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Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry review – deeply moving study of loss

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A rising poet draws on Freud in a piercing, highly intelligent interrogation of her response to her mother’s death

Emily Berry’s second collection opens with an epigraph from Sigmund Freud. “The loss of a mother,” he muses, in a letter in 1929, “must be something very strange …”. It’s a peculiar – and peculiarly unsympathetic – quotation, conveying as it does the sense of the great psychoanalyst examining the condition of motherlessness with lofty detachment, and viewing the afflicted not as objects of empathy or even pity, but of clinical curiosity. But in her book-length interrogation of her response to the loss of her own mother, to whom the collection is dedicated, it is this strangeness to which Berry cleaves, articulating and then wrestling with it in an attempt to make sense of a situation that is fundamentally senseless; to exert control over an event that could not be controlled. “If it was up to me, I would not have her back,” she says, defiantly, in “Sleeping”, one of the many poems in the book that investigates her dreams, before blankly acknowledging, in the next line’s brief, bitter staccato: “It is not up to me, and she is not coming back.”

Relationships are familiar territory for Berry; her debut collection, Dear Boy, ran the gamut of them to great effect. But while Stranger, Baby returns to the first collection’s personal-interpersonal territory, it is focused solely on the poet’s relationship with her mother - and the poems themselves appear to have been subject to a similar pruning. Where those in her first collection were sprawling, arch and metaphorically lush, these are honed down and pared back; slight, sharp slivers of verse that pierce like lances, quick and deep. The book is punctuated by a series of concrete poems laid out in narrow lines down the length of the page, only a few words wide – and it is these tightly harnessed compositions that deliver some of the richest and most impactful moments. “I filled a bowl / with a little / water,” she says in “Aqua”, one of the collection’s finest poems, in which the line breaks and lack of punctuation permit meanings to multiply, while at the same time the internal rhymes and half-rhymes braid the whole together, “praised / it slightly a feeling/ of daughterliness / came over me / I adored her / of course water / cannot hold / an imprint she / kept repeating / it’s no use you / can’t help me …”

Where her first collection was sprawling, arch and lush, these poems are honed and pared back; sharp slivers of verse

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