Dear Boy: Emily Berry, Faber and Faber
Dear Boy, the debut collection by Emily Berry, is made up of poems that put on outfits and adopt personas as easily as the best con artist, all ultimately relating the story of middle class, 20-something life in the early 21st century.
Berry is a poet whose promise has been long remarked, receiving an Eric Gregory award in 2008 and an Arts Council England bursary in 2010. She has been published widely in magazines including Poetry Review, Poetry London, Magma, The Rialto and various anthologies. Berry grew up in London and has spoken elsewhere of her love affair with the capital. She studied English literature at Leeds University and creative writing at Goldsmiths College.
Many characters feature in the 40 poems that make up Dear Boy, from a disturbed doctor to an S&M sugarplum fairy, but more broadly Berry’s subject is the uneasy ground between adolescence and adulthood, the years before life solidifies.
She evokes the quotidian life of her generation with grace and panache, from eating Wheat Crunchies after a swim to ‘the adrenalin burn/of cheap drink necked in queues". This is particularly evident in the poems to an absent lover that act as a framework to the collection, interspersed with other work, for example in ‘The Old Fuel’: “Half the time I’m frying onions or planning a meeting/or deciding whether to plait my hair and it’s all happening”.
Connected to this is a strong awareness of the fluidity of identity and reality, especially in early adulthood, anxieties about how we present ourselves and who we really are or appear to be. The title poem ‘Dear Boy’ addresses the slippery nature of reality directly: “I’m not sure if you were there or not./Did you want to be? We can make something up.”
These are the years when excitement at visiting New York is beginning to be tinged with an awareness of other realities: "the clouds seemed to send down light like spaceships marking where to land./ At the border a bearded man was taken away,” and "when we went for mani-pedis, we sat in a row/and Korean ladies kneeled at our feet."
The idea of submission hinted to in the final line of ‘I heart NY’ is a theme that runs throughout this collection, although the people submitting to, for example, wearing a tighter corset or being hit with a hairbrush whilst on all fours, do not see themselves as victims. With characteristic tongue-in-cheek wit Berry examines the fine line that is pleasurable pain, and how submission can be a release.
Style-wise Berry summons the self-centred anxieties and freedoms of early adulthood in poems that fall over themselves in great blocks of conversational verse or fragment into half lines, almost as if the poet is pausing to think of exactly how to express what they want to say. She has a particular gift for a vivid turn of phrase: “I wear a skirt as short as a trick”; “In a long undergrowth of wanting I creep”; “I have discovered the meaning of life and it is curatorial.”
There is real emotion vividly evoked in a handful of these poems, including ‘Letter to Husband’, ‘Her Inheritance’ and ‘The Numbers Game’, and overall the collection is rich, funny and clever. The only snag this reader found was that after a while the playful self-absorption of much of the work became too much, leaving the reader wanting something more. So in ‘Zanzibar’, a tongue-in-cheek poem addressed to the eponymous island, the reality of an entire island is subsumed to the speaker’s needs and wants: “Dear island: I blame you entirely Your shoreline so suspiciously wantable/ your cunning blend of poverty and palm trees”. Eventually poking fun at one’s own self-absorption just looks like self-absorption.
Clever and inventive, these poems share a self-centred, conversational wit with Sam Riviere’s 81 Austerities. It is striking that these two recent Faber debuts, both well-received by critics, should share not only self-satirising humour and self-confidence but also an intense solipsism. It is worth noting that Riviere and Berry share not only a publisher but also co-editing roles on the anthology series Stop Sharpening Your Knives. Both poets, in their own different ways, offer honest and convincing scrutiny of their life and times. What direction they choose to take in future will offer vital clues to the zeitgeist. Cato Pedder
After 15 years as a newspaper reporter, Cato Pedder recently completely an MA in poetry writing whilst juggling the needs of three small children. She lives in Bristol and is working towards her first collection.