Emily Berry was born in 1981 and, other than time at university in Leeds, is ‘quite a diehard Londoner’, in her words, having lived there all her life. She has studied Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, and in 2008 received an Eric Gregory Award. In the same year, her pamphlet Stingray Fevers joined tall-lighthouse’s Pilot series, edited by Roddy Lumsden. In March 2013, her anticipated debut collection, Dear Boy, was published by Faber & Faber, and went on to win the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.
Frequently grouped with her fellow Stop Sharpening Your Knives-editing, Eric Gregory Award-winning, Faber poets – Sam Riviere, Heather Phillipson and Jack Underwood – she is of a mostly London-based set of British poets mixing the influence of Americans like O’Hara and Berryman with that of closer contemporaries such as Luke Kennard and Kate Kilalea. She was announced as one of the Poetry Book Society’s ‘Next Generation Poets’ in 2014, and, at the time of writing, is studying for a PhD in Creative & Critical Writing at UEA. Her second collection, Stranger, Baby, is forthcoming from Faber in 2017.
As its title suggests, a central theme through Dear Boy is that of the letter to a distant lover, of a voice desiring one who isn’t there. A pretext for pieces through the book, this is most clearly expressed in the poem with which it ends, ‘Bad New Government’, which is printed with lines left and right-aligned, leaving a jagged gap down the middle. It begins: ‘Love, I woke in an empty flat to a bad new government; / it was cold the fridge was still empty my heart, that junkie, / was still chomping on the old fuel vroom, I start the day like a tired / motorcyclist’.
With its quick shifts of mood, flashes of humour (‘vroom’) and Berry’s penchant for lists, the poem is as playful as it is bleak, reflecting the bittersweetness of being apart. With the heart ‘still chomping on the old fuel’, we have the sense of love in absence as a continual, habitual effort, of desire as a cold morning ache. A partner poem, ‘The Old Fuel’, ends:
cranking out oodles of love the way an old spaghetti machine
cranks out spaghetti baby it’s hard work
This ‘hard work’ of love is portrayed as exhausting, as an endless, self-sought pain, in that the lover is always, presently and sharply ‘not here of course’, but is desired nonetheless. But love in this poem is also, beyond that, a source of strength, a ‘fuel’ that drives us through living. Perhaps it is something like Berry writes in ‘A Short Guide to Corseting’: ‘Pain is the spine of life. It holds you up’.
In ‘Letter to Husband’, another love letter of sorts, Berry takes inspiration from the story of Emma Hauck, a woman diagnosed as schizophrenic and later confined in a German asylum in the early 20th century. Berry writes of Hauck, ‘she wrote these “letters” calling to her husband from the mental hospital she was in, just one phrase repeated over and over, one word on top of another, and they were never sent, and he never came, so she seemed to be in this kind of frozen state of yearning’. Elaborating on Hauck’s letters, Berry’s poem starts with repeated phrases of address – ‘Dearest husband’, ‘Dear treasured, absent/husband’, ‘Dear husband of the moon’ – before exploring the speaker’s desperate ‘longing’, her ‘heartscribbles’. It ends:
possible colour I have given you my proud desperate
undeviating wish over and over and over: Sweetheart, please come.
As with the ‘oodles of love’, the speaker here is physically ‘cranking’ out her ‘undeviating wish’ for her husband, ‘over and over and over’, as ‘scribbles’ on the page. The power of these final words comes from the ritual of their repetition, the strength with which they’ve been imbued as prayer. Further, in this poem, and in all of Berry’s love letters, desire and yearning are portrayed as endlessly generating and being generated by the language that rushes out to fill a space left by absence. The heart, as the junkie engine running on desire and regret, is the productive force behind the poems themselves. As a poet of the joyful, painful, stupid and yet continually, sometimes desperately, desired business of longing, Berry is peculiarly powerful.
