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, 22 April 2017

"Stranger, baby" by Emily Berry (Faber, 2017)

Poems from Granta, LRB, Poetry, Poetry London, Poetry Review, etc.


There's much about ghosts and water, bodies and deserts. If you've an aversion to poetry about dreams, or about therapy, you may need to skip some pages.

"Summer" has enough repetition of images to make one think that there's a conceptual structure. It begins with "In a kitchen, on an island, stirring tomato sauce, I am far from home". Already there are complications - kitchens can have islands. Then the sauce is thickening. The kitchen is hot and deadly. The sauce is deadly. It "cracks my ice caps ... they let out a scream ... Someone is holding me and crying". Perhaps doing something that mothers traditionally do has provoked a breakdown of sorts. In future the persona won't prepare food, s/he'll have food that "cannot break into me: white cheese, white bread". The poem ends with "Colour all over my hands, I get down on the floor of a tiled, white room" - which could be a ward. The sauce could be blood. White (purity? processed?) is contrasted with red (raw life).

In the middle of this poem is the line I'm most envious of - "I am thirteen years away from home. Later, twenty, and so on."

There's a temptation to transfer imagery between poems (justifiably perhaps - interviewed, the poet stated that the book "was written mostly written in fairly intense bursts over a couple of years. Most of the poems address the same subject matter"). In any case you'll need to do some calculating. After reading "my self is a river, yours is a sea ... A river cannot survive in the sea ... I cried the way the sea cries when it has swallowed a river" (p.55) it's worth exploring the implications of "sea"="Mother". The earlier "Picnic" poem involves rain and the sea too. And eyes

If you are not happy, the sea is not happy
Watching the sea is like watching something in pieces continually striving to be whole
The mood of the sea is catching
Your eyes wear out
Its colour became the colour of my eyes and the salt made me cry oceans
I started to be able to see in the dark
It hurt my eyes
          My, yes, salty, wet, ocean-coloured eyes
When the rain came after the drought they said it was not good enough
It would not change things
It was the wrong rain
The rain came out of my eyes

The first line associates "sea" with "you" (meaning "one"?) the "you" affecting the sea, preparing for the 2nd line in this extract. Lines 3-5 of this extract suggest that the sea affects the self. Rain and tears are conflated. Towards the end there's a suggestion that some cathartic release was merely physical - "the wrong rain" - but who are "They"?

In the extract below, towards the end of the poem, self and sea, tears, rain, language and other people come together. Language is a mirror aiding self-reflection, but can a moving self ever be captured in words?

Who are you. Who are you. Who are you

Stop, language is crawling all over me
Sometimes if you stay still long enough you can make it go.
If a person standing still watched another person minutely moving
          would it seem after a while as if they were watching the sea?
I remember just one thing my mother said to me:
Never look at yourself in the mirror when you're crying

In a world of water, "spillage" (which appears explictly a few times) becomes significant.

Voice-centred poetry

Bakhtin's definition of hybridization is "the mixture of two social languages within the confines of one utterance", which is evident in this book. There are rapid changes of register - switches between intimacy, intensity and evaluation - flattened into monologue. Here's a passage from "Picnic", where switches come thick and fast.

I like curved things
     Apples, peaches, the crest of a wave
We once agreed the apple was the only iconic fruit

I like it when I am writing a poem and I know that I am feeling something
To be poised and to invite contact
Or to appear to invite contact

Once the "voice" is presumed to require a persona to produce it, the reader might go a step further, reacting as if in the presence of the person in a social situation (on a bus maybe)

  • Line 1: The speaker is telling us about their likes, communicating well, though it's a rather odd predilection
  • Line 2: Perhaps realising that the first line might not be helpful, more details are provided; again, a good sign. However, the list of 2 similar objects then a very different one is rather odd
  • Line 3: Using the apple as a link, another person is introduced. After having previously drawn us in, an intellectual albeit interesting conclusion is reported. The speaker's straying off the topic
  • Line 4: The speaker's telling us about another of their likes, in another line that ends in "thing[s]", (as if a self-revelation needs to be balanced by an abstract concept). How does this interest relate to the previous one, which it's connected to by anaphora? Should we take the second phrase of this line to mean that the persona needs to write poetry so that they know that they're feeling something?
  • Line 5: "Poised" = balanced. "invite contact" = ready to engage with others. These are socially desirable goals.
  • Line 6: The difference between appearance and reality is again emphasized - others don't know the real feelings of the persona, who may only be pretending to be sociable. Again, having approached the reader, the persona withdraws, without asking for comments.

Poems like these exploit readers' conversational skills, using their reactions to the persona as the pivots that articulate the movement within a poem in preference to using their ear for music. Because discourse-based poems emulate speech, they tend not to use sound effects (regular ones, at least), using register changes instead.

