Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday 9 April 2014

"Dear Boy" by Emily Berry (Faber and Faber, 2013)

This book (which won the £5,000 Felix Dennis prize for Best First Collection) is interesting in the way that debut collections should more often be. It probably helped that the poems were written over the course of 7 years. "Our Love Could Spoil Dinner" has multiple twists. Rather than conventional closure, some poems end with a burst of disjunctive phrases. E.g. -

  • "I ♥ NY" - "You can buy non-sequiturs in bundles now/ from international supermarkets. And guilt,/ where is that sold? How much for eating cupcakes/ on my birthday from the famous bakery/ and admiring San Franciscan boys in aviators? Oh -/ and when we went for mani-pedis, we sat in a row/ and Korean ladies kneeled at our feet"
  • "The Old Fuel" - "John Humphreys is still shouting at someone between seven-thirty and nine; your shoes line up in the hall; and I'm cranking out oodles of love the way an old spaghetti machine cranks out spaghetti".

I like "A Short Guide to Corseting". Two Budgies is written as 5 couplets (though the layout in the book is different to that of the version originally in "nthposition" magazine - fewer semi-colons and the line-lengths more regular). Conceptually it's in sections that barely coincide with the stanzas - 2 lines; 4.5 lines;2 lines;1.5 lines. So why have stanzas? Mere disruption? It's good though. The first stanza's packed -

‘The mango’s bone is like a cuttlefish’ I said proudly,
domestic. You looked on holding the pulp.

I liked "The Incredible History of Patient M.". "The International Year of the Poem" is clearly prose - it's imaginative enough, albeit a list.

Then things start to sag, or perhaps the novelty wears off. "Nothing Sets My Hearts Aflame" is another list. It doesn't work for me. "Preparations for the Journey" is the weakest in the book so far. I've sent something much like "Props" out as micro-fiction. "Some fears" is a semi-coloned list - "fear of one's reflection in spoons" but also "fear of fear; fear of help; fear of asking for, receiving, refusing, giving, or being denied help". "Well bébé" doesn't quite outstay its welcome. "The Way You Do at the End of Plays" is weak. I didn't get "The Tea-party Cats" or several others.

2 poems are in landscape mode - don't know why, because the line-breaks look pretty arbitrary. The first line of the landscaped "Zanzibar" has 4 gaps - "Dear island:     I blame you entirely     Your shoreline     so suspiciously     wantable". "The Old Fuel" is fully justified with a gap or two in each line. Here's the end of "Love Bird" - I think the underlying content's good enough not to need gimmicks.

Love was not one thing it took many shapes
                         I mistook
its presence     I worshipped it sometimes      other times I ran
I called it names I starved it till my ribs were a grand birdcage
            Love was no bird

There's one comma in the poem. Elsewhere gaps might be replacing them, though there are non-punctuation gaps too. Most of the lines are justified. All in all, it looks quirky, perverse and reader-unfriendly. In an interview she says that "I think some people call it ‘tabulation ... These spaces appeared initially as a way of indicating a kind of stutter or inability to speak/write except in a fragmented way (which is probably a textual representation of how I feel when trying to talk about emotions!). They started appearing in other poems I wrote, mainly the ones about dealing with absence and I guess you could also see them as symbolising the way in which someone’s absence can seem so physical. I don’t seem to be using them so much any more. I like the way they give you a bit more freedom in terms of line breaks, but they’re also quite annoying to work with, you end up spending ages deciding how many spaces a particular gap should be, which is not the greatest use of one’s time".

"The Number Game" has "When a person we love is taken off it is - 1. Better and worse than we might have imagined. Better, because mostly, we do not fail to go on living. Which is, after all, the main agenda ... We are trained to revere life/ To look back on it at the end of a person's life and count what we have found of value/ This is a kind of comfort/ On the whole I conform to this theory/ After all, what else can we do?" which is hard to disagree with.

Other reviews

  • Ben Wilkinson (Guardian) (The book's title poem, a playful missive that showcases a good deal of Berry's tonal repertoire, achieves a strangely convincing balance between intimacy and solipsistic extravagance ... a crucial aspect of Dear Boy's knowing aesthetic is the precise and telling detail. ... For all the archness and cleverness, however, such images betray a serious and incessantly inquiring mind that seeks out epiphanies almost anywhere)
  • Dave (Dear Boy falls victim to one of the most obvious flaws of un-composed poetry: it all sounds the same, a conversational drone. ...a book that does everything in its power to distract you from the fact that there’s not much below the surface )
  • Rebecca Tamás (Literateur)(Berry deftly reveals the divisions created in the narrator’s self by her contradictory, complicated desires ... Within the poem’s fluctuating, contradictory language Berry can communicate the jarring, yet hugely significant, realisation that the self is not a fixed, linear entity, but one capable of painful, unpredictable shifts.)
  • Judi Sutherland (a tabulated format that spaces the words across the page, giving the poems an anxious hesitancy. ... Berry’s is not like any other contemporary poetic voice)
  • Željka Marošević (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 ... Berry inserts gaps between the beginning and ending of the opening lines to introduce cognitive dissonance in the poem ... In ‘Zanzibar’, the gaps between words are smaller but more frequent, mimicking the two second delay that occurs over a long-distance call)
  • Andrew McMillan (Eyewear) (The beloved is the anchor around which everything else in the collection oscillates. Emily Berry’s other talent is that she is genuinely witty and often very very funny; not funny in a ‘that was a quite amusing line’ sort of way, but genuinely, laugh out loud funny. ... ‘Nothing Sets My Heart Aflame’ captures the contemporary zeitgeist for vintage and transient connections perfectly without ever feeling like it’s trying too hard. It’s the sort of poem which feels like it will be anthologised in decades to come and used as a document to teach about the decade we’re living through. ... Berry has the ability to go on to be one of the most respected and accomplished poets of her generation ... Constant consideration of the reader, of an audience, is the mark of a great poet. In Berry, that is exactly what we have)
  • Todd Swift (Poetry)

No comments:

Post a Comment