Liz Berry is a new poet at the intersection of several current trends in UK poetry. Her work is firmly rooted in place; indeed her first collection, Black Country, is named after the area of the West Midlands where she grew up. She is one of a growing number of poets who are using vernacular and dialect, in celebration of the variety of English and as a way of refreshing and refashioning it. She is a feminist poet, although a subtle one: an interest in gender roles and identity, all the more interesting for being neither explicit or dogmatic, runs throughout her work. Black Country, published by Chatto & Windus, was a Poetry Book Society recommendation, an Observer Poetry Book of the Month and won the 2014 Forward Prize for Best First Collection. In his review for the Guardian newspaper, Ben Wilkinson wrote: ‘What is immediately striking about Black Country . . . is the way it digs deep into the poet’s West Midland roots, enlivening and reimagining the heritage of that eponymous heartland of iron foundries, coal mines and steel mills, on both personal and public footings’.
Berry gained her MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, a part of the University of London, and received an Eric Gregory Award in 2009. Her poems have appeared in magazines and anthologies, been broadcast on BBC Radio and recorded for the Poetry Archive. She was the winner of the 2012 Poetry London competition and was a 2012 Arvon-Jerwood mentee.
Her first publication was a pamphlet called The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls (tall-lighthouse, 2010). By the time Black Country was published in 2014, its author was immersed in the dialect-rich poetry with which she is associated.
There is an old strain in English poetry that relies on earthy, everyday vernacular language; Chaucer began it by writing The Canterbury Tales in English rather than courtly Latin or French. In the early 19th Century, John Clare wrote quietly observant poems of the countryside in his local Northamptonshire dialect. Among contemporary poets, Berry has cited the Scots poet Kathleen Jamie as an influence on her use of dialect, as well as the joyously Anglo-Punjabi poet Daljit Nagra, who mentored her for a period. She has written for the Poetry Society’s Young Poets Network about her rediscovery of her native language:
As Wilkinson writes, ‘Regional English accents tend to receive short shrift, if not outright mockery . . . For Berry, the idiomatic twang of home is something to be sung and celebrated’.
Some of the poems in the book establish a sense of place using only a word or two of dialect, as in ‘Irene’:
but you’d already gone
back to your owd mon’s garden
with your yellow frock on.
Other poems are crammed with novel sounds and rhythms. In ‘The Bone Orchard Wench’, ‘Jeth’ means ‘Death’:
Er’d try and catch ’Im in the cataracty eyes
of the owd girls, taste ’Im on the coins they gid er.
Ear to the marble, er’d listen for ’Im, gulp the air
when the crem chimdey sighed.
‘The old words are the best . . . They have an integrity, a patina, like a quirky handful of coins’, writes Kate Kellaway in her Observer review of Black Country. This is the glinting hoard that Berry has brought so gleefully to the surface: unlikely, obdurate forms that yet have worn well and rub nicely together with other, more conventional idioms.
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.
‘When I Was a Boy’, one of many dramatic monologues in the collection, evokes both a happy childhood and an effervescently odd child: ‘I was a boy every weekday afternoon/ the year I was seven’, it begins. The poem’s narrator revels in ‘boyish’ things – riding her bike with her blouse off, converting her homework into paper aeroplanes, sucking ‘thin sugary sticks . . . like cigarettes’ and twirling potato guns. There is a knowing absurdity: ‘the girls loved me: held my hand whilst I ignored them’, but the poem’s last lines, the ‘boy’ on his bike, ‘legs kicked/ in a triumphant V, fist in the air’ offer a boisterous manifesto. The many different heroines in this collection often take a tangent somewhere. Kellaway notes how, despite its rootedness, there is a countervailing imagery of flight, signifying self-realisation, in Black Country.
Elsewhere Berry has written of how she came to write her poem ‘Sow’ – in rich vernacular – after overhearing a young woman in a gym weigh herself and mutter under her breath, ‘You fat pig’.
A subversive sensuality is another key aspect of Berry’s poetry. Her writing about sex is frank and celebratory. The gay lovers in ‘Trucker’s Mate’ lie ‘belly to back in the cab . . . In the darkness his breath hums like an engine’. In ‘The Silver Birch’, ‘when I was neither girl nor boy . . . I held your fingers in my mouth/ as the wood hummed electric with sensation’. In the poem ‘In the Steam Room’: ‘any body/ might give you pleasure’, and the sexual act is made anologous with the creation of the universe. In discussing her contribution to Poetry Review 103:4, Berry describes how a painting by George Shaw inspired her poem ‘The Evening’:
The sex can be transgressive and carry elements of risk. But, in these poems, risk is embraced. Unconventional behaviour is as likely to be thrilling and life-enhancing as hazardous.
This joy in earthly behaviours is also found in Berry’s cheerful and beguiling accounts of eating and drinking, such as found in ‘Tipton-On-Cut (‘kaylighed’ is glossed as ‘drunk’):
kaylighed, singing Oh Tiptonia
as we lie on ower baltied bellies on the towpath
to sup the moon, like the head of a pint,
from ower cut.
Some of Berry’s reviewers have noted a further strand in her work: the idea of spiritual transcendence. Wilkinson picks out poems such as the urgent, powerfully musical ‘The Assumption’ or the opening poem, ‘Bird’, with its image of pain-wracked metamorphosis. It will be interesting to see how this tension between earthbound sensuality and transcendence develops in the poet’s future work.
Berry lives in Birmingham with her partner and child.
The Patron Saint of School Girls, tall-lighthouse, Luton, 2010
Black Country, Chatto & Windus, London, 2014
Berry’s page at the Poetry Archive
Berry’s page on the Forward Arts Foundation website
Berry discusses the Black Country dialect with the Birmingham Mail
Berry discusses her poem ‘Sow’ on The Poetry School’s Campus website
Berry writes about her contribution to Poetry Review, 103:4
Berry discusses dialect on the Poetry Society’s Young Poets Network
Berry reads ‘Birmingham Roller’, commended in the National Poetry Competition 2011, on YouTube
Filmpoem of Berry’s ‘Black Delph Bride’ on Vimeo
Ben Wilkinson’s review of Black Country on the Guardian
Kate Kellaway’s review of Black Country on the Observer