‘Astonishing rings of brightness.’ Liz Berry’s ‘Black Country’

Black country

 

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 newlywed 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 blacksmiths 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

Derelit Factoty, Legge Lane

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 dreams  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.

Boiler makers rule

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.’ The 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’ is an unbelievably sensual poem.

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.
Songs of inoccence

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 (I can’t find the link now) 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.

Racing Pig

In good company

I have a couple of poems on line this week, one at The Stare’s Nest  edited by Judi Sutherland and the other at the magazine Poems in Which edited by Amy Key and Nia Davis.

My particular ‘Poem in Which’ had been around in various guises for some time before it was trimmed, tidied and re-named for submission. The magazine is full of interesting stuff so do take a look.

The Stare’s Nest poem ‘Beyond North’ was a runner-up in this year’s Ver poetry competition and published in the resulting pamphlet.
I’m also pleased to say I have a poem in the new Bare Fiction magazine, out this month. If you haven’t seen it yet do try to get hold of a copy. There are some fabulous poems from Dan O’Brien and many others, as well as stories and scripts. I’m looking forward to reading at the launch in Birmingham on the 11th of December.

In other good news, the recently published anthology Double Bill
from independent publisher Red Squirrel  has been chosen by Clive James as one of his books of the year in the TLS. You can read a little about the book here.

Finally, Happenstance poet and long-term blogger Matthew Stewart has kindly included this blog in his list of favourite British poetry blogs for this year. Lovely to be in the company of so many fine writers, most, if not all of whom, are listed on the right of this page and whose sites I visit regularly. Matthew’s selection highlights the diversity of approaches to blogging  (or ‘cobwebbing’, as John Foggin would have it) . You can read Matthew’ s list here.    

Connections, colonies, and a new poem.

Reeds, Penny Sharman
Photo by Penny Sharman

Poetry is incredibly useful. It connects people. It makes things happen. It allows us to examine and share our humanity. It can even distil scientific findings into a few easily absorbed lines.

Here are three examples.

1.

I was at the Aldeburgh poetry festival last Saturday.

There I witnessed the awesome power of poetry. It was present in the silence of the huge auditorium where poets spoke their words to each and all in pin-drop silence;  it was present in the smiles of strangers passing on paths and staircases; it was present in the embraces and conversations of old friends who met in foyers and cafeterias, who wandered by the wonderful sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore that stood before the reed beds that were speaking the wind. It was present in the simple wooden hut to which I made a visit at the suggestion of Brian Patten, where tapes played the voices of poets who had passed away this year- Dannie Abse, Galway Kinnell and many others.

Here was a colony united by words, by love of craft, by a passion for expression that cannot occur in everyday life. Poetry allows us to connect with ourselves and with each-other.

  1. I received an e-mail from a poet friend. He explained that he is the husband of a Coronary Care nurse and that she had recently read my poem ‘Carrying the Arrest Bleep’ in ‘The Rialto’ . She had recognised and connected with the experience expressed in the poem and it is now on the wall of her staff room.NURSE

3.

I was listening to The Life Scientific on BBC radio 4 where guest Professor David Goulson was talking about his life and work. Professor Goulson’s  particular focus is bees, and his research into the effects of pesticide have been instrumental  in the recent ban agreed by the UK government after pressure had been applied by various  groups in the light of his findings.
bee

As I listened I made notes and found myself writing a  poem.
At the suggestion of a friend, I sent this poem to professor Coulson.

Visits

She hovers close
but doesn’t touch,

her antennae
a hair’s width

from the flower. She is
sniffing, trying to detect

traces of others, smears
of hydro-carbons on petals, left,

as we might leave
fingerprints on a wine glass.

From these she’ll know
if the nectar has gone,

if the flower is, for now,
empty. Scent wears off, the bell

refills,  the visits
begin again.

I’m pleased to be able to tell you that the prof. responded very positively.  He even asked if he might share my poem.

Heading for the coast and some poems on the internet.

I’m looking forward to visiting the Aldeburgh poetry festival on Saturday. It actually starts tomorrow but I’ll be traveling down after work and staying with family nearby before rolling up on Saturday morning. I’ve been once before, in 2010, and I had a great time, meeting Alison Brackenbury for the first time hearing some brilliant poets read.

Beach

I’m particularly looking forward to seeing Kathleen Jamie reading in the evening, and to walking on the beach and to bumping into friends and acquaintances and maybe even saying hello to people I only know through social media. Speaking of social media, I’ve added a Twitter feed at the bottom of this page for those who are interested. I’m not on there every day, but dip in and out.

I have a few poems online at the moment. After my poem ‘Made in Dagenham’ , originally published in Matter magazine, was featured on The Stares Nest  , I was contacted by Peter Raynard of Proletarian Poetry. Peter told me he liked my poem and wondered if I’d like to contribute a poem to his website. I checked it out and liked what I saw so  I sent Peter ‘Meat is Murder’ , a poem previously awarded a prize in the Allan Sillitoe competition. There is also a short film of me speaking the poem in Leicester market which was shot by two students studying at De Montfort university last year.
Peter has introduced the poem, setting it in context and providing some interesting links.

Finally, I have a poem on Hinterland, the very good-looking on line poetry magazine
run by the poet Rebecca Bird.

Swift horses, balanced Buzzards and ‘happenings’ versus ‘so whats’

I’ve not read many texts about what a poem should do. Since I fell in love with the possibilities of contemporary poetry some ten years ago, I’ve mainly read poetry. I’ve read very little theory, and not much on ‘how to write’ a poem. For these reasons the observations I’ve made below may appear very simplistic, and to some perhaps, obvious. Others may find them contentious or wrong.

