Phil Brown reviews
by Liz Berry
When you first glimpse the cover of Liz Berry’s The Patron Saint of School Girls, you will see the dead body of a beautiful woman left on the grass outside a country house. Look closer however, and you will realise that the woman is merely sunbathing, a smile on her face and her eyes closed in smug satisfaction at how grand life is. This photograph has the exact opposite effect of Berry’s work – behind the beautiful smiling face of her poetry you will catch glimpses of something dark and frighteningly powerful.
I first encountered Liz Berry seeing her read at the 2009 Eric Gregory winners readings at the Betsy Trotwood last June, where she read many of the poems that are now in her debut pamphlet. I thought then, and still do, that Berry is one of the most captivating live readers of her work that there has ever been. Primary school teachers are perceived by us Secondary School types as being incredibly patient, calm people with a far greater sense of clarity than most. This idea certainly holds true with Berry’s work, both on the stage and the page.
Berry’s favourite trick is to spin anecdotes in a way that seems simultaneously bleak and naively exuberant. Take the (sort of) love poem, ‘Stone’, about receiving the decidedly unromantic present of a milk-pan for Christmas from a lover:
‘a man like that would never choose a rose
or a diamond ring, he’d stand for hours in a shop
on the coldest day, testing the unfamiliar weight
of a pan in his hand, assessing its metal,
imagining how the milk would taste on my tongue
as it poured, steaming, from that perfect lip. ‘
I find all of the poems in Berry’s pamphlet to be decidedly female, without being either feminine or feminist. I particularly enjoyed her depiction of the life of a working wife in ‘Nailmaking’:
‘Nailing was wenches’ work.
Give a girl of eight an anvil and a little hammer
and by God she’d swing it,
batter the glowing iron into tidy spikes’.
For me, the real hallmark of a poet’s skill is if I can get to the 24th line of one of their poems without realising that I am over halfway through a sestina. Conjuring content strong enough to distract from the most visually recognisable fixed form in existence is a real talent, which Berry manages masterfully in her poem ‘Notes On How To Be A Mother’. I would usually find the idea of a sestina in a debut pamphlet from a new voice, fresh out of a Creative Writing course to be one of the most tedious clichés imaginable. However, Berry’s captivating crescendo of imperatives on the roles required of a parent fits this form perfectly.
The highlight of the pamphlet, for me, is Berry’s brief free-verse foray, ‘In The Steam Room’ where we see the aforementioned dark side of the poet move to centre stage through the mist of a bath-house:
‘every pore an invitation,
every mouth, ear,
nostril, arse hole, rich anemoned seabed of cunt
a place for joy,
cells loosening and yielding in the head,
Being placed alongside such seemingly wholesome vignettes of childhood memories, tales of dear relatives and Black Country histories, moments like this in the pamphlet gain an added piquancy.
Much as with Hugo Williams, I can imagine that people will talk of Berry’s work as being ‘deceptively accessible’. There is enough in these poems to reward a swift initial reading, but with each new interrogation of the pamphlet, I feel the images and tales from each poem bleeding over and informing each other. Each of her poems creates the sense of a child learning to come to terms with the evils of the world and finding beauty in the ugliness of everything.
The motif that seems to tie this collection together is the image of a young girl, around eight, observing the wilderness and the ways that it spills over and interacts with that of the human being. Both ‘The Last Lady Ratcatcher’ and ‘Roadkill’ contain descriptions, powerful in their foulness, of animals having their lives manipulated or cut short by people:
‘and on the river bank,
a vixen, body
mouth half open,
its teeth in the moonlight
small as a child’s’.
As children, we tend to first come to terms with death through the animal world, and so I get the impression that as Liz Berry adopts the often childish persona that shapes much of her poetry, she is transfixed by images of the animal world haunting her as a constant peripheral vanitas.
If birds and farmyard animals help to flesh-out the scenery of Berry’s poetry, it is certainly the setting of the Midlands that serves as the stage for the stories she weaves. There is a recurring theme of mining imagery:
still collapsed into empty shafts,
and hills bore scars’
Some of the most pleasing moments of Berry’s poetry are where she intermingles her motifs of a man-ruined rural England and animals as metaphysical echoes of the human world.
‘He gleamed in a metallic
turquoise suit, taught me about fishing
in the murky canal. We honeymooned
near the Wash, the saltmarshes
booming with courting bittern.
I sincerely look forward to her first full-length collection – if The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls is any indicator, we will be hearing about Liz Berry for years to come.
Phil Brown is Poetry Editor for Silkworms Ink.