Tuesday 30 December 2014

Astonishing Rings of Brightness: Review by Roy Marshall of "Black Country" by Liz Berry

There are references  to ‘black’, ‘coal’, ‘dark’ ‘darkness’ and ‘dusk’ in most of the poems in this collection. But this is various and multifaceted darkness. In the opening poem, ‘Bird,’ in the moment of transformation into a bird, a moment of transcendence, the speaker’s voice becomes ‘no longer words but song      black upon black.’ It is fascinating that the song here is black rather than, for example, white or silver to contrast with the world from which it arises. This suggests that the poet is singing of and from the black; that she is so much a part of it as to be inseparable from the darkness of her Midlands homeland even as she rises up from it.

This is Berry’s mission statement – to sing and celebrate the darkness of her Black Country, in its many manifestations, a darkness that harbours the hard lives of the people from across the centuries that saw the heyday of industrial revolution and the subsequent demise of its industries.

In ‘Nailmaking’ a new black hammer awaits a girl who is newly-wed to a nail maker. But in other poems darkness also provides refuge, intimacy, sex and comfort.   Above all it is the backdrop to contrast against the white of clouds, bones, feathers, and to the pale of a silver birch. It is a darkness emblazoned with the searing colour of a blacksmith’s furnace, of crimson shoes and the oysters that ‘clem their lips upon pearls in the muck’ (‘The Sea of Talk’).

In poem after poem Berry’s imagery casts an ‘astonishing ring of brightness’ (‘The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls’), a brightness that is all the more astonishing for being set against the dark. Birds appear throughout. It is not unusual for birds to provide symbols of transcendence and escape. But, like the darkness, Berry’s birds are vehicles for multiple ideas and emotions. In ‘Birmingham Roller’ several aspects of this collection combine. The homing pigeon of the title is addressed with great tenderness in the dialect of Black Country by its keeper:

Little acrobat of the terraces,
we’m winged when we gaze at you
jimmucking the breeze, somersaulting through
the white- breathed payer of January

You don’t have to know the meaning of the dialect words to appreciate the richness of this language, and many of these words are guessable, but there are well placed footnotes at the bottom of the pages where they feature. Scots has long been celebrated and kept vital by contemporary poetry, and here Berry succeeds in breathing life into her own region’s dialect and revealing its quirkiness, individuality and beauty. It is an act of celebration, of reclamation and of preservation which feels like a gift to the reader rather than the bombastic statement of pride it may have become in the hands of a less sensitive and skillful writer.

Berry’s loving relationship with her landscape and language allows room for ambiguity and does not prevent her from detailing its derelict factories and closed pits where a ‘wingless Pegasus’ appeared (‘Black Country’) and ‘Old men / knelt to breathe the smoke of its mane, whisper in its ear, walked away in silence, fists clenched faces streaked with tears.’
In ‘The Red Shoes’ the moralistic ending of the classic tale is subverted. In Berry’s retelling the girl out dances the axe until ‘the sun laid the sky down, crimson at my feet.’ Similarly ‘Sow’ (perhaps a relative of Jo Shappcott’s  ‘Mad Cow’) subverts notations of received femininity to celebrate sexual appetite via a joyful and luxuriant wallow in dialect. Fat is still a feminist issue.

‘Christmas Eve’ reminded me of a Black Country version of the introduction to ‘Under Milk Wood’ for its descriptive power and  skilful lyricism.  Sleet is

blowing in drifts from the pit banks,
over the brown ribbon of the cut, over Beacon Hill,
through the lap-loved chimneys of the factories.
Sleet is tumbling into the lap of the plastercast Mary
by the manger at St Jude’ s, her face gorgeous and naïve
as the last Bilston carnival queen.

In this poem Berry, like Thomas, is tender and generous and benevolent in voicing the dream’s despair and mundane realities of her characters. She is also highly convincing in evoking the lives of the people who populate her poems, and it is no surprise to find that ‘Darling Blue Eyes’ was written using extracts from her grand-parents’ wartime letters.
In places, Berry’s romanticism and passionate interest in the past (not to mention the fluidity, control and richness of her writing) make these poems seem closer to Anne Bronte, Blake or Dante Rossetti than to the ironic approach of much contemporary poetry. Black Country contains poems of emotional and spiritual depth; there is a willingness to engage with ideas and emotions which seems to have much in common with poetics of the past.
But whilst envisioning and invigorating the past, many of Berry’s concerns are utterly and pressingly contemporary. The feminist themes and portrayal of economic depression are still depressingly relevant.

In ‘When I was a Boy,’ ‘Trucker’s Mate,’ ‘Fishwife’ and several other poems, Berry explores gender roles along with the sensual and sexual.  Again Berry’s explorations are multi-faceted, moving from the celebratory to the disturbing. In ‘The Silver Birch’ Berry manages to convey the mystery and newness of burgeoning sexuality. ‘Woodkeeper’ uses the imagery of a woodland setting and the names of various fungi to create an unbelievably rich and sensual love poem, crafted with exquisite control.

There is another surprise here – the use of biblical language, some of which is recognisable as the sort of language still current in English primary schools where bible stories are read to infants and hymns and carols are sung. In ‘The First Path’ foxes bark ‘alleliua.’ In ‘Owl’  the cattle are lowing. In ‘The Assumption’  ‘that daydream picture of Christ the Lamb’ appears. These images contrast starkly with the dark violence and Victorian gothic horror of poems like ‘The Black Delph Bride’ and ‘The Bone Orchard Wench.’

I must briefly mention of Berry’s humour. It is present in ‘Carmella,’ a celebration of ‘Our Lady of The Hairdressers,’ her staff and clientele, but is also present here and there in a turn colloquial phrase, and in the primary school teacher’s description of her classes activities in the wonderful ‘Miss Berry.’

Black Country is impressively coherent, passionate and accomplished. Berry is a Maestra (I had to look this word up- a less familiar word than ‘maestro’, since female conductors have only appeared relatively recently) at linking poems and exploring the many facets of her chosen subjects. I recently read an interview somewhere where Liz Berry speaks of her love of ‘wildness’ in poetry. These poems are wild in their ambition, diversity and surprise, but they are also meticulously crafted so that her flights and swoops are as controlled, balanced and bold as that ‘little acrobat’ the homing Birmingham Roller.

This is a book rooted in real places and real people. It is sung on the wing. It is classy, classic poetry.

About the reviewer 

Roy Marshall currently works in adult education. His poetry has been published by Crystal Clear (Gopagilla) and Shoestring Press (The Sun Bathers). He blogs at http://roymarshall.wordpress.com/about/

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