reviewed by Judi Sutherland
This year’s Forward Prizes have been announced, and as ever, they take the temperature of British poetry. Emily Berry’s book Dear Boy hardly counts as a ‘debut of brilliant unknowns’, as the Forward Arts Foundation’s website puts it. Berry is well-known through her involvement with London collective Stop Sharpening Your Knives and her Tall-Lighthouse pamphlet Stingray Fevers. Her signing to Faber & Faber also built up the expectations for her first full-length collection.
Bleak and unsettling, it resonates in the mind long after you put it down.
Berry’s poems play with identity. The opening poem ‘Our Love Could Spoil Dinner’ introduces a mysterious biographer moving in with his subject, who begins to perform her own life: ‘Oh Robusta / I say dramatically when I know he’s listening. / ‘You inferior bean.’ Right from the start, Berry plays with the idea of confessional poetry – which of her poems is spoken by a character, which by the poet herself? Does it matter? Is it even legitimate to try to work it out? This ambiguity allows Berry to work through a range of perspectives and emotions, although the collection does have a kind of dysfunctional harmony.
There are continued references to pain, and the abdication of autonomy. In ‘Thirty-Two Fouettes’, a discourse on BDSM ends with a ballerina, post-performance: ‘tenderly / cleaning the blood from her feet.’ Isn’t self-inflicted pain a regular part of life? Don’t we choose it voluntarily when we strive to achieve? ‘A Short Guide To Corseting’ is darker. The narrator tells us:
Choosing her trainer is a tight-lacer’s last and most important act. Look for a man with faith and hands strong enough to teach you how to give yourself away. Don’t be afraid of restraint.
Is this a literal proposition, or a feminist statement on the role many women allow themselves in a relationship? The inability to breathe freely, or act independently, doesn’t matter, if you have chosen your trainer well. The poem, like the corset, quickly becomes uncomfortable as the narrator gives up her autonomy, and most of her lung capacity, as the corseting becomes more extreme. The poem seems to be an account of low self-esteem. By the end, the narrator assures us: ‘I’ve realised how little we need.’
The most disturbing poems are the two that involve the dangerous Arlene. In ‘Sweet Arlene’ there’s a definite feeling of Stockholm Syndrome as the narrator and others – siblings, possibly – ‘live above the mutilated floor’. They thank Arlene for the simulacrum of real life that she allows them: ‘the chance to eat pears while looking out the window / at a pear tree.’ Later, in ‘Arlene’s House’, the same narrator discusses the adjustments needed to live with an abuser:
‘Haven’t I loved you with every force?’ she shouts if I say his name. She’ll go up in flames and you can’t get near her.
Berry continues the atmosphere in ‘Some Fears’, a list poem of unlikely phobias including ‘fear of / unfamiliar elbows (all elbows being unfamiliar, even one’s own).’ At a poetry reading, these lines might generate a knowing laugh; on the page, they seem more random, more sinister.
Another strand running through this collection is that of separation from a partner. Several letters are written, including ‘Letter to Husband’ which reminded me of Ezra Pound’s ‘The River-Merchant’s Wife; a Letter’, the title poem ‘Dear Boy’, and ‘Well, bébé.’ Stylistically these are related, with a tabulated format that spaces the words across the page, giving the poems an anxious hesitancy. The first of these is a harrowing entreaty from a woman trapped in ‘white corridors’ with no telephone, begging her husband to visit her. ‘I have cried your name in every / possible colour I have given you my proud desperate / undeviating wish’.
In ‘The House By The Railroad’ (with an epigraph from Hitchcock’s Psycho), ‘Manners’ and ‘Her Inheritance’, a dead or absent mother is referenced. A mysterious Doctor appears in ‘Manners’, there’s another one in ‘The Incredible History of Patient M’. If there is a common theme in the collection, it is of loved people who have disappeared, and been replaced with much less benevolent substitutes.
There are lighter moments, but they are also employed in the telling of uncomfortable truths. In ‘The Way you Do At The End Of Plays’, Berry describes two characters on stage on swings; ‘and every now / and then they try to swing towards each other, and eventually they / succeed and manage to kiss, before bouncing apart’. This drama is nested inside a poem about a couple whose relationship is metaphorically doing the same thing. ‘Nothing Sets My Heart Aflame’ is a witty discourse on materialistic hipster culture, and ‘The International Year of the Poem’ riffs elegantly on the poem as a political object, a scientific phenomenon; what would the news sound like if poems were truly powerful?
Dear Boy resonates in the mind long after you put the book down. As a collection, it’s bleak, it’s unsettling. Berry’s is not like any other contemporary poetic voice, hence the deserved accolade of the Forward Prize. You’re left wondering what she will write next.
* How Emily Berry described this collection in her entry for the blog-hop ‘The Next Big Thing’.Judi Sutherland gained a PhD in Biochemistry before embarking on a career in pharma / biotech and started writing poems in 2008. After redundancy in 2011, she obtained an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London, and is now writing a novel, as well as poetry, blogs and reviews. Her poems have been published in Acumen, Interpreter’s House, Oxford Poetry and New Statesman, among others. Her writing blog is at and her Huffington Post articles are right this way..