is everywhere: the Paradise is a ‘Frankenstein’s monster of a place’, a peeling, rotting rabbit warren of trap doors, foul sewers and hidden crevices, including a rumoured ‘second screen’ where blue movies were once shown. (To add to the horror, Children of Paradise has a surprisingly high body count.) An ode to the oddball, for another. When our protagonist, Holly, starts working at the Paradise, she finds herself surrounded by a staff of misfits. These include Patricia, a Godard obsessive with kohl-lined eyes and perpetually dirty glasses; the Italian Paolo, a ‘beautiful Roman soldier’ of a man who carries a battered copy of Wittgenstein's Tractatus; and the short, cherubic Cosmo, who will only watch films on analogue projectors. Eventually, Holly is accepted into this curious in-crowd; her initiation into their Dreamers-esque world — of cinephile obsession, union activism and sexual and chemical abandon — is one of the joys of this novel.
The book is also, if not a satire, then at least a commentary on capitalism. There are echoes of Picturehouse in Grudova’s portrayal of a corporate takeover. The character of Andrew, an assistant manager parachuted in from head office, is both recognisable and exquisitely odious: his dyed hair (‘the sickening blue of raspberry flavoured candy’); his puppyish fandom for Marvel and DC; his withered managerial vocabulary and embrace of team activities; his opposition to all idiosyncrasy. It’s rare for a character to be so convincingly, well, basic.
Grudova’s 2017 short story collection The Doll’s Alphabet announced her arrival as a lurid literary hypnotist. Children of Paradise confirms her power to enchant.
Daniel Marc Janes
Johanne Lykke Holm, trans. Saskia Vogel, Strega (Lolli Editions)
Johanne Lykke Holm’s possessive and possessing novel came to me one fevered night in July. With a cover of moss green and a lilac portrait of a jaded cigarette-smoking youth, Strega summoned feelings of nostalgia and estrangement, want and loss, and the kind of desire and fear that rises up when a hazily lit form appears in the dark from a distance. But what exactly is ‘Strega’, I hear you ask? Is it a town, a place, a moment, a force, a figure? Is it the shadow of a witch as translated from the title’s original Italian? Lykke Holm’s novel is all these things and more.
Conjuring a fictional mountainous region of the same name, Strega is a spatial field of contending forces, a red-lit passage through which its nine young women must travel, a mysterious forest replete with herbs grown by nuns and a lavish but dilapidated hotel owned by three shrewd spinster sisters. Strega is girlhood broken and disillusioned into womanhood, innocent longing grown cold and old, violence in broken mirrors and whispered secrets in empty rooms. It is a conjuration upon your lips said alone at night and the transmutation that results from reading its stunningly translated pages. It is indeed, a place, a moment, a force and a figure, but it’s also the best book you will read this year. Like a spell it will come to you; like a spell it will transform you whole.
James Hannaham, Didn't Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta (Europa Editions)
I think we, as a culture, need to be weaned off Joyce’s Ulysses. Not because I don’t think it’s great, I adore that insane novel, it’s because too many writers see it as a challenge, a sort of final boss of novel-writing. Everyone wants their own Ulysses. Because of this megalomaniacal want, we poor readers have had to sift through some incredibly complex and unashamedly tryhard novels. Think of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, Ken Kesey’s Sometime a Great Notion, or Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers. It seems that whenever an author wants to do a Ulysses, all they can remember from the great novel is its convolution and its verbosity.
Thankfully, James Hannaham seems to have read Ulysses for what it is — a stupid and hilarious romp. His brilliant novel, Didn't Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta, takes the bones of Joyce’s novel and transplants them to Brooklyn in 2015. Leo Bloom is now Carlotta Mercedes, a trans woman who has just been released from a men’s prison after two decades being locked up. She wanders around her old neighbourhood where everything is much the same, but also, totally different. There’s vegan bakeries everywhere and people never seem to look up from their phones. This new Brooklyn is disorientating and strange.
Set over a Fourth of July weekend, we follow Carlotta closely, she is never out of our sights for the whole novel. Hannaham takes a strange approach to prose, creating his own weird amalgam of first- and third-person perspective that often switches mid-sentence and implants in the reader just some of the disorientation that Carlotta must be feeling.
What the novel achieves most successfully, however, is Carlotta Mercedes herself. Genuinely, find me a more memorable character from a novel in 2022. She is a constant riot. Her showpiece is the novel’s final chapter, a direct pastiche of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy that is just an unbelievable scroll of prose. Hannaham’s achievement here is sublime.
Alexander Lernet-Holenia, trans. Richard Winston & Clara Winston, Baron Bagge (Penguin Classics)
‘Tell a dream, lose a reader,’ warned Henry James. Was he right? Well, perhaps not. . . The evidence: Baron Bagge, a novella by Alexander Lernet-Holenia (a friend of Zweig and protégé of Rilke) written in 1936 and republished this autumn as a hardback Penguin Classic. It’s a tiny book. You could start it before bed and be finished by the time you began dozing off. . . What’s more, it has that warm, lucid tone of a narrator relaying a story as if the reader were in the room with them: attentive, curious, comfortable by the fireside. . .
