Emily Berry has a refreshingly free, not to say incendiary approach to poetry
Emily Berry's debut is a treat. She is a new yet anything but hesitant voice. What is stimulating is that she approaches poetry as a flexible, permissive, dynamic ally. She seems to have complete freedom with form and will use a poem – whenever helpful – as a vehicle for escape, a getaway car. In the title poem, Dear Boy, she does not dwell on what the dear boy has done. He is leaving messages on her answerphone to apologise for misconduct: "I can explain everything." She responds: "You know perfectly well I believe/ nothing worthwhile is explainable".
She goes on, without fuss, to propose that instead of being detained by reality's flat excuses, "We can make something up" and it is then that, in every sense, the poem takes off. It soars to its fearless, fantastic, parasailing finale: "We were a knot in the grain of the world,/ Suddenly the sea was a blunt spur at our heels, remember?" It is the pleasing oddity of the sea as "blunt spur" that gives pause for thought. The relationship, even in fantasy, may be doomed.
Whatever the case, it is knowing that it is always possible to "make something up" that is the key to this collection. Berry is seriously playful and, in her best poems, gives fantasy free rein. The opening poem, Our Love Could Spoil Dinner, is a polished tease, a mini-fiction. I'd be curious to read a novel about its characters (although emphatically not a biography by "the biographer"). We can embark on our own biography of him and his malaise: a coffee-swigging, sexually inhibited, ex-public school boy with an enthusiasm for grapefruit knives and squeamish relations with his publisher. It is a poem that describes a false start – as does, many times over, the poem that follows it, Letter to Husband, in which opening greetings are abandoned, including a salutation of which the "biographer" would approve: "Dearest serrated husband". Greetings pile up, create panic, amplify the poem's cry for help: "Please come."
Some Fears is an SOS too. A wayward list includes "fear of unfamiliar elbows", which seem likely to nudge you until the climax and its redeeming seriousness: "Fear of asking for, receiving, refusing, giving, or being denied help". What Berry avoids is slavish autobiography. Her writing is too rebellious for that. There is a constant sense of surprise and movement (not unlike the meal that freaks her out in a Japanese restaurant in New York: "When the food arrived it looked like it was moving"). This sense of the poem running away with itself is especially apparent in A Short Guide to Corseting, which tightens at speed, and disturbing wit, as a man binds his woman: "Now/ that I wear a fourteen-inch I use only the top half of/ my lungs; there's just room to breathe. I've still got/ more than enough. I've realised how little we need."
Berry's range is amazing. I especially loved London Love Song – a subtle evocation of an omnivorous city in which she describes youth thrown away: "The more we lost –/ first kisses, last trains, our nerve, dignity – the more/ you claimed". I enjoyed, too, her strange Preparations for the Journey describing, in what seems as clear as a line drawing, a horse – except, as you look more closely, everything wavers. A poem about doubt. And Nothing Sets My Heart Aflame is a brilliantly shrewd piece about buying into the past. It ends: "Every time I think a new thought I can smell an old one burning." And that means an enormous fire – so many new thoughts are kindled here.