reviewed by Alan Dent
This collection, Emily Berry’s second publication (the first was a pamphlet from Tall Lighthouse) was issued in 2013 and has attracted much praise and, apparently, no criticism. It contains forty poems. They don’t rhyme nor make use of alliteration or assonance or many of the poetic devices whose purpose is to delight the reader; they are for the most part left-justified. There are nine which break this pattern. Nine also are divided into regular stanzas. She is claimed to have astonishing range. Her poems are said to be extraordinarily flexible, witty, and various in tone. She is hailed as an expert ventriloquist. Traces of Berryman and Plath are said to be found here and there and she acknowledges them as influences as she acknowledges too the young British poet Luke Kennard.
Plath is perhaps most apposite. Her work is marked by her mental disturbance, her failed struggle to attain autonomy, her emotional regression and her neurotic entanglement with her inadequate father. The hard, shiny surface of her poems hides the soft chaos of her inner life. No matter how she reached for objectivity, Plath was dragged back and down into her quicksand narcissism. No one can say how much of this was due to genetics and how much to poor relationships. Berry has clearly embraced Plath as a model. She claims her work constitutes dead-pan fairly-tales but it’s sensible always to be wary of a writer’s view of his or her own work. Usually, they are too close to it to get a proper perspective.
The surface of Berry’s poems is generally cold, sometimes frozen. The poetic persona is as rigid as a girder. There is scant warmth, little subtle modulation of feeling; emotion is for the most part in handcuffs. The surface of these poems is slightly psychopathic. It has been suggested that Berry is rejecting the sentimentality of the generation which preceded her; but psychopaths are always sentimental. Hitler was soppy about his dog and the Krays about their mother. Emotional coldness towards others is a sign of the regressed emotions which make psychopaths self-aggrandizing. The predominantly cold surface of these poems creates the suggestion of a superior poetic persona who mocks and sneers. It would be hard to imagine the poetic persona elaborated here taking the stance of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 66 or the tone of Euripides at his most tragic. This persona is substantially defended against despair. It has withdrawn to a high vantage from which it views the follies and foibles of others, but it is seldom involved.
It’s worth pausing a moment to consider the role of emotion in rationality. The Victorian view, of course, was that emotion is wayward and must be corseted (there is a poem about corsets here). What makes us rational is intellect. Emotion is unreliable, perfidious and leads us astray. The whip of intellect keeps us in line. Yet the famous case of Phineas Gage, brilliantly analysed by Antonio Damasio in Descartes’ Error, reveals the opposite: the accident which ripped away a chunk of his brain left him with no intellectual impairment. It was the emotional centres which were destroyed and that destroyed Gage. He descended into self-abandon and vicious ways. It is emotion which keeps us sane and benign. The intellect follows like a poodle.
What are we to make then of the emotionally reduced form of these poems ? They contain little delight, niggardly joy, not much outrage or anger, small sign of despair, virtually no emotion at all in the way they are put together. It might be argued that this restraint is what permits the emotions to seep through. On the other hand, there is a great risk in this procedure: such emotion as does emerge might be a drop in the desert. The danger Berry has embraced is that her poetic persona might appear too knowing, too superior to be anything but supercilious. The persona is barely touched by any of the emotions that might squeeze through the gaps in the tight railings of her language. It is as if Shakespeare had written:
Are you a summer’s day ?
Form and content can’t be prised apart. Lukacs is right that the one is a transformation of the other. Form is not a thing, it’s a relationship. So is content. In these poems form is thoroughly post-modern. It wears dark glasses. It remains aloof. It won’t give itself away. It refuses a hierarchy of values. It is as flat as a pavement. It is a room of flat white walls and no door. Disjunction is everywhere. Non-sequiturs abound. It gives no ground. It has no intention of providing simple pleasure.
Robert Frost’s aphorism doesn’t apply here: these poems don’t begin in delight and end in wisdom. They begin with a jab in the ribs and end with a turned back.
Presumably. having been poked, we have learned our lesson. Nothing Sets My Heart Aflame for example puts the boot in those who consume to bolster their sense of identity. Kate Kellaway, reviewing this book in The Guardian, said it was a poem about “buying into the past”. Rather, it’s about consuming retro-chic. What it’s spiking is the notion that consuming as a means of finding meaning is foolish. The voice is that of the benighted consumer. There isn’t much pity. The superior poetic persona looks down on the pathetic consumer whose heart is set aflame by a “minimalist font library”. This comes perilously close to snobbery. It is hard to read this and not be reminded of Larkin’s poetic persona of The Whitsun Weddings, sneering at the cheap clothes and dim pleasures of the oiks. Perhaps the failure of this poem is that it picks a facile target: who is to blame for consumerism ? It’s much harder to spike the real culprits, The Mont Pelerin Society for example. Berry chooses to sneer at a victim of consumerism rather its perpetrators. By doing so, she remains on the side of the powerful. There is nothing in this poem that would trouble Hayek, Thatcher or George Osborne. Its suggestion is that consumers are stupid. It is their stupidity that is to blame for the phenomenon. Does she establish consumerism as a social fact whose essential rationale is profit ? In the poem, it is an individual phenomenon driven by weakness. This is a very conservative position. It is, in fact, thoroughly neo-liberal. This shouldn’t surprise because post-modernism is the cultural expression of neo-liberalism and Berry is nothing if not post-modern.
