Apparently Personal

Emily Berry, Stranger, Baby

Faber, 72pp, £10.99, ISBN 9780571331321

reviewed by Jenna Clake

In her recent interview with Ralf Webb in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Emily Berry discusses the problematics of considering poetry as ‘autobiographical’. Berry says:

I reject that term in relation to poetry, because it doesn’t seem to fit. An autobiography is meant to be an account of a person’s life, and, on the whole, you’re not going to get a poem that is a straight description of a person’s life — it’s usually an essence of that.

We settle, then, on a term coined by Sharon Olds: ‘apparently personal’. There are multiple voices in the collection through which the main theme – grief – is communicated. The collection is in memory of Berry’s mother, and so her influence is felt too. It is here that the personal becomes apparent.

The collage of voices is reminiscent of views on writing trauma: Geoffrey Hartman states that if trauma is the disjunction between the event and the inability to understand the event, then poetry is the medium with which it is best to communicate it. This idea is realised in ‘Tragedy for One Voice’:

[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. Poor little
___. 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
fucking ceremony!

We see that it is impossible for ‘one voice’ to work through all the emotions of grief. The voice is divided: ME ONE is realistic; ME TWO is angry, but deals with this anger through removed, psychoanalytic language. The chorus communicates this anger – tinged with frustration – by turning the Lord’s Prayer into an exclamative appeal for some order. Even when one voice attempts to communicate their grief later in the collection, they appeal for some anonymity: ‘Can you distort my voice when I say this?’ (‘The End’). The inability to communicate grief, to know what to say and how to say it, is evident.

In his The Trauma Question (2008), Roger Luckhurst notes that, when writing trauma, ‘figurative language is a form of “perpetual troping” around a primary experience that can never be captured.’ Temporality is never linear in Stranger, Baby: ‘The End’ comes eleven pages into the collection. In ‘Summer’, we see the 'perpetual troping' that Luckhurst mentions:

I am thirteen years away from home. Later, twenty, and so on.
I can’t get back.
Someone is holding me and crying. Greek sunset.
Colour all over my hands, I get down on the floor of a tiled,
white room.

The passage of time is regarded as if it is not understood: the speaker attempts to return to the event to understand it, but finds herself in situations that still seem removed – she cannot emotionally connect with what is happening.

Grief, and its complexity, is encountered in ‘Everything Bad Is Permanent’. In this poem, it seems that all the voices needed to communicate grief come together:

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

Then, looking reproachfully at her mother, she demanded
‘Where was you, Mummy? Where was you?


I wrote: The sea! The sea! as if that might be a solution
Didn’t we always suspect the pain of intelligent people was
   truly the most painful

Stranger, Baby is fraught with questions and the space left for answers. The voices here are bitter, then childlike, and then aware of the futility of attempting to understand what has happened. The speaker attempts to understand her grief by appealing to others, thinking of ‘intelligent people’ and their pain. Here, we see the driving force behind the collection: how other’s voices can help us understand grief. This particularly becomes apparent in the one-line poem, ‘I have already said the baby appreciates, perhaps from the very beginning, the aliveness of the mother’: ‘We all have to die sometime, Your Majesty’. In her interview with Webb, Berry reveals that the title comes from Donald Winnicott, and the poem itself is taken from her mother’s writing. The tone, however, is entirely Berry’s: her signature wry wit is apparent. Titles such as ‘Now all my poems are about death I’m really living’ are a riposte to ideas of style and authenticity; in the poem, Berry pre-empts these questions:

Tell us something, in your own inimitable style.
It’s raining in the cemetery.
I pose and yet I cannot pose.
I knelt, I spoke, I cried, I wrote this down, regretted it.

The speaker is questioned and in turn questions her actions (and writing): the authenticity of grief and experience are under scrutiny, and thus we come back to ideas of apparently personal, rather than autobiographical, poetry.

The sea is another major presence in this collection. As Sarah Crown states in her review of the collection, in Freud’s dream etymology, the sea stands for the mother. The speaker confronts it in the opening poem, ‘Sign of the Anchor’:

I stood at the dangerous shore.
Sleeves rolled up to my shoulders.
My fringe lifted in the wind in a long salute and I pushed it back.

The sea is a living presence that ‘is not happy’ and ‘sulks in and out of the bay’ (‘Picnic’). The speakers of Berry’s poems interact with the sea and water frequently. ‘Aqua’ reacts to Freud’s etymology:

I filled a bowl
with a little
water praised
it slightly a feeling
of daughterliness
came over me
I adored her
of course water
cannot hold
an imprint

The speaker sees this link between the mother and water, which is enacted through the winding rhymes and sounds, but this is undercut by the reality of the situation – this relationship can never be replicated. The sea rarely behaves how the speaker expects it to, especially when it is given a voice. The speaker of ‘Tidal Wave Speaks’ admits that she ‘Thought, with the right attitude, you could train it to sing’, but Tidal Wave responds and deflates: ‘Tidal Wave don’t sing, said Tidal Wave./ Tidal Wave crash.’ Through water, we are reminded of the devastation of loss and grief.

A sense of movement – but not quite resolution – is reached in the final poem, ‘Canopy’. The speaker’s focus moves from the sea to land – trees, in particular:

The weather was inside.

The branches trembled over the glass as if to apologise; then
they thumped and they came in.

By moving away from the sea, we see how totalising grief is. However, this is not simply an act of destruction; as the speaker notes, the trees are ‘telling us to survive’:

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

I was crying and it felt like I was feeding. Be my mother, I said
to the trees, in the language of trees, which can’t be transcribed,
                                                      they touched me with the rain
on their figures till I was all droplets, till I was mist, and they
said they would.

There is a sense of catharsis when the speaker recognises her ‘crying’ as ‘feeding’, and there is a sense that the speaker is coming to terms with her grief; she is learning to accept it in a way that ‘can’t be transcribed’. Grief is entirely personal, as is the way we must come to terms with it. This speaker finds comfort in the land, and when she does, she is able to reconcile with the water too: she becomes water herself, but is not part of the sea. In this way, the speaker learns to live with her grief.

Stranger, Baby is an attempt to let go and be let go, whilst also understanding that grief is irrevocably internalised, a ‘wildfire’ that encompasses everything, (‘Ghost Dance’). The speakers must accept that they might not ever fully understand or be answered. This collage of voices and approaches encompasses so many experiences of grief in a moving, unforgettable way.
Jenna Clake is a PhD in researcher with the Department of Film and Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham. Her debut poetry collection, Fortune Cookie, was published this year.