Lucy Mercer reviews Emily Berry

Stranger, Baby published by Faber & Faber (2017)

“All I want is the answer to my blood, without fribbling intervention of mind, or moral, or what-not.” – DH Lawrence

Emily Berry’s second collection Stranger, Baby (Faber, 2017) is pivoted around the traumatic loss of a mother, but could equally borrow a subtitle from a Lawrence novel, Fantasia of the Unconscious. Berry’s poems serve as poetic mediums (consultant summoners) that attempt to access unknown things, often by engaging in and questioning the practice of psychoanalysis – resulting, sometimes, in a series of antiparables.   

The word ‘strange’ – with its etymological connotations of both foreign (Other) bodies and indefinable physical unease – also relates to the Ancient Greek idea of Xenia or hospitality; hosting strangers in case they might be gods or goddesses in disguise. Though the speakers in Stranger, Baby might be interpreted as Berry herself, as she mentions in a recent interview they are more like Sharon Olds’ definition of poems that use autobiographical subject matter; “apparently personal”. Stranger, Baby hosts a multiplicity of speaking figures in a theatrical mode that reminds me of Carl Jung’s process of individuation, in which the individual’s symbolic universe is figurated into archetypes. Actually, while Berry refers to Sigmund Freud and examines (analyses!) Freud throughout the collection, it seems to me that Jung – who was weirder, more symbolic – is closer to the poems’ analytical psychopomp or spirit-guide.

The difficult processes of examining sites of trauma and undergoing individuation – whereby analysis might encourage but also hinder things – is perhaps most acutely articulated in ‘Picnic’: 

This is sadness: men in waterproofs dragging the deep lake 

The warm American voice says: There is no lack or limitation,     

    there is only error in thought 

My thoughts are wrong. My thoughts are wrong 

The thought that my thoughts are wrong is wrong

One could say here the word ‘thought’ is substitute for unspeakable ‘feeling(s)’, and the speaker’s reluctance to articulate them is signified by the need for protective “waterproofs” in light of the arduous task of “dragging the deep lake” for things, the speaker fears, that might not be found. Yet, just as the carefully structured theatres of ‘Tragedy for One Voice’ and ‘Ghost Dance’ (composed of ‘me one’, ‘me two’, a chorus, epitaphs and poetic speakers) ought to remind us – as Freud noted – meaning in analysis can only be found, paradoxically, in the dream-rebus (the form of the dream-work) not the dream-content. ‘Me one’ or ‘me two’ might drag around the pools of watery consciousness – in oceans, tidal waves, lakes, rain – sifting for redeeming meanings in this way, but still, as in ‘Picnic’, “When the rain came after the drought they said it was not good enough” precisely because the unconscious cannot be articulated in (sliding) consciousness – and worse, the dead can’t be brought back.

Subsequently, or in addition to this, Berry-as-poem-structurer seems wary of linguistic and psychoanalytic superstructures, precisely because she’s a poet – poetry is the special form of knowledge-making she trusts. After all, poetry relies on destabilising language, and sometimes ourselves. Can we really observe ourselves as all the figurative actants in our dreams, all the speakers in our poems? The answer perhaps is just like the question of autobiography in poetry; to skip to Jacques Lacan, “This error is to take as unified the phenomenon of consciousness itself”. In ‘Picnic’ – in the often-shitty picnic of analysis – the speaker reflects on how dislocating trauma is and quests to alleviate it are: 

Sometimes if you stay still long enough you can make it go 

If a person standing still watched another person minutely moving      

     would it seem after a while as if they were watching the sea? 

The self-watching poems in Stranger, Baby are theatrical psychodramas for the reason that theatre is always about fate, just as ‘Tragedy for One Voice’ states the fate of one of the poem’s characters from the beginning. In these theatres, in which the end point is the beginning point, the participants – Berry’s analysand speakers and their analytical counterparts – while searching for a loved and lost mother, play with various kinds of spectral transference. “And a light goes on and off in the opposite window, twice / Yes, you say, that was a sign […] I wish you would put some kind of distortion on my voice, /  I tell her” (‘The End’). Often these conversations loop and knot on themselves like the human subjects they allude to: 

A sign says: Some memorials may be unstable. 