What is attacked in this seminal poem is a form of selfhood. Selfhood is a relationship, or set of relationships. If this is true, where is it located ? In the brain ? But it can’t be there without other brains. Because it’s a relationship, it doesn’t have a single, fixed locus. The uncertainty principle applies to identity as much as to electrons. Selfhood can exist only because of the existence of its opposite: subjectivity, that is, requires an objective realm. The post-modern rejection of objectivity is thus a rejection of subjectivity. On the surface, Berry’s poems are pre-eminently objective but beneath, they retreat to a stance of essential subjectivity. This is the post-modern delusion because if you seek absolute subjectivity, you destroy what you pursue. This takes us back to Phineas Gage: objectivity requires the right emotional orientation. Hazlitt claimed Shakespeare was the least egotistical of writers. Yet Shakespeare’s form is marinated in emotion. Does Berry believes that the cool surface of her poems makes them objective ?
It’s telling that Berry should include a poem which curls its lip at consumerism because neo-liberalism defines us as consumers and she has been taken up by a big, commercial publisher. Presumably she wants people to buy her books. She could always give them away of course, to discourage the consumerism she disdains. Why should poetry make money ? Neo-liberalism, of course, can’t imagine any relationship which can’t be monetised. Its core assertion is that all economic relations are market relations: it is when we can see our own advantage (the butcher, the brewer, the baker) that we power up the multifarious transactions of buying and selling which constitute a “market economy”. Thus, our subjectivity is all. Neo-liberals can’t imagine circumstances in which we buy and sell for the benefit of others. What is important here is that neo-liberalism denies the objective.
Both neo-liberalism and post-modernism deny the fact of the other. They propose solipsism as the norm. Isn’t there something solipsistic in Berry’s practice ? The poetic persona is a creation of the words on the page. Behind the ventriloquised voice of Nothing Sets My Heart Aflame and poems like it, is the implied poet, that organising consciousness responsible for everything taking place in the poem.This is not to be confused with the flesh and blood poet of course: there’s no reason why an atheist writer can’t produce a poem whose implied poet is a devout believer. Generally, it’s the implied poet who conveys the norms which underpin a poem. The implied poet often takes on the hue of a social type. In Larkin, it’s the suburban conformist ill-at-ease with his conformism; in Ferlinghetti it’s the easy-going, would-be bohemian out-of-step with the world of careerism and conspicuous consumption.
In Berry it’s the uninvolved, disaffected observer whose intellect judges but whose emotions can’t be roused. In Nothing Sets My Heart Aflame for example is this line: I believe in the power of acquisition to cleanse the soul. Who’s speaking ? The ventriloquised subject, the consumer whose consumerism is being mocked; but behind the line is the implied poet who attributes this attitude and its expression. How likely is it that a consumer would be this self-conscious about their behaviour ? How convincing is it that she would express herself to herself in this way ? Do consumers believe buying cleanses the soul or do they just get a kick out of shopping? Isn’t there a confusion of voices here ? Hasn’t the implied poet overstepped the mark and told us what the subject of the poem thinks ? Hasn’t she imposed her judgment on the subject? If the poem is structured to permit the subject to speak for herself ( it’s a soliloquy in essence) shouldn’t the implied poet exert a little more tact ? Perhaps this points to a problem at the heart of Berry’s work: her apparently impassive implied poet is in fact eager to persuade and drifts into something close to rhetoric.
A person who believes buying stuff has the power to cleanse the soul is tragic. What should our response to tragedy be ? A sneer ? A supercilious withdrawal ? An individual tragedy recalls us to our tragic condition. Of course, comedy can be extracted from the fact of tragedy, as the Greeks show us; but comedy or tragedy, the fact of tragedy calls on our emotional resources. Tragedy evokes pity for its victims, at least. Perhaps also anger for its causes.
There is of course healthy satire. Yet here too tragedy must be acknowledged. What is the position of Berry’s implied poet ? In the line quoted above, isn’t it superiority ? Doesn’t the implied poet simply mock through exaggeration ? Isn’t there an odd contradiction between the effort to squeeze out emotion and the slightly tripping-over-herself to put-down her subject ?
Isn’t it essentially cowardly to take aim at facile targets ? Flaubert was famously depicted skewering the heart of Emma Bovary on a scalpel. Was he guilty ? He made her tragic and he endowed her with a kind of grandeur. Crucially, what destroys her is money. Flaubert depicts, in her demise, the heartlessness of commercialism. She is a foolish, immature woman, but there is no need for her to die. All she needs is a debt right-off. Berry is not so kind. She kicks her subject when she’s down.
