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.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

"Black Country" by Liz Berry (Chatto and Windus, 2014)

Winner of the Forward prize for best first collection. I've been unconvinced by 2 recent Next Gen poets that I've read (Rebecca Goss depends too much on content, and Jen Hadfield is increasingly too gimmicky). This book uses standard archetypes (even poetic clichés) judiciously rather than avoiding them altogether, and by merging myth and gritty reality in various proportions, few poems are plain. I'm impressed.

The first poem, "Bird", introduces the book. Thematically it's a typical "nestling takes its first flight" poem, though the details are stranger. It begins "When I became a bird, Lord, nothing could not stop me". The not in that sentence is easily missed, and Lord is a bit of a surprise. Then there's "My heart beat like a wing", mother gives permission in dialect for the child to fly away, and then "I left girlhood behind me". These themes - birds, dialect and growing-up/emergence - are amongst the book's preoccupations. The poem ends

Until I felt it at last      the rush of squall thrilling my wing
                and I knew my voice
was no longer words but song     black upon black

I raised my throat to the wind
                               and this is what I sang ...

The jittering line-breaks, like hand-held camera work, is no proof of authenticity or of much else. There are even trendy gaps within lines. But at least she's off the ground, away from the wet earth and canals. "Birmingham Roller" (the title of the next poem) is a type of pigeon. In a book by Rebecca Goss that I've recently read, there's a poem called "pigeon love" so maybe it's a sub-genre. The poem after that is "Homing" about going back to one's birth dialect.

I liked the title poem. It begins a miracle which it doesn't try to explain or rationalize. "The Patron Saint of School Girls" follows a similar pattern, though role-exploration is now the theme. I liked "The Silver Birch" even more. Common imagery (body=clean-sheet; self=pond into which stone thrown) is combined in "my body was a sheaf/ of unwritten-upon paper/ now folding unfolding/ origaming new / days pale as the silver birch// when sex was a pebble thrown/ into the pond of me", given freshness by the context. I like "Woodkeeper" too, and found "Dog" interesting. "Bilston Enamels" is a shape poem - at least one seems required in books nowadays.

Plasticine appears in at least 2 poems, though I don't get "the fug// which softens muscles to plasticine" (p.41) (shouldn't the plasticine be softened to muscle?). And I'd query for different reasons the imagery of

I am a canary in a mine fluttering at the bars
as the darkness swoons me. Where are you, I beg?
Come back for me, I am losing myself. I am unpicking
myself like a sampler

I've seen the canary image used in a similar way before, and the "unpicking" image sounds familiar too - Plath? "Christmas Eve" in this book includes "minds unravelling/ like unfinished knitting"

I wasn't so keen on "The Bone Orchard Wench", "Gosty Hill", "Darling Blue Eyes", "Miss Berry", "Goodnight Irene", "Wulfrun Hotel" or poems like "Stone" and "The Year we married birds" which start with an idea then lapse into a list. "Taps" puzzles me.

Key metaphors

UP/DOWN and LIGHT/DARK dominate. Along with "song" this gives "bird", "owl", etc. There's lots of leaving, flying, dresses and veils too. Rather than gravity dragging everything down, there's an upward pull. Here I've extracted a phrase from the last 3 lines of each of the 42 poems to give an idea of what impression the poems end with -

song, rolling back up, shout it from the roofs, flew, walked away, under a tablecloth, veil, burst into flames, danced, sup the moon, astonishing ring of brightness, raising your flag, fist in the air, breath hums, a bride, sun lifts the veil of night, wedding dresses lifted them, you could lie in me forever, high church spire, far below us, plunged through the sultry blackness, Down, lay scrattin in the soil, veil, white nightdress, shining body, my core, nothing left of you, darkness, pouring, that lad who tumbled, I sicken, raised your hand to shade your eyes from the sun, siren song, waved goodbye, walk away, black skeleton, mekkin magic, hear me singing, I knelt, light, like a song rising up, with you tonight, that first cry

The first poem has "black upon black". Stark white/black contrasts emerge later - "Tonight the Black Country is tinselled by sleet/ falling on the little towns lit up in the darkness/ like constellations - the Pigeon, the Collier" (p.59).


  • Birds - 13 poems, 7 of them pigeons. There are hummingbirds, larks, owls, etc
  • Eggs - 5 poems
  • Bones - 4 poems
  • Weddings/brides - 7 poems
  • Frock/skirt/dress/gown/petticoat - 9 poems

Women's roles

As part of the emergence, of the search for more space, a range of roles is sought - a mix of fable and reality: Birds, boy, Nailmakers, Patron Saint of Schoolgirls, birds' wives, Lady of the Hairdressers, The Black Delph Bride, Bone Orchard Wench, Lady Ratcatcher, Fishwife, teacher.

  • In "When I was a boy" a gender role is tried on.
  • In "My Mother's Wedding Shoes", another role is tried and rejected.
  • In "Sow", the persona rather enjoys being herself, down in the mud this time, rejecting the heavens - "riling on me back in the muck,/ out of me mind wi' grunting pleasure,/ trotters pointing to the heavens like chimdey pots,/ sticking V to the cockerel/ prissy an' crowing on 'is church spire".
  • "Nailmaking" looks at gender-driving jobs - "Nailing was wenches' werk".
  • In "Red shoes" a girl steals money to buy shoes, wears them to school past the "girls in the science block", past "the parcels of garden where rickety sheds/ burst into flames as my shoes grazed them ... felt my voice hatching in my throat/ as I danced through the waste ground, ... out-danced the axe,// the silent woodcutter" - again there are birds, and tales of womanhood; in this case Snow White.

Other reviews

  • Ben Wilkinson (Guardian) What gives much of Berry’s poetry its distinctive flavour is her use of the vernacular. Scots dialect has long been honoured in verse, but regional English accents tend to receive short shrift, if not outright mockery. ... Some poems, for example, convince less than others: the “trackies”-wearing, council-estate clients of a hairdresser in the forgettable “Carmella”, who seem as much mocked as admired ... Berry’s writing often seems curiously intent on conjuring a kind of spiritual transcendence)
  • Kate Kellaway (Observer) (an extraordinary debut ... What marks out this writing is its sparing but assured use of Midlands dialect.)
  • John Field (I’ve barely scratched the surface of this superb collection, this hymn to the West Midlands and act of love.)
  • Roy Marshall (is impressively coherent, passionate and accomplished)
  • Dave Poems (‘Christmas Eve’ ... [i]s a fully achieved poem and the book’s highlight ... several poems have problematic elements that undo their good work and benign intentions ... Black Country is a thoroughly odd book, sometimes very pleasing in its oddness. Some clearer expression or sharper precision of its potentially radical aims would give these poems a hell of a punch)
  • Shaun Morris
  • Martyn Crucifix (We elude being imposed on and defined by others by changing. This, for me, is the more profound aspect of Berry’s work; so many poems unfold as processes of self-transformation. ... Sexuality features so prominently in Black Country in part because of its potential for transgressive energy. ... If a reputation can be earned through the writing of half a dozen poems of real worth then Liz Berry has probably already written them ... I’d suggest ‘Bird’, ‘Bostin Fittle’, ‘Black Country’, ‘Tipton-On-Cut’, ‘The Silver Birch’, ‘Sow’, ‘Fishwife’.)
  • Katy Evans-Bush (Another strain in Berry’s work, her exploration of gender roles and identity, connects with her interest in dialect in being both serious and joyous – even, in places, defiant.)

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