Writing in the introduction to his Fifty Poems in 1988, Ian Hamilton commented on his younger self, ‘But did I truly think that poetry, if perfect, could bring back the dead? In some ways yes, I think I did.’ Hamilton was at the extremist end of ‘faith’ in the lyric’s potential, a belief that poetic language might reach beyond ordinary dialogue: ‘While writing a poem, one could have the illusion that one was talking in a magic way to the subject of the poem. One might even think that this is doing some good, making things better.’ The ‘you’ in Hamilton’s poems was confined to a few, imagistic details, in terse addresses which owed a debt to Thomas Hardy’s poems of 1912 and 1913, written by Hardy in the throes of guilt which followed his wife Emma’s death. A poetic version of esprit de l’escalier; all the tenderness and devotion he hadn’t shown during their marriage was expressed too late, addressed to Emma’s wished-for ghost as if she were capable of listening. As with Hamilton, any comfort provided was, ultimately, only for the poet, but the instinct to speak to the dead in the hope of getting through casts the poem into a secular equivalent of the Eucharist, aiming to summon a real presence through linguistic ritual. Denise Riley’s extraordinary elegy for her son, ‘A Part Song’, demonstrates some of this magical thinking. Riley writes ‘It’s all a resurrection song./Would it ever be got right/The dead could rush home/Keen to press their chinos.’ That ‘belief’ which Hamilton once clung to, that the platonic poem might bring back the dead, has some ‘truth’ to it, at least on a semantic level. Riley speaks to her unanswering ‘you’ in the present tense: ‘Outgoing soul, I try to catch/You calling over the distances/Though your voice is echoey’. At least for the duration of the poem the ‘you’ is summoned, and while they can’t reply there is a charge to it; they are implicit and implicated, albeit ‘It’s not like hearing you live was’.
Aspects of Riley’s work seem to have informed Emily Berry’s second collection, Stranger, Baby. Published in 2017, it’s made up of extraordinary, polyphonic poems which develop and complicate the ideas of poetic communication with the dead. One of the most striking ways in which Berry differs from Hamilton or Hardy’s attempts to summon their absent ‘you’ is that in her poems the ‘I’ has to be conjured every bit as much. Berry writes from ‘the dangerous shore’, a place of oppressive silence, where everything is contentious, negotiable and unsteady. There is something of the lapsed hermit about the voices which pipe up; they are reclusive, making utterances in spite of their better judgement. Talking is a bodily reflex not an indulgence; the words brittle and weighted, shocked into appearance. They are felt as creatures in the world, sentient machines scuttling away from their maker. It’s a book which regularly breaks the fourth wall, aware of the artifice of its rituals in a way Hamilton’s willed ‘faith’ could never have countenanced. These poems, not sharing his belief in the potential to raise the dead but more in line with Riley’s knowledge that channelling ‘gaily affirms’, are free to announce their made-ness. Language is a means of summoning but also of attaining a fuller version of self-hood, however constructed and fragile, however limited to the confines of the poem’s performance.
These are elegies, for the death of a mother, and it happens to be that the poet has lived through that experience. It is not the case that these are diaristic poems, or baldly and only about this one trauma. The elegiac note is pushed further, an atmosphere of grief and uncertainty the only breathable air, and as much as the lost mother is mourned and spoken to, the speaking ‘I’s suffer and teeter on the brink of extinction. These are poems which disallow assumption and make their unravelling, their location and placement, part of the discomfiting joy of their being encountered. They are read, but also met – personable in the directness of their address, up on their hind legs ready for inspection.
There was always a degree of self-conning involved in Hamilton’s belief in poetry as ‘perfect speech’. Berry is not wilfully naïve in this way, but deflatingly rational; the nearest she comes is in ‘Winter’:
I made a prayer for my mother. By
‘prayer’ I mean a meditation on a want that can never be
answered. A prayer for the dead alive inside the living. That’s
what it is to burn a flame. We were in the darkest days of winter,
approaching the celebration of light.
An elegy is a want that can never be answered, and as much as Berry lines these poems up in front of that knowledge she finds a way of making her desire to speak to the lost new, thoroughly modern, learned rather than stepped into.
The ‘I’ in Stranger, Baby may not be a simplistic fill-in for the poet, but what unifies the book is Berry’s control over the speaking voices. They almost all feel like tender address or reluctant confession, flattering the reader that they have earned complicity while holding back all description of the mourned figure. The lost ‘you’ is always an absence. ‘The dead can answer us only in our own words’ Berry writes, in the brilliantly titled ‘Now all my poems are about death I feel as though I’m really living’ and she proves this by the extraordinary feat of producing a book of elegies in which the reader leaves with no physical impression of the deceased. The absent mother is given only one line of reported speech – ‘Never look at yourself in the mirror when you’re crying.’ This reticence is not fetishised but produces the effect of powerful deficiency and an acceptance that the only possibility of restoration comes in the act of being spoken about, ‘alive inside the living’.