Dennis Potter was surely right to call Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party “rancid”. Leigh’s response to this was to dismiss it as “professional jealousy” which perhaps suggests an inability to accept the limits of an artist’s judgement of their own work. Leigh’s play is weak because it attacks a facile subject. Its target is a woman without power and there is always something pusillanimous about attacks on the powerless. The woman is vulgar and irritating and she may represent a suburban trend, but she is more a victim that a perpetrator. It’s vital, if you’re going to point the finger, to point it at the right people. The suburban pretentions of the 1970s were a product of the burgeoning consumer culture and the growth of financialisation. Neither intended to provide freedom or meaning for the middle-classes.
The title poem is a kind of post-modern Dear John. It is thirteen lines, each second one indented a space more than the preceding. The unfortunate “boy” has rung three times to explain:
“You know perfectly
well I believe
Is Berry mocking the cold, supercilious rejection or is she on its side ? Is the persona male or female ? “Dear boy” is an odd from for a contemporary woman to use; it smacks of public-school/Oxbridge condescension. It’s impossible to decide definitively, from the way the poem is constructed, if the speaker is being disdained or upheld but the assumption has to be the former. In any case, what is sure is the attitude of the poem’s persona is despicable: self-centred, hurtful, negligent of the interlocutor’s feelings, casually cruel, narcissistically self-justifying. The pose of the immature trying to appear experienced.
Once more, the target is easy. There’s some justification for spiking immaturity trying to pass itself off as something else, but at the same time, there’s a something disappointing about choosing such unmissable bull-eyes.
The final poem, printed landscape, is called Bad New Government. It’s a love poem which refers en passant to the political change. Which government ? As there’s a reference to “austerity breakfast” and the book was published in 2013, it could be assumed it’s the 2010 coalition; but the poem, like much of Berry’s work, veers away from what it drives towards. It’s to be noted that a poem whose title tantalizes with the suggestion of exploration of the public realm, pulls so resolutely into the intensely personal. In its ending the poem is self-referential: it speaks of the first political poem she will write which will also of course be a love poem and is, of course, this one. In this way the whisper of a hint that the poem will take us into untouched territory is doubly disappointed.
Arguably the most straightforward piece is The Way You Do At The End Of Plays. It’s twenty, left-justified lines and is essentially prose. There is nothing about it to pull it into the definition of poetry. Prose-poem is the usual designation, more a failure of definition than a definition. It’s about the end of a love affair, the male withdrawing. The evening begins with an awkward meal. They go to see the play which turns out to a cabaret-cum-circus. The protagonists are hoisted on bouncy leads, they swing together and apart. Inevitably. She can’t stop thinking about how “crazy” and “awkward” this is. Here Berry relinquishes her fetish for non-sequitur and repeated trope of pulling meaning away just as the reader is given nearly enough to grasp it. This piece works, in the sense that it reads fluently and is easy to comprehend, but it seems slightly out-of-place. It’s competent but ordinary. Most of the poems are trying to be extraordinary.
Literature is always written in context. It is always indefeasibly social. All higher functions of the mind are social. Language is impossible outside a linguistic community. Poetry drives language to its pinnacle. The summit of mind is moral discrimination. It’s perfectly possible to be a maths genius and a moral idiot just as its possible to be a moral genius and a maths idiot. Understanding numbers is important but understanding people is more important. Poetry is about people, always. Even a poem about daffodils is about people. The moral character of poetry can’t be stripped away. There are those who say, we respond to art as individuals; but what is an individual ? Frogs, cockroaches, sparrows and worms are individuals. What we mean when we speak of a human individual is identity, selfhood. Selfhood is social. The neural mechanisms by which selfhood is constructed require social triggers. Poetry is written out of and about selfhood. This is inescapable.
What kind of selfhood is at work in Berry’s collection ?
When Empson was introduced to the French Structualists and Deconstructionists in the early seventies, he despised them. He correctly saw that their claim to be exploring depths no one else had reached was mere look-at-me cleverness; the apparent searing objectivity concealed an atrocious narcissism; they were writing about themselves. What was missing from their work was the human subject in all its frailty. Without the human subject there is no morality, because morality is simply the question of how we relate to one another and it introduces the recognition of suffering and demands that we seek to do no harm. Empson saw that this tendency was becoming pervasive in the study of literature. It has become equally pervasive in its practice.
When Angel Carter remarked that literature is “applied linguistics” she was making the same mistake as the French theorists: she was eliminating the moral core of literature. Berry’s poetry has something of the failings of the Structuralists: it draws attention to its cleverness; it looks down on the world from the height of its superior insights; it is language playing with language; it can find no straightforward way to engage with the messy facts of vulnerability, error, tragedy and despair. It is the perfect poetry for the post-modern young who, while congratulating themselves on their radical chic, would never do anything to spoil their chances in the vicious struggle for money, power, status and eminence.
There is no doubt this poetry, like Derrida and Barthes, is clever; the question is to what uses is the intelligence put. Reading the Structuralists is infuriating because every sentence could be reworked to be intelligible. The refusal to make them so is the point: it is the assertion that we have the knowledge, it is ours, you can never quite grasp it. The same tendency is at work here. You can understand but never quite fully understand these poems. Berry has pulled something back, kept it from you to prove, like Derrida, she is superior and belongs to an elite you can never enter. Is that because, finally, like the Structuralists, she has very little to say ?