But I wanted to concisely set down a few basic ideas relating to what I think makes a poem successful and rewarding.  This is a short post, so I won’t be examining or explaining these ideas very deeply. Here they are.

In order to keep the reader’s attention, a poem should have tension. There should be tension as in the surface tension of water, (as opposed, say, to the unpleasant atmosphere in the aftermath of an argument.)

Concision helps with tension. Conversely, verbosity can cause the poem to be ‘slack.’  Slack will also occur in the presence of cliché, metaphor that doesn’t convince or when similes are weak, as well as in the presence of clunky or lumpy language which can often be detected by reading aloud.

Another enemy of tension my occur where lines are broken in ways

which do not serve the
poem  but rather disrupt
it need
lessly and cause difficulty and
even irritation to the
reader in their
search for  meaning even if there
is
no obvious meaning which
is OK
too but I’d rather
not have to try so
very hard to find this
out.

Line breaks and spacing can of course be used to great effect to wrong-foot the reader- I am merely arguing that there should be some purpose to this ‘wrong footing’ and that it the kind of poems I like to read don’t do this merely because it can be (and has been) done.

Along with tension, I like the idea that there should be plenty of movement. The Italian Romantic poet Leopardi wrote that a poem should have ‘rapidity and concision of style’. I’ve mentioned concision already, and it is easy to understand how this will keep the poem tight and concentrated.

Leopardi suggests that a poem should ‘keep the mind in constant and lively movement and action, transporting it suddenly, and often abruptly, from one thought, image, idea, or object to another, and often to one very remote and different; so that the mind must work hard to overtake them all, and, as it is flung about here and there, feels invigorated, as one does in walking quickly or in being carried along by swift horses’.

Along with tension and movement there should be balance. I’m not going to say much about this. Here is a poem by Robin Robertson which I think demonstrates balance very well, (not to mention tension and rapidity of movement.) Look at how the rabbit is exposed!

Entry

A buzzard works the field
behind the harvesting:
the slung bolt of her body
balanced in the wind
by wings and tail, hanging
over the machine blades
and the soft flesh below
– a rabbit
exposed in the shorn stalks
and she’ s holding,
holds still
till her wings fall away and she drops
like a slate into snow.
The wounds feather through him
throwing a fine mist of incarnation,
annunciation in the fletched field
and she breaks in,
flips the latches
of the back, opens the red drawer
in his chest, ransacking the heart.

If you are thinking, as some might be, ‘hmm, typical visceral (and possibly hyper-masculine) Robin Robertson poem’ then check out his fantastically elegant and tender ‘Primavera’ from the same collection, Swithering (Cape.) 

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, (or maybe not,) something has to happen in a poem. There are of course an almost endless range of human responses a poem can invoke. It seems to me that what one needs to try to avoid is the ‘so what?’ response.

I’ve been wondering lately about something a poet friend said upon hearing a well crafted poem which described a spider. He said ‘Yes, it’s beautiful. But that’s all it is.’ I think what he meant by this that the wonderful description did not lead the reader anywhere. It was a beautiful diversion, but beyond this nothing happened.

Of course one person’s ‘happening’ poem might be another’s ‘so what’ poem.
This isn’t a science, and since the reader brings the poem to life by reading or hearing it, there will be a spectrum of experiences and interpretations beyond the intended meaning. For example, my intended epiphany may not seem like an epiphany at all.

I try to be honest in judging which are my own ‘so what’ poems, and either leave them alone, perhaps forever, or return to them until I feel they have turned into ‘happening’
poems.  I like to think I’m getting better at this. I would hope so after the amount of time I’ve spent writing. Writing skills develop like the muscle and reflexes of the athlete .

Of course, worrying about all this while writing will no doubt be counterproductive. To adapt a John Lennon lyric, maybe the best poem, like life, is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.

Traces

The first poem from my sequence Traces about my time as a coronary care nurse has appeared in ‘The Rialto’. 

Rialto-81-cover-PRESS-105x150

It’s a few years since I worked in the role, but I found myself writing the first of these poems one evening, and drafts followed one another very quickly in succession over a period of days.

The poet Dannie Abse died recently, and I am indebted to him for helping me realise that I too could write about my experiences as a healthcare professional.  Abse, a Dr as well as a poet, suggested that he might have suffered from ‘too much empathy’ to be a Dr.  It is debatable if nurses can be hampered in their work by an excess of empathy- indeed, the opposite might be a problem.

I do feel that it is certainly the case that people working in such environments bury their emotional reactions to death and dying, partly out of necessity to continue with the job and partly out of a need to conform to cultural norms.   I like to think the gap of a couple of years between my working in this role and writing the poems enabled me to capture something of the experience- I know I couldn’t have written them at the time- and I’m pleased that they record some aspects of what was, in retrospect, quite an extreme environment both emotionally and physically.

Writing these poems is a way for me to record, examine and perhaps make sense of my experience.  Here is Seamus Heaney talking about how writing poems can help the writer discover a sense of self.

‘I have always thought of poems as stepping stones in one’s own sense of oneself. Every now and again you write a poem that gives you self-respect and steadies your going a little bit farther out in the stream. At the same time, you have to conjure the next stepping stone because the stream, we hope, keeps flowing. The challenge for the writer, book by book, is to conjure a stepping stone that carries you forward.’

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The book features over 130 poems and includes work from W.N Herbert, Joan Hewitt, Jon Stone, Luke Kennard, Helen Mort, Simon Barraclough, Tim Wells, Roy Marshall, Helen Ivory, Ian Parks, Chrissy Williams, Ian Macmillan, John Hegley and many, many  others. Double Bill will delight readers of poetry as well as film buffs, TV fanatics and music lovers of all kinds and would make the perfect stocking filler. Order now to avoid disappointment.

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