Emily Berry, Stranger, Baby

Can Emily Berry’s second collection of poems live up to the impossibly-high standard of her first? Oh yes.

What’s The Book? Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry

What’s It All About, JG? It’s the follow-up to Berry’s first volume, Dear Boy (reviewed here). Published in 2017, Stranger, Baby is a deeply personal, lonely and melancholic piece that reflects on the death of the author’s mother and how she comes to terms with it – or indeed if she can and has. While Berry’s first collection covered a wide range of different types of relationship – from the personal to the clinical, from the human to the inanimate – the focus in Stranger, Baby is much tighter and, perhaps, even fixated as Berry uses poetry as a medium for dealing the loss of such a pivotal figure in her life. That it is a deeply affecting piece pretty much goes without saying, but – as is often the hallmark of writing this good – it can be hard to explain just how powerful the work is when not actually sitting down and reading it.

Is It Any Good? Stranger, Baby demonstrates a whole new range to Berry’s work from Dear Boy and as such shows genuine growth from her first volume. Given how unbelievably strong her debut work was that’s quite the achievement, yet the progression here feels completely natural, a logical extension of someone who begin strongly and who only gets better and better. The increased focus here, especially, gives new precision to Berry’s writing – not that it wasn’t precise before, of course, but nevertheless in using grief and loss as a lens for her poetry her writing here becomes needle-sharp and it’s in the instances of raw, exposed emotion that the impact is most sharply felt. Yet there’s never a sense of the feelings laid out here being self-indulgent, even while hopelessness often rears its head. “If it was up to me,” Berry writes in Sleeping, “I would not have her back,” which comes across as a curiously counter-intuitive stance for someone mourning the loss of her mother, but she follows it with the line, “It is not up to me, and she is not coming back.” That line feels like an excellent summation of the work – deeply personal and emotional, wry and very nearly funny, yet clearly pained and fully of regret. The multiplicity of meaning captured in such a simple couple of lines cuts to the absolute heart of what makes this such an impressive collection.

Water imagery abounds throughout the entire piece. You don’t exactly need a degree in English to know the symbolism of water represents passing, loss and movement, yet never have those concepts been so eloquently wedded to words which bring those concepts alive. Seas, rivers, rain, water, even one poem called Aqua – all forms of water are embraced, and all forms of water are valid for expressing grief. That Berry is able to gain such power from what might otherwise be overly-familiar thematic imagery simply shows what incredible skill she has, but this is often the case. One piece, Everything Bad Is Permanent, sounds like it could be the title from a late-period Morrissey album, yet even within such apparent pessimism there’s a playfulness. “I wrote: The Sea! The Sea! As if that might be the solution”. Again, the wryness of the writing undercuts what could otherwise tip over into self-pity, yet it doesn’t undermine the emotional content at all – the work remains often solemn but that tone never threatens to drown out the more playful content. That is, simply, an incredible feat.

How Many Of These Did You Read? As mentioned, the first volume, Dear Boy is reviewed elsewhere on this site. Normally I’d say something like, “it couldn’t come more highly recommended”, which would be completely true if (spoilers!) this book wasn’t going to be even more recommended. Still, read it – it’s fucking great!

Would You Recommend It? As you may well gather, even moreso than the first volume, yes. It’s an achingly beautiful collection of poems, and it retains Dear Boy‘s playfulness with form, which remains an absolute delight. The structure and placing of words on the page never feels like a gimmick, and it’s a testament to Berry’s skill not just as a writer but as someone who has complete mastery of the form that she is able to do this with such aplomb. It remains one of the most pleasing parts of her writing, again welding a sense of playfulness to otherwise often sombre material, and never fails to impress.

There’s a dreamlike quality to much of the work here, and we float in and out of consciousness as much as we float on the water imagery that permeates everything. For a collection of poems which owes such a debt to Freud – the book opens with a quote from him, and the title of four poems carry his name – that feels apropos. Yet Freud – always a tough character to wrestle with in any medium – despite casting a long shadow doesn’t dominate the work in the way one might expect in a meditation on the loss of motherhood, but rather is one influence among many to be called upon in an effort to understand loss. A conspicuous one, to be sure, and one fully acknowledged, but by no means the only one. Influences and be people, but they can equally be emotions. Frustrations can boil over – “I wrote this down / regretted it” she writes at one point, but in acknowledging the existence of the frustration it is also, in a way, tamed, or at the very least take as part of the same spectrum and process of coming to terms with what’s happened.

What emerges, in the end, is less the meditation on grief that the collection initially appears to be – though obviously it’s that a well – but more the acknowledgement and understanding that going through the process of writing is a way to, if not conquer the feelings of loss, then at the very least come to terms with and process them. One of the reasons the collection never feels self-indulgent is because the element of hope is never – quite – extinguished. “we were in the darkest days of winter, approaching the celebration of light”, Berry writes in Winter. And that captures it all. The loss here is deep and unutterably painful – the darkest days of winter indeed. But there is light too, and it approaches. This is a blissfully, beautifully perfect collection of poems, deeply sad and moving but always powerful, direct and above all emotionally honest. It’s physically impossible for me not to recommend it more than I am doing. Go buy this. Now.

Scores On The Doors? 11/10

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