Liz Berry is the Emerging Poet in Residence at Kingston University and already the owner of a distinguished publishing and prize-winning reputation, including first prize in the Poetry London 2012 competition (for “Bird”), where she was also runner-up the year before (for “Sow” ). As her prize for winning the Eric Gregory Award in 2009, her “pamphlet,” The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls (Tall-Lighthouse 2010) was published. It contains nineteen poems, including the poems “The Patron Saint of School Girls” (sic) and “Trucker’s Mate,” which may be found at her website. Other poems are variously published on the web: “Stone,” “The Goddess Of The Spoons,” and “Owl” are linked here. You can also read “The Year We Married Birds,” “When I Was A Boy” and “The Last Lady Ratcatcher” (be patient and page down).
For the most part Ms. Berry chooses to work in unrhymed free verse, but is technically proficient in her craft. She easily masters the formal demands of a sestina (“Notes On How To Be A Mother”), and her free verse feels tightly under control. There is no mistaking that hers is a distinctly and unapologetically feminine voice, arousing and heart-rending beautiful at the same time. As she comes from the Black Country (the English West Midlands north and west of Birmingham), a heavily industrialized area known for its coal mines, iron foundries and steel mills, several of her poems assume the lilt of the region’s native dialect. The music of her Black Country poems harkens to our language’s forbearers, which gives air to a wonderful synergy between the ancient sound and the modern sensibility that moves it.
We are at once caught off-guard and delighted when we read the opening poem in The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls, the gender-bending “When I Was A Boy,” in which the poet recounts, “I was a boy every week-day afternoon/when I was seven,” and thereupon describes the archetypal tomboy: “I didn’t bother with chit chat, got straight//down to the real stuff: an aeroplane/made from homework that gave papercuts/as it flew,thin sugary sticks I sucked/ like cigarettes then tossed out the window. . .” This culminates in:
The girls loved me:
held my hand whilst I ignored them,
swaggered down the street, ripe
for danger or rode my bike
with my blouse off, admiring my reflection
in wing mirrors, legs kicked
in a triumphant V, fist in the air.
The same sure hand crafts each poem, employing the evocative imagery that truly is Ms. Berry’s trademark. A cigarette is a “firefly of a fagtip” (in “Trucker’s Mate”) with the inevitable sexual overtones that become more developed as the poem continues. Her Black Country accent has vowels “ferrous as nails, consonants/you could lick the coal from.” The imaginative verve of “Red Shoes” is a tour de force and perhaps Ms. Berry’s most demonstrative poem, reading like a virtuoso’s cadenza, where every image and idea outstrips the previous one. Here she takes a girl’s well-worn lust for flashy footwear and turns it into an outrageous exhibition of unstoppable exuberance, a personal affirmation, dancing the poet’s alter ego from the school, through the playground, past the factory (which “drew the lads whistling from high windows/catcalling my name in the rosy smoke”), finally ending in the enchanted “forest’s darkness”:
the steps overflowing
like a thick pulse of blood.
I heard the screams of girls who had danced
before me, their ankles severed, their toes
still tapping in ruby shoes, white as wounded doves.
But I was not their kind. I out-danced the axe,
the silent woodcutter, the traps waiting with rusty jaws.
I danced so fast my shoes scorched the air
and the sun laid the sky down, crimson, at my feet.
In “The Last Lady Ratcatcher,” the poet adopts the persona of an exterminator who is more a maneater (for those of us who take our sadomasochism lite): “Gentlemen followed my scent/to the gutters for a flash of ankle,/ the sight of my dainty boot upon a tail.” She continues the seduction, becoming even more suggestive when her avatar describes the “pretty ones” (rats) she took home and kept in a “golden bird cage/ by the bed” and then “fed them with crumbs/ from my lips, laid their heads/ upon my pillow as I slept/ in a bone white nightdress, dreaming/ of fur, of rough pink tongues.” Because simile is eschewed the illusion remains intact, but we have been seduced. A similar metaphoric device and method of development, a kind of “Circe effect,” is used in “The Year We Married Birds,” where the birds are transfigured men “turning thirty/ still refusing to fly the nest,” and in “Dog,” where her lover is erotically transformed:
But as your muzzle tipped my belly to the stars,
dogs how-wooed in the alleys around us, barked danger,
love-mourn, yelped at you to run, run, run;
and I knew that I would wake in the morning
with nothing left of you, my love, but your scent
on my skin, my clothes, my hair.