Something of Berry’s method is glimpsed in ‘Picnic’: ‘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’. It’s in that ‘appear’ that Berry’s tonal alchemy dwells, her convincing portrayal of vulnerability and whispered confidence. So often, these are poems in which a voice is suffering the arrival of overwhelming feeling after a sustained period of numbness. The ‘dangerous shore’ might be a shoreline of feeling; so many of these poems allude to breakthroughs of sorts. The poems don’t speak to a straightforward conquering narrative from hurt to hope, or really any sort of narrative at all. They are, like any interesting person, conflicted, moody, changeable. The tapping into emotion isn’t a moment where strings swell and Technicolor returns, but potentially overwhelming or insufficient – ‘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 narrators are often tortured by their newly-exposed nerves, in conflict with the ruinous urge to be candid. A poem such as ‘Summer’ feels part dreamscape, part animation, its ‘Deadly sauce, which thickens with my sinking feeling’ leading to a meditation, a coming-round from a dead mood, to ‘Someone is holding me and crying’ and, piercingly, an ending in which ‘Colour all over my hands, I get down on the floor of a tiled, white room.’ This colour contrast is arresting, the suggestion of fluids and temperatures playing into the on-going sense of melting, of the body as atmosphere and liquid. Most moving is the manoeuvring of the narrator, their desire not to eat food which requires preparation, as it can ‘break into me’, the wrong sort of transmission when what is sought is, implicitly, a visitation from the absent person. The stirring and heating counteract a tenuous frozenness. The horror of the poem is psychic and somatic; there are disembodied tears and screams, the whole thing a paralysed diorama.
The voices which speak, which suffer feeling, are beset by shame – there is an embarrassment about a wound so unobjectionable as grief for a mother: it’s a damage which demands deference. Bambi is referred to towards the end of the book. It is too much feeling, in one poem figured as a tidal wave. The narrators are uncomfortable with it, just as they are with the discomfort it will cause during this ‘repair’ from fracture. The voice in ‘Picnic’ figures a previous state as ‘trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person’, but after this shattered impossibility comes the downpour, and the downpour is a form of disgrace. The reason for this is hinted at in ‘Everything Bad Is Permanent’ – ‘Didn’t we always suspect the pain of intelligent people was truly the most painful’. That line, out of context, could have a sneer to it, but within the poem, and the collection, it’s a heartbreaker, no less useless than the ‘protective symbols’ in the book’s opening poem. Intelligence is one more worthless horoscope amid all these ‘unhealthy emotions’ but it endures as a counterweight, like the earth meeting the sea, the cause of all waves.
In the same poem there is a nod towards a past in which any lapse of decorum was a slippage: ‘I did it once by accident, now I do it deliberately, in plain sight/In decorated sight’. It’s there, too, in ‘The End’, more explicitly, with an ingenious device – ‘I wish you would put some kind of distortion on my voice, I tell her//So people don’t know it’s me’. This conflation of the poetic voice of such ‘unhealthy,’ exposing feeling and the news report with its actor’s narration to protect the innocent speaks to the potential for misreading but also to the unavoidable taint which attaches to a survivor, however unconsciously. To change one’s voice is not only to shield, but to trick, to ventriloquise and disown. It is a kind of deflection – what do blurb writers demand of personal writing but that it be ‘unflinching’? To distort is to flinch, and these poems do so to live, to allow for intelligence as well as the colourful onrush of emotion. Without these little shrugs they would be less true, disavowing that they were born from the coming together of thought and feeling. Berry knows that for all that distortion the possibility of simplifying interpretation persists – the response to the narrator’s pleas for distortion is ‘They know what they know’. This also speaks to the potential transgression involved in putting the dead centre-stage. As much as these voices speak out of trauma we are never allowed to forget that the one who has gone suffered also.
Berry exploits voice and tone with gleeful alacrity. In ‘Everything Bad Is Permanent’ we hear from psychoanalytical and child development case studies, ‘Then looking reproachfully at her mother, she demanded/’Where was you, Mummy? Where was you?‘’ This voice is carried over by the articulate I of the poem, echoed and co-opted ‘Where was you, Mummy/As when from a stable place you come unbalanced’, the effect jarring, this sudden wrongness of diction a means of diminishing to the status of the abandoned child; more visceral in its use of their idiom. From the other end of the verbal scale comes an equally striking moment, in ‘So’, the narrator’s charge to the deceased comes from a comedy-of-manners, a waspish put-down in lieu of despair, in full:
This chimes into the ongoing conversation between intelligence, shame and feeling, another deflection, this time on the part of the dead. If it’s embarrassing and gauche to die then surely, too, it’s embarrassing and gauche to feel anything so lowering as grief. A different sort of humour is deployed elsewhere, to similar effect – a nod to the same seam of awkwardness among all this heavy feeling. A poem whose title is taken from Donald Winnicott has black humour in its deployment: ‘I have already said that the baby appreciates, perhaps from the very beginning, the aliveness of the mother’ – stripped from its case notes this could be a set-up from a Peter Cook sketch, given its position towards the end of this book of loss. This sense is bolstered by the poem itself, a brilliantly timed one-line rejoinder: ‘We all have to die sometime, Your Majesty’. A sense of self-inflation in mourning turned on itself; how precious indeed, to think of oneself as unique, or above all this mortality business.