Bryan Walpert points out in "Resistance to science in contemporary American poetry" that in Language poetry "The 'meaning' ... lies not in an expression of the individual author or speaker but in the collision of languages or discourses" (p.128). This isn't language poetry, but the collisions are in these poems. He points out that "it is in language that we construct what appear to us to be unified central selves and so it is language that poetry must scrutinize" (p.182). In these poems conflicting emotions are held together, just, by a single voice or the sea.


There are poems with "Freud" in the title - his "War", "Beautiful Things", "Horses" and "Loss". There are allusions to therapy - e.g. "Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person / I tried to do that / All that year I visited a man in a room / I polished my feelings." (p.4) - polished in the way that a poem's polished, or in the way that a pebble is polished by the sea.

Some phrases have a therapy feel -

  • "I want to be loved for the wrong reasons. I mean I want to be hated for the right reasons" (p.38)
  • "Every time I say the word 'I' I am ashamed. When I say 'I want' I am triply ashamed." (p.38)
  • "My thoughts are wrong. My thoughts are wrong/ The thought that my thoughts are wrong is wrong" (p.5)
  • "If it was up to me, I would not have her back// It is not up to me, and she is not coming back." (p.37)

Therapy's a useful ploy in poetry - poets can explain and "tell" in the guise of "show".


On p.56 there's "Over a period of weeks I had a series of dreams" followed by some prose which is dream-like. So is "Several people point to gaps in my face where the little girl has been cut out" (p.30). Strongest though is p.45, where after "Numerous dreams about rain, flooding, and bathing", we get another water image - words responded to with a smile.


  • "Tragedy for One Voice" is formatted like a play script
  • "So" is 20 one-word lines
  • "The whole Show" is all in upper case
  • The poem on p.43 is 7 words long with an 18 word title (the poem's a quote from the writing of the poet's mother — she was an academic but also wrote novels)
  • "Aura" is right and left aligned, a gap displayed towards the middle of the lines that don't have enough letters to fill the line

Such poems will confirm the doubts some people have about modern poetry's gimmicks, not least because these particular tricks are so easy to do, and the content of these poems tends to be weaker than that of the other poems. Of course, apparent ease of production shouldn't influence assessment of effectiveness. The trouble with the "one-word-per-line" trick however is that many 20 word sentences are going to seem more interesting in that format if readers are so inclined. And experiments have risks that extend beyond the piece itself - in some books, poems provide mutually support but for me these poems raise doubts about some of the others.

Similarly, the sections in prose cast doubt on the value of the line-breaks elsewhere.


I noted some other lines -

  • "she obsessed me, in spite of the fact that she died when I was thirteen, until I was forty-four" (p.50) (Emily Berry was born in 1981)
  • "People can be removed from the world/ They don't tell you that, but it's true/ I mean, they do tell you, but they don't tell you/ People you love can be removed from the world/ (They can remove themselves) They will be removed from the world" (p.56)
  • "Be my mother, I said to the trees, in the language of trees ... they looked into my eyes as only trees can look into the eyes of a person, they touched me with the rain on their fingers till I was all droplets, till I was a mist, and they said they would" (p.57)


Interconnections add value to the individual pieces. For example, on p.53 there's "BAMBI'S MOTHER WAS SHOT AND KILLED DURING BAMBI'S FIRST WINTER. THESE ARE THE DANGERS OF LIFE AS A FOREST CREATURE", which benefits from being read in association with "Canopy" and "Winter".

"Ghost Dance" is long and sprawly. I prefer "Summer", "Picnic" and many fragments.

Other reviews

  • Ralf Webb
  • Annie Muir (This poem sets up a book in which its author comes out from behind the costumes and props and takes control of her own story. This is not an easy thing to do well. It is the kind of writing which acts as if it is giving everything away, even though it is the most embarrassing and painful thing in the world to do. It is the kind of writing ‘biographer[s]’ live for. Berry does it very well.
  • Sarah Crown (Where those in her first collection were sprawling, arch and metaphorically lush, these are honed down and pared back ... There’s water everywhere in these poems)
  • Dave poems (One thing Stranger, Baby does better than almost any book I’ve read is in its intensity of care for the reader, its careful management of the poems’ often brutal subject matter. The book doesn’t aim primarily to shock or appal the reader with its ideas, but it doesn’t shy away from them either ... They operate in full awareness of their artifice, remaining sensitive to the unspoken contract between reader and grieving poet: this is a book about mourning, and to some extent, the reader will anticipate some performance of sadness.)
  • Charanpreet Khaira (Berry’s speaker conveys the gulf between poetic intention and creation. Poetry is stripped of its mystery as the process of creation is described with almost staged self-awareness)
  • Todd Swift (This new book of Berry's, frankly, is stamped, on every page, with Riley's ideas and advice, regarding language, identity, the body, and the strange. ... Berry's contribution to this field is to accept both the constraints of Rileyian ironies, and the unlimited expressionism of Plathian self-revelation.)
  • Lucy Mercer
  • Kim Moore

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