In Emily Berry’s third collection, Unexhausted Time, nothing is off limits and limits themselves are consciously defied: the membrane between waking and dreaming is semi-permeable, the boundary between past and present is blurred: “How is it the things that happen to us seem to have happened already,” she asks in one unsettled and untitled poem (titles are rarities here). In another, she blends with the weather as if her body were unconfinable: “Prolonged heat made me feel smudged./It was not a bad feeling…/to be a smear on a windowpane…” Her metaphors are prone to melting too or, at least, not allowed a final say.
Berry’s earlier collections were more anchored: Dear Boy (2013) was a buoyantly liberated debut and Stranger, Baby (2017) a moving response to her mother’s death, underpinned by loss. This book is driven by ambivalent maturity. More than ever, there is a sustained wariness about the words she uses so well: she resists the way that words, like capable housekeepers, purport to sort things out when atmospheres are so often defiantly non-verbal.
The first poem ends:
I’m expecting something
and it feels like wearing a silk shirt…
Language incorrigible, same as hurt.
“Incorrigible” – a word for tiresome jokers – gives pause for thought. Berry has a chafing relationship with language. In another poem, she countenances the same problem differently: “I will tell you in detail what is affecting me./ How in their abundance words can seem/quite desolate.” The implication is that truth is liable to prove sparse, beyond what words can do, like the “very old song” she describes in another poem that is known yet imaginary (as in never actually heard).
She has a gift for identifying feelings at the back of the mind that are like thoughts you would prefer not to think. Bad Stone is a stunning poem about a “pale green stone” purchased from a crystal shop. “Bad” appears often in her writing: childlike, uncompromising and simple (it makes you realise how seldom the word is used in a serious, adult way, commonly replaced by fancier alternatives). The bad stone (semi-precious or cursed?) stands for part of the mind aware of profound wrongness and unable to decide what to do. “I hardly ever saw it, in its place on the window ledge it was outside, out of sight, at the furthest margins of my home.” Banishing the stone, inevitably, does no good. Berry’s poetry is haulage and sometimes involves bringing bad to light.
Nightmare poems abound – brutal and involuntary – and are another version of haulage. Dream interpreters, get busy: a snake needs murdering and is bashed on the head with a ladle; a colossal pink mockingbird persecutes in the garden of a stately home; a baby is squeamishly muddled up with a tampon. Other poems, as the bibliography attests, are sparked by miscellaneous encounters with the words of others: Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, Sarah Kane. A fascinating podcast with Sharon Olds feeds one poem, Mark Fisher’s interview with dubstep artist Burial in the Wire is rearranged to become the text of another, Joan Didion speaking in her nephew’s documentary The Center Will Not Hold is quoted too. The centre does not hold in Berry’s world. The repurposing of words involves permeability of a different sort. Elopements with text lead to marriages that intrigue and challenge. As readers, we need to meet these strange and intimate poems with a mind as open as Berry’s and then be guided by our own inner compass.
I felt I was born in a time when a lot of stuff
was just…not known…So we asked,
what was it like, to be a human being…?
The clouds flushed with their
ridiculous secret, light.
Our minds like a playing field in spring…
Most feelings are very old, they have
been under the earth and then up
to the surface again, they have been
in the vapour of clouds and all across
the surface of the sky like hairline cracks
in the glaze on porcelain, our motivations
under the river like pebbles or like the lives
of unseen creatures that keep us alive…
There was a song we had never heard before,
it was a very old song, it was a song,
we once knew but an imaginary one.
Listening to it was like looking at the sky
at a certain time of day, on certain days,
in midsummer, as it slowly pulls itself apart.
There were so many times I wanted to give up
but then a message would appear
from a complete stranger, from miles away,
telling me to go on. So I went on.