Berry begins with an erotic conceit and then weaves a fantasy that is as delightful, sexy and cunning as Scheherazade’s.
She is the preeminent heir to the poetic landscape of Ted Hughes, possessing a wonderful attention to detail and affinity for the natural world, and yet, as Sylvia Plath, she has an impulsive and sexually adventurous spirit. In fact, if the best aspects of the poetries of Hughes and Plath could be mated, you would find something close to what Berry has invented. The poem “Roadkill” is worthy of both of her spiritual predecessors. A girl inters animal roadkill with a compulsiveness that is as hypnotic as it is mysterious, finally seeing her own mortality in nature’s mirror:
Later she searched back roads,
a spade in her boot,
found badgers, stoats,
and on the river bank,
a vixen, body
mouth half open,
its teeth in the moonlight,
small as a child’s.
The poems are fictionalized personifications, shunning aesthetic and intellectual distance, and embracing the biographical fantasy as a creative realization of a less inhibited self. In her mind she is as much the “Bird” transported by poetic-cum-sexual-cum-spiritual ecstasy as she is the sluttish “Sow” unrepentantly revelling in her sex. These coquettish role-playing fantasies are plainly disingenuous, and this is part of her charm. Ms. Berry wields the ethereal and sensual power of a soul stealing succubus that is, either by nature or design, irresistible on her own terms, as Kim Addonizio or Plath, as opposed to the majority of female poets whose work sails on other vessels via less sultry trade winds.
In becoming the chameleon and depriving herself of a consistent, identifiable persona, Ms. Berry perforce sublimates or relinquishes the right to make a creditable aesthetic, sociological or political statement. When she is moved to editorial comment, it is as empathetic witness, as in “Black Country” and “Goodnight Irene,” in which she observes the loss of the industrial life and the underlying traditional values that once were the blood and heartbeat of Great Britain. Here is the “real” Ms. Berry, I think, who dwells in the intimacies of “Homing,” “Stone” and “Nailmaking,” and whose homespun truths are undeniable. In “Black Country,” the land is figured as a “black shadow” of a “wingless Pegasus” in whose “flanks/ they found pure coal”:
coal where none had been mined
in years, where houses
still collapsed into empty shafts,
and hills bore scars.
A gift from the underground,
hauling the past
from the dead earth. Old men
knelt to breathe the smoke
of its mane, whisper
in its ear, walked away
in silence, fists clenched
faces streaked with tears.
She makes the same case in “Goodnight Irene,” where a funeral procession takes the reader through parts of the town, turning it into an obsequy for the fairy-tale scene of the Black Country that now lies in its open grave:
When you were a girl, these streets shone
like the coal, traipsing home with your dad from the pit’s
black skeleton, your hand in his pocket, close as a kiss.
Now their names are like music, a requiem:
Darkly Lane, Snow Hill, Roseville, Wren’s Nest.
These are the visions of a poet summoning the magic of childhood, the new mystery of love and sex, and the dawning pathos of young adulthood where the dream starts to give way to reality. They are deliberately devoid of unsavory irony and sarcasm — guarded caution and circumspection are noticeably absent — so they innocently and joyously yield the obvious pleasure for which they strive. They are by turns beautiful, funny, sexy, touching and escapist in the best sense of those words. In The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls Ms. Berry earns her keep as one of the brightest stars shining on Britain’s literary morning.
Steven M. Critelli © 2013
Categories: Literary Criticism