If this sort of undercutting wit is an apologetic gesture it’s also a protective one. The fear of drawing attention that distortion or self-deprecation can’t override is allowed fuller expression when Berry puts on more overt masks. In ‘Drunken Bellarmine’, an apparently ekphrastic poem, the voice is shabbier, aggressively owning its appetites ‘Every time I say the ‘I’/I am ashamed. When I say ‘I want’ I am triply/ashamed.’ There’s something base and unbecoming in all this wanting, heightened when the voice paints themselves as a ‘Majesty’-like infant, all open mouth and perennial need, ‘DON’T LOVE ME. I am/guilty, fatalistic and sticky round the mouth like a dirty baby./I am a shitting, leaking, bloody clump of cells,/raw, murky and fluorescent, you couldn’t take it.’ The great embarrassment is, ultimately, to have a body; the intelligence which speaks out and struggles against interrupting emotion is trapped in an appetite-driven prison of flesh, with its stickiness and capacity to perish at any moment. For all the doomed-to-fail attempts to address the dead the unavoidable truth of the matter resides as much here, in rawness and murk, as it does in any cerebral argument. The unavoidable stab of speaking to an unanswering listener remains, summed up in ‘Everything Bad Is Permanent’: ‘And now I have a question for you, will you answer?/And there you were all this time, in the dead ground’.
The principle of elegy might be summarised in those two lines. Language is a trap for meaning, and poetic address only complicates and depersonalises it. What makes this uniquely sorrowing is that final phrase, the knowledge that the subject, who isn’t here, is somewhere, in a diminished form. The thought of the loved one’s true state, the body rather than the soul – if we can resort to that word – is too upsetting to deal with, and yet Berry does, not only here but in ‘The degenerating anatomic structures of your body’, its final lines
your actual bones exist, and if I could,
I would bear them with a fiery zeal,
with the fury of all dead mothers’ children
I would bear your actual bones, and I do.
That ‘actual’ is part of what makes Berry’s version of elegy so starkly fresh. The belief in the implausible romance of diction-as-magic falls away irreparably in this moment, in this facing up to corporeal fact. It feels like the breaking of a taboo, letting in the bones.
These poems are built for the problem of mourning in a time where ‘We have nearly run out of eras’, where the language of psychoanalysis and self-construction is so pervasive as to be unavoidable, where the faith in being an ‘I’ at all is as difficult to hold onto as the faith which once assured us our lost were looking on. Berry gestures towards this in ‘The photo that is most troubling is the one I don’t want to show you’ – ‘“The dead don’t die, they look on and help”…/Mother, can you hear me?/He said the dead don’t die!’. This sort of bland assurance won’t do; held up to the light of Berry’s rigorous thinking-out-loud it seems a counterfeit note.
In Berry’s ‘Winter’ comes the book’s most Riley-ish moment, a chatteringly breathless address made poignant by its infantilisation:
What happened was my mother was very very sad. She was so
sad she could not hold up her head, she could not sit down, she
could not lie down, she could not see out of the dark, my very
Riley, in ‘A Part Song’, deploys a similarly faux-jovial note: ‘Oh my dead son you daft bugger/This is one glum mum’ to puncture the earnestness in its address. Elsewhere in the poem Riley writes of her method ‘She do the bereaved in different voices’, its Eliot-via-Dickens reference a perfect summary of Berry’s achievement too. Bathos and pathos, hopelessness but persistence, devotional obsession – like Riley, Berry knows no elegy can be got right, any more than any other sort of poem can; striving towards platonic impossibility but saddled with the toolkit of language.
‘A Part Song’ opened with the line ‘You principle of song, what are you for now?’ and this ‘for’, as in Berry, is as unignorable as the loved, lost bones. These poems are written in spite of the embarrassment, the gaucheness and excess of the collision between emotion and thought, pieced together through voices which say the only things possible, as well as they can. W.S Graham said of his elegies that ‘they are not better for loosening a tear from the eye’ but they are more necessary, they seem to provide a more fitting answer to what songs are for. They are for survival. In Stranger, Baby‘s last poem, ‘Canopy’, the narrator says of the trees, ‘I think they were telling us to survive’, and it is this impulse, this need to look towards protective symbols to find an answering voice and speak back to it, which are the only way the poet copes when the tidal wave crashes. This sort of poetic speaking, done ‘deliberately, in plain sight’, brings the potential for exposure and betrayal, the shame of attention and of having ‘my insides on the outside’. The great gift it offers, however, even if it can’t bring back the dead, is to provide a place where the dead can be heard by the way they are spoken to, and can answer in the poet’s own words; a resurrection of sorts, in poems which are their own kind of necessary, generous, permanence.