But what is the silence like, someone wanted to know. 

Tell us something, in your own inimitable style.                                                 

                                    (‘Now all my poems are about death I feel as though I’m really living’) 

In Stranger, Baby Berry continues to present her “own inimitable style” that first emerged in the Forward Prize-winning Dear Boy (Faber, 2013). More than anything else, her poems always have the refreshing sense that they’re going on right now, as in the opening poem, ‘Sign of the Anchor’, where the poet also rips open the fabric of time “in wet denim”, not passively ‘not waving but drowning’ like Stevie Smith, but looking, shouting, screaming (“I was far out, in wet denim, and the shore was a jolt when I /  looked back.”) To get the right balances of shadow and light, Berry intersperses her poems with trademark deadpan assertions or pastes-in ironic snippets of social commentary; 

She had it 

all cut off 

It was more suitable 

If only I 

could see 

my mother 

when it is dark,                                                 

                                       (‘”She had it”‘)

This poem “(a cut-out)” reminds me very much of Lacan’s mythical hypothesis of the child before it can use language – forgive the longevity of this quote from John Ellis on Lacan: 

“At the moment of its birth the child is like a ‘hommelette’ – a little [wo]man and also like a broken egg spreading without hindrance in all directions. But as this child is always already submitted to the division of matter and to the constraints of, in our society, the family, the drives are limited and are contained in what is known as ‘erotogenic zones’. These are cuts or gaping inscribed on a surface, for example the lips or the anus: it is this cut or aperture on the surface of the body which allows the sense of ‘edges’, borders or margins  […] In other words, the division of matter of the subject’s own body in relation to the heterogeneous outside, is the ‘stuff’ out of which the conscious subject is produced.”

Berry – who is, among other things, a co-editor The Breakfast Bible (Bloomsbury, 2013) – uses cuts and cutting in the collection to trickle poems through just like the hommelette. It often feels in Stranger, Baby that it is not the mind that continues to be as mysterious to the poems’ speakers as the non-text and sometimes non-sense of the body, with its apertures, emergences and withdrawals. Partly this might be because female poets still have to write, to quote Adrienne Rich, in the “oppressor’s language” – “our whole life a translation”. Linguistic consciousness floods in ‘tidal waves’ through all the poems: too present to mysteriously disappear like the body of a mother might. And matter of course is closely tied semantically to mater: matter, long despised for its feminine impurity by male philosophers from antiquity to present. 

I wanted to put my body into these words 

I wanted this to be a part of my body 

This part of my body                                                 


The sense in ‘Part’ that the child in turn bears the spectral parent inside is echoed later in the collection, in ‘The photo that is most troubling is the one I don’t want to show you’; “I hold her the way I reach inside myself and hold all the trouble”. In these poems bodies walking all over the ground are as much Lacan’s ‘heterogeneous outside’ as much as the body of the mother lying in the “deadground”: somatic matter holds all the secrets. 

Turning away from these abstracts back to the personal, the thought of one’s child “crying with the relief of not being loved” is, of course, the stuff of mothers’ nightmares. I was profoundly affected reading Stranger, Baby – not as someone who has lost a mother – but as a mother myself. During this experience so far, mother-child relationships have become more mysterious than clearer to me – I’ve needed to research them, I’ve needed to read poems about them. Quite often while looking happily at my young son, I’ve felt at a deep level that the whole thing – bearing children into the world, raising them, and eventually leaving them – just doesn’t make any sense. Overall, birth and death are profoundly weird, surreal, strange. This potential reversibility of Stranger, Baby is testament to Berry’s poetic skill; the emotive poems in this collection are relatable in the best sense – because they’re needed – by all of us as parents and children. 

People can be removed from the world 

They don’t tell you that, but it’s true 

I mean, they do tell you, but they don’t tell you 

People you love can be removed from the world 

(They can remove themselves) 

They will be removed from the world 

Didn’t anybody ever tell you that                         

                                             (‘Ghost Dance’)

Lucy Mercer is studying for a PhD in ‘speculative emblematics’. Her poems have been published in AmbitOxford Poetry & Poetry London amongst others. 

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