On the Peony Moon blog, Berry writes that for her ‘a poem is always a voice’. Particularly striking in Dear Boy, especially in those poems from Stingray Fevers, are the moments of familiar conversational speech. For instance, in ‘I ❤ NY’ the speaker, after an anecdote, adds ‘No, really!’. Similarly, ‘The way you do at the end of plays’ (which begins with ‘Anyway’) gets most of its poignancy from its chattiness, ending:
The ‘you know’ is particularly clever, in that, hidden in its mundanity, it reminds the reader that we are expected, even assumed, to relate. It tricks us into doing the imaginative leap casually, thinking it to be preparatory work for understanding the poem rather than part of the poem itself.
In the same blog post, she discusses the influence of the book Eloise on her writing, wherein the eponymous child narrator repeats the idiomatic speech of her nanny; e.g ‘She says that’s all she needs in / this life for Lord’s sake’. Berry has a liking for the foregrounding of such everyday turns of phrase, often twisting them sideways to estrange them, showing how our talismanic deployment of words against a reality they can’t possibly encompass says more about us than about it or them. ‘The Numbers Game’, for example, explores the difficulties of using language to express grief. Mocking the euphemisms we use for death (cf. the dead parrot), the poem in particular goes after how language ‘could not help / Not at its most bald, or decorated’, even if it’s all we have. The chipped and wonkily dry tone of the speaker belies the subject matter, as when it begins by describing people as having ‘a propensity to die’. The poem ends:
As if we might lay steel cables for bones, petrify our whole soft viscera
(The skin is a sort of protective organ and yet it is not safe from most
things, it is a jolly weak kind of coating to put on a vulnerable person.)
I repeated the phrase to someone else in crisis
I do not know if they managed to achieve it
Much like the longing expressed in the love letters, here the crucial word is ‘repeated’: ‘Be strong’ is the mantra used, continually and necessarily and somewhat hopelessly. The whole poem laments how ‘fragile’ people are, how difficult it is to come through grief ‘unscathed’, how ‘jolly weak’ our protections are against the world, but how, even so, that’s all there is to it. It seems that, for Berry, we are our most human when our most clichéd.
Beyond its tricks of idiom and tone, Dear Boy’s interest in voice is most apparent in its different personae. Most often, as in ‘Our Love Could Spoil Dinner’, ‘The Incredible History of Patient M.’, ‘David’ and ‘Manners’, we have institutionalised women, or women in overtly submissive relationships, whose situations act as metaphors for more subtle power dynamics between women and society or women and others. ‘Our Love Could Spoil Dinner’, for example, has three characters: the speaker, her father and the ‘biographer’:
On day one I showed him my grapefruit spoon;
it has a serrated edge. My father gave him
a Mont Blanc fountain pen as a welcome gift,
but I think he was more impressed by the spoon.
‘It’s almost like a knife!’ he said. The biographer
is a coffee nut and I use this fact to bond with him.
‘Oh, Robusta,’ I say dramatically when I know
he’s listening. ‘You inferior bean’.
Much as the poet is doing, the speaker herself feigns a character, pronouncing dramatically about coffee beans when, we learn later, she isn’t allowed caffeine. The poem ends with the father catching the other two ‘touching legs’, calling her a ‘shabby daughter’ and playing ‘cards to settle a debt’ with the biographer. Finally, the speaker notices that her mouth ‘felt wetter / than usual’, and, when being asked to check, the biographer does so with his tongue: ‘“This may affect the results”, he said’.
The poem, as with ‘The Incredible History of Patient M.’, resembles those of Luke Kennard, with the figures of the biographer (or Doctor in the latter poem) and the darkly surreal humour. As in Kennard’s poetry, we have speakers stuck in situations they don’t understand, where those around them are feeling things very strongly, and they’re sort of stuck in the middle, blankly relaying things or acting out just to be heard. However, absent in Kennard’s poetry is the sense of uneasy and faintly ludicrous sexual menace that Berry explores, as, in these examples, we feel the absurdity is a product of the absurd male desire within which the female speakers must accommodate themselves.
