What’s The Book? Dear Boy, by Emily Berry
What’s It All About, JG? It’s a debut collection of poetry, first published in 2013, by Emily Berry, a short series of poems which vary greatly in style and tone, capturing the moods and passing moments of a variety of lives lived across all of the pieces. It’s also a deeply beguiling piece, at times almost painfully intimate and revealing, which dives into the emotions, motivations and lives lived of its characters, sometimes straightforwardly but usually fractured through the lens of the world, straying into a number of different, subjective worlds – emotional, personal and deeply felt. Throughout it all, Berry’s distinctive, skilled voice remains our guide as we weave in and out of the rich, complex and, yes, sometimes funny conditions of life.
Why Did You Give It A Go? I was given a copy by a very dear friend who thought it might be exactly the sort of thing that I would like. It is impossible to overstate just how accurate that opinion was.
Is It Any Good? Good grief yes. It does what all good art should do, which is to say that it challenges the reader, and it does it a whole variety of different ways – sometimes funny, sometimes deeply uncomfortable, but always pressing against the idea of conformity. This extends to the physical text itself, the layout of the poems often fractured, spaced out, or otherwise resisting a traditional setting, as if they very bonds of paper and ink and unable to entierly contain what is being described. While certainly not the first poet to do this (Edwin Morgan does this to maginificent effect, to take but one example) it is done here, as everything is, with an uncluttered and unpretentious approach. There’s a real sense of the grounded here, even with the stylistic floruishes, which stops what might otherwise come across as ostentations becoming oppressive or intrusive. And it’s not just the physical layout – grammar, too, is pushed aside when it becomes obstructive. So yes, the layout is unconventional, but that feels of a piece with the contents.
And the contents are simply dazzling. This isn’t a long collection, but it is a collection which is precicely the right length for what needs to be expressed. One poem more, one poem less, and the exquisitly constructed ediface wouldn’t hold together, but it does. The whole piece comes across deeply personal without ever feeling like it is descending to something as trite as “autobiographical”. Rumnations on an unspoken sin, of fears, of the nature of unfamilar food in a New York restaurant sit alongside probing piece about seeing life as an artiface, of sexual encounters, of a child unable to reach its parents. There is great intimacy here, and much pain, but it is balanced with a sense of humour – usually rather laconic and sarcastic – that is always deployed just where it should be without undercutting anything. In the opening poem, Our Love Could Spoil Dinner we are gifted with,”That day my mouth felt wetter / than ususal. I asked the biographer to check. He used / his tongue. “This may affect the results,” he said.” Or a little later, in the stand-out A Short Guide To Corsetting, “we agreed small waists are more attractive; / we are in a loving and supportive relationship”. It’s an abusrdly perfect balancing act, managed to perfection.
How Many Of These Have You Read? Modern poetry colletions? Very little of late, though at least some when I was studying. This is my first – though definitely not the last – exposure to Emily Berry.
Would You Recommend It? In a second, yes. It’s always hard recommeding poetry for the same reason it’s always hard recommeding jazz – the word gets in the way, regardless of the content. Yet nobody should hesitate in picking this up, because the other thing that is simply brilliant about Dear Boy is how accessible it is. Though this is a profoundly intelligent and intimate piece, it’s also extremely easy to read and that accessibility is one of the reasons that the book has such power. It gives an easy way in, and once you’re in you stay held in the collection’s grip. The variations in style help too – the deep ennui of something like Nothing Sets My Heart Aflame can be balanced against the playful absurism of The Tea-party Cats, each complimenting and contrasting each other. Even the comparatively straightforward London Love Song – another of the collection’s stand-outs – contains simply gorgeous phrases – “we broke our hearts on your pavements” indeed.
And though it’s a short collection, it’s worth taking time over rather than blowing through it all in a single sitting (which it would be very easy to do). Giving the poems time to rattle around in your head really helps build both apprecation for what’s already been read and anticipation for what is still to come. Still, even if you do get through them all in one go, it’s impossible not to be impressed. There’s just so much detail to the pieces, tiny little observences and counter-intuitve stances which ought to feel contrived but which manage to feel perfectly natural, another indication of just how in control of the material Berry is. In the title piece, Dear Boy, we get the line, “you rang me three times and said, “I can explain everything!” / into my voicemail. You know perfectly well I believe / nothing worthwhile is explainable.” Well, quite. This is an audatious and incredibly sure-footed debut, and it is simply impossible for me to recommend it any more highly.
Scores On The Doors? 9/10 The lone point off is less because there’s anything wrong with this collection – there isn’t – but rather because I want to read more of Emily Berry’s work and it would be nice to have an up to go to, and I’m not someone who’s ever going to give an 11/10.