After a velvety preamble, we find our Baron in a frozen wasteland: grey ice, thawing gradually, as far as the eye can see. Bagge is a cavalry officer in a small division of the Austro-Hungarian army during WWI. They have been tasked with venturing north to relocate the Russian front, lost during a retreat. Eventually his commander, distracted and somewhat deranged, orders them to charge head-first into Russian fire. Miraculously, it works; they emerge unscathed, take their aggressors prisoner and settle into a world of provincial revelry. A chilling tale of war morphs into one of romance and courtship.
Or does it? In Baron Bagge, nothing is quite at it seems. In fact, Lernet-Holenia never completely reveals to us what is real, what is a reverie, and what is a story within a story once told to our nameless narrator. As Patti Smith (of all people) writes in the foreword (a bizarre and brilliant thing): ‘What happens next does not matter as much as the question that hovers over Baron Bagge like a tantalising mist: how does one distinguish between so-called life and exquisite illusion?’ The question stands to the end.
For its slight size, Baron Bagge conjures an immense world. It is an enchanting novel that has, like all enchantments, a dark streak running through it.
Yuri Felsen, trans. Bryan Karetnyk, Deceit (Prototype)
Yuri Felsen, born Nikolai Freudenstein, fled Russia after the 1917 Revolution. By way of Riga then Berlin, he, along with his family and many other Russians, ended up in Paris. Eventually, he enjoyed a relatively successful writing career there, earning high praise from Gaito Gazdanov and Vladimir Nabokov. During the Nazi occupation of France, he attempted to flee to Switzerland. He was captured and eventually transported to Auschwitz. ‘I cannot resurrect Felsen, but perhaps in trying to raise him from obscurity, I can do the next best thing,’ said Bryan Karetnyk in an article for the LA Review of Books in 2018. Nearly eighty years after Felsen’s death in Auschwitz, and four years after Karetnyk’s article, Karetnyk’s translations of Deceit has received glowing reviews.
I couldn’t wait to receive a copy of Felsen’s novel. After having only excerpts and short stories to go on (again, thanks to Karetnyk), I was beguiled and entranced by Felsen’s recursive and long sentences in the novel form. Felsen’s narrator is a struggling writer apparently based on Felsen himself. He, I suspect like Felsen, has a deep mistrust of the workings of the world. This mistrust is usually provoked by the frequent comings and goings of his love interest, Lyolya, onto whom he often projects his mistrust (this does, as Martina Evans alludes to, sometimes give the novel a cynical and dated air). Projection is the defence of a divided mind, something we do as a way of trying to deal with unconscious conflict. If, as Jacqueline Rose says, minds, like nations, divide, it’s not hard to see why Felsen’s narrator is the way he is. And it’s not hard to see why this novel captured the imagination then and now.
J .O. Morgan, Appliance (Jonathan Cape)
The Scottish poet J O Morgan has to date published seven book-length poems, from his debut Natural Mechanical (2009) to The Martian’s Regress (2020). Admirers keenly await the next, but will have to wait because he has turned his hand to fiction. Appliance, his second novel, follows his 2018 debut Pupa. Both are exercises in what the author calls ‘altopian fiction’, set in societies that are identical to ours, but with a single significant difference. In Pupa it was reproduction, from conception through gestation to parturition. Morgan explored the social and economic implications of this altopia in a strikingly original, tender and moving fable of youth, age and loss, part Gregory’s Girl, part Cronenberg.
In Appliance the big difference is not natural but technological. Each of the eleven chapters is free-standing, each told from a different perspective, each describing a stage in the development and spread of a mechanical innovation — a matter transporter (like the one in Star Trek) repurposed for domestic use. In Morgan’s hands this familiar sci-fi trope becomes entirely plausible, starting with an over-engineered and bulky prototype, resembling a large refrigerator unit with a much smaller inside. Refinements reach a point at which human beings can be safely transported, a game-changer that (among many other things) marks the end of civil aviation.
In a series of beautifully-realised vignettes, Morgan explores the impact of such universal instantaneous movement of goods and people on the economy and on society. What interests the author most, and what he addresses with great clarity and assurance, is the ontological implications of this new tech; what happens to us in that microsecond between de-materialisation and re-materialisation of our constituent atoms? Where do we go? What do we become? And what happens when things go very wrong? A collage of voices — young and old, male and female and neither, children and parents, scientists, academics, theologians, all of them convincingly realised — offer their own takes on the machine.
Appliance is short and deep and packed with big ideas. It’s subtle, allusive, intelligent and often deeply troubling; the final chapter leaves the spellbound reader high and dry. Somebody should give a copy to Elon Musk, although I fear it’s too late to make any difference, to him or to the rest of us.
Sean Thor Conroe, Fuccboi (Wildfire)
I frequently lament that my references are too ‘contemporary’, and so, in late December last year, I added ‘contemporary fiction’ to a list of things that were ‘OUT’ for 2022. Taking this admittedly flippant ruling to heart, I read exactly five new fiction releases this year, three of which I read for review.