In this menace we find the final distinctive characteristic of Dear Boy: its ability to unsettle. Besides the horror fairytale of ‘Shriek’, this ability is shown best in ‘Sweet Arlene’, which appeared in Salt’s Best British Poetry 2011. With a thick layer of American gothic, the poem’s speaker describes, somewhat breathlessly, her time in ‘Arlene’s House’:
Thank you, Arlene. Thanks for this opportunity. Thanks
for this shaft of light lying like a plank across the floor.
Thanks for the visceral scrape of the freezer trays,
and for a picture of a lady with no clothes on. Most of all,
thank you, Arlene, for giving us things we did not have before,
like the chance to eat pears while looking out the window
at a pear tree. We’ve confessed to Arlene: knees to our chests
in the usual position, we repeated our ritual of shiver, breathe.
We recited our mantras but they came out crooked and strange.
We wished we had faith. We made this prayer, a faithless one,
it took all our energy to say: Please help.
Alongside the ‘ritual’, the ‘mantras’ and the ‘prayer’ – the now very Berry-esque repeated words to fend off an inexplicable terror – the poem is mercilessly precise in its evocation of the uncanny in its psychoanalytic sense: for Freud, the unheimlich was inherently related to repetition, as the unfamiliar return of the once-familiar causes a profound unease (as Željka Marošević notes, it’s wickedly mischievous for Berry to then have Arlene return 30 pages later in the book in ‘Arlene’s House’).
‘Sweet Arlene’ is a greatly successful poem in that, in a way, all of Dear Boy’s separate talents align to produce a piece that is not so much understood as felt. The speaker’s uncertain tone, somewhere between comforting and frantic, seems to be only just maintaining the brittle ice over some unspeakable black terror. As the speaker remarks in the similar ‘The House by the Railroad’, named after the painting which inspired the look of Bates’ house in Psycho, here we begin ‘to know how it feels when/something terrible happens’.
Other than contributing to The Breakfast Bible (2013), a witty collection of recipes, anecdotes and facts on the ‘gently radical ritual’ of that ‘bacon-and-eggy, marmaladey meal’, Berry has also published translations of medieval poetry in 19 Medieval Lyrics (2013) with the Greville Press and continues to publish poems in magazines in the UK and abroad.
Stingray Fevers. tall-lighthouse, Luton, 2008
Dear Boy. Faber & Faber, London, 2013
19 Medieval Lyrics. Ed. Victoria Gray. Trans. Emily Berry. The Greville Press, Warwick, 2013
Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century. Eds. James Byrne and Clare Pollard. Bloodaxe, Tarset, 2009
Best British Poetry 2011. Ed. Roddy Lumsden. Salt, Cromer, 2011
Best British Poetry 2013. Ed. Ahren Warner. Salt, Cromer, 2013
Dear World and Everyone in It: New Poetry in the UK. Ed. Nathan Hamilton. Bloodaxe, Tarset, 2013
The Breakfast Bible. Ed. Seb Emina and Malcolm Eggs. Bloomsbury, London, 2013
Best British Poetry 2014. Ed. Mark Ford. Salt, Cromer, 2014
Best Friends Forever: Poems on Female Friendship. Ed. Amy Key. The Emma Press, London, 2014
The Pleasure of Reading. Ed. Antonia Fraser. Bloomsbury, London, reissue 2015
Best British Poetry 2015. Salt, Cromer, 2015
Berry’s own website
Dear Boy at Faber & Faber
Berry’s profile at The Poetry Archive
Berry’s profile with Next Generation Poets
Interview with Granta Magazine
Interview by Sam Riviere for The Quietus
Interview with The London Magazine
Review of Dear Boy in The Guardian
Berry reading ‘Some Fears’ from Dear Boy