To choose a ‘favourite’ from such a paltry list seems redundant, but as I write this, critic Barry Pierce has tweeted: ‘2022 produced no young male novelists of note. they’ve successfully gone extinct.’ I find this remark surprising because, when asked to contribute to this piece, the novel that immediately sprang to my mind was Sean Thor Conroe’s debut Fuccboi (a novel that Pierce himself commended in the Irish Times). That it did inevitably speaks to the very inclination I sought to restrain: upon publication, Fuccboi proved divisive, the polarity of opinion it incited dancing around the core of what people tend to either love or hate about contemporary writing: the (alleged) narcissism and self-involvement; the (seeming) inability of contemporary writers to write ‘traditional’ novels with well-developed plots and casts of characters who aren’t just guises for the authors themselves.
I’ve already written some 3,000 words for this outlet on why Fuccboi left such an impression on me, but my only regret is perhaps not showing how funny the novel is at times. To write the way Conroe does — in text speak, in one-line paragraphs — might seem abominable, almost laughably easy, but the construction of some of the novel’s passages is impeccable. They seem effortless, thrown together the way a string of WhatsApp messages from your most ridiculous and endlessly entertaining friend come in, line after line, recounting a crazy night out, all the while making metaphor of contemporary parlance. In one scene, Fuccboi’s protagonist Sean is in hospital, getting an IV from a trainee nurse, of whom he says:
. . . she ain’t gonna be the one to lead me.
She ain’t a daddy, bro.
This bitch wilding.
Then her tryna penetrate me, it not taking.
The more she tried to jam it in, the more my arm, my vein bein like Nah.
Not into this anymore.
I change my mind!
I revoke consent.
The nurse fails to get the IV into a vein, and so another, more experienced one comes along:
She hit me with that calm energy.
True daddy energy is calm.
It says: It’s all good. I got you.
I’ma take the stress so you needn’t.
This time we hit the other side.
Oatmeal for my breakfast take them IVs ambidextrous.
Got it in first try.
Claudia Durastanti, trans. Elizabeth Harris, Strangers I Know (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
This year I enjoyed Claudia Durastanti’s Strangers I Know, a hybrid novel-memoir whose narrator is haunted by her mother’s question: ‘but is it a true story?’ Working her way through a series of family anecdotes, Durastanti tries to bridge the gap between her own creative writing and her parents’ straightforward literalism. She refuses linearity in favour of a discursive narrative held together through the sinews of places and language.
The book is grounded in Durastanti’s instincts as a translator and migrant, as well as her experience as the daughter of two deaf people. She writes with a sharp eye about disability; of her childhood wish that her mother had been a mute rather than deaf; of her parents’ desire to pity others even amidst their own acts of unkindness; of the comfort in accepting that there would be no cure for her mother’s disability. The world of this book is cosmopolitan but not bourgeois, playfully questioning what radical or working-class looks like. As a Londoner I recognised the ‘turn of the century cold’ and lonely, uncaring city Durastanti writes of; the pain of her own migration to London is acute, how being made to feel a stranger to the city’s inner workings felt to her like a kind of malaise and ‘mutilation’.
The strategic deployment of language is a recurring theme: the child who makes linguistic mistakes on purpose in order not to intimidate the other children; or the therapist’s patient who speaks in their non-native language in order to cut conversations short. Above all the book struck me for its thinking through language as inseparable from gesture: ‘The deaf people I know consider themselves, first and foremost, a linguistic community’, Durastanti writes. Strangers I Know acknowledges the untranslatable even as it picks through layers of translation — celebration of mistakes and impurity, and the endless dynamism of language.
Ali Maeve Sargent
Emily Berry, Unexhausted Time (Faber)
Emily Berry’s third book of poetry, Unexhausted Time, is a sharp, memorable book, particular yet peculiar, prosaic if also dreamily poetic. In it, the self is a place of coming home, of trust and memory, but it is also not that, and ultimately the facts — reality — slip away. Little is at it seems, and seeing is not believing.
There is great pleasure in reading Berry, in the sensuousness of some of her phrases, in her English lived-in spaces. We get lines to go back to, to re-read, to re-imagine, sometimes as short as ‘I’m expecting something/and it feels like wearing a silk shirt. . .’, other times more sustained, such as the incantation:
I live, come to me, as long as my love has the
strength of the blood that gives life and the
grief of the blood that drains away, come to
me wired and wild like the bare tree and the
shedding sky. . .
And yet, there is rarely a poem that allows the self to retain a sense of firm ground - and a kind of electrically charged angst becomes evident - or is suddenly unleashed. The shortest poem of the book is quite astonishing, made all the more exhilarating by its on-the-page language and off-the-page horror:
A faint whisper of contagion, then a cloud.
Everything in the diary crossed out.
This is poetry of pleasure yet doubt, of dreams that are as likely to be nightmares, of an inventiveness that can be playful or painful. Berry’s words can appear clinical, but the ubiquitous ‘I’ is never still, and remains unconquered. I put Unexhausted Time down with a feeling that poetic creativity, imagination, will keep dejection at bay — not a bad way to end this year.
André van Loon