Review by Alexa Winik
Emily Berry’s second poetry collection Stranger, Baby (Faber & Faber, 2017) hovers somewhere between a lament and a fever dream. If that sounds like a difficult world to imagine, it is, I admit, one that is equally difficult to describe. Stranger, Baby dives headlong into the psychic wounds of childhood loss, specifically the loss of a mother. But eschewing any sombre or elegiac tone, Berry creates instead a haunted universe that is magnetic, frenzied, and mysteriously porous. The outcome is a gripping collection of poems that are as stunning as they are elusive to categorisation.
While the collection is not autobiographical in a traditional sense, its poems emerge from Berry’s own childhood experience of grieving the death of her mother. ‘It is perfectly true that she obsessed me,’ the speaker admits in ‘Ghost Dance’. ‘A mother’s death lasts a lot of years / What shall we do?’ To write from this deeply personal question, Berry opts for an experimental approach in form. Her poems engage in constant negotiation between speech and silence, ranging from verbose and meandering free verse to terse ‘cut-outs’—one-sentence poems broken into thin, gash-like columns.
Grief, within the worlds of Stranger, Baby, is not just an emotional abstraction but also a performative act. As both grief’s curator and devotee, Berry strategically wields experimental forms to highlight this action. The prose poem ‘Winter’, for example, depicts the speaker’s grief as a kind of prayer or ‘a meditation on a want that can never be answered’. Written as a prose poem in three sections, this poetic meditation is permeable to past and present, the living and the dead—its flexibility reflected in its form. In ‘The End’, moreover, Berry capitalises on blank space and broken syntax to evoke how grief’s manifestations distort perceptions of reality:
I believed death was a flat plain spectacular endlessly
Can you distort my voice when I say this?
My scared ghost peeling off me
Distortion, she says, as if she has just made it up
And then she is quoting a line from a poem
Or is it a whole poem, I wish I could remember
Utilising little punctuation and no enjambment, Berry allows each understated line to trail off before beginning the next thought—a strategy employed throughout the collection to emphasise disintegration. In this sense, Berry’s thirty-five poems might be thought of as a series of études, repeating and harmonising with each other as Berry uses different iterations of formal strategies in her pursuit to find the right expression for her grief.
In tension with this pursuit, however, is Berry’s self-awareness about the Sisyphean nature of such a task. In Stranger, Baby, the gaping hole of unresolvable loss is a negative space of paradox and seemingly infinite interiority. The psychic wound that loss occasions, like the abject body encountered in ‘Drunken Bellarmine’, continually morphs as ‘a spillage, or an addiction’, denying emotional equilibrium and deadening language. Berry’s attempt to convert the ineffability of psychic pain into poetry does not, of course, break new literary terrain. Yet what makes Berry’s poetry so refreshing is her revelry in the difficulty of such a task, wearing her frustrations about making art from the pain of life right on her sleeve: ‘everything that came out was pre-deleted,’ she writes, ‘I presented it anyway with a flourish’ (‘The degenerating atomic structures of your body’).
Berry freely plunders from the psychoanalytical domain to re-present her spectres of loss. In ‘Girl on a Liner’, for instance, the speaker candidly declares: ‘This is the body’s way of handling emotion. / I’ve been dreaming a lot about voyages.’ These dreamscapes shift between contrasting scenes of primordial oceans and barren deserts. Berry’s oceanic dream-poems tend to depict the voyage into the wounded psyche as katabatic, journeying towards chaos and death in pursuit of salvation and new knowledge. ‘I want to be like the shells on the beach, rubbed smooth and cracked open,’ the speaker says in ‘Sign of the Anchor’, before watching her ‘protective symbols’ burn and diving into the sea’s crashing waves.
Desert scenes, on the other hand, highlight the suspended nature of time while stranded in grief’s dark territories. ‘This is why we fall asleep in the desert,’ suggests the speaker of ‘Sleeping’, ‘because we are full of pain.’ Yet both typologies—the oceanic and the wild zone—conspire in this collection to create a sensuous reading experience. For me, emerging from Berry’s poetry is not unlike waking up from a dream; the details are fuzzy around the edges but the trace of deep feeling is indisputable.
Woven in and around these dream-poems, readers will also encounter a polyphony of voices jostling for attention. Although this entire collection is narrated from a first-person perspective, the speaker’s voice encompasses a wide range of emotional registers. These tonal modulations are, in my view, a great strength of this collection but also an area of potential weakness. Berry’s default tone, for example, is detached and controlled in a prosaic, often intellectualised idiom, as is evident in shorter poems like ‘So’: ‘is / it / not / so / terribly /gauche / to / die’, its final lines query.
Yet Berry also introduces higher registers of tragicomedy to destabilise this flattened tone. One of her more experimental poems takes the form of a classical Greek play in which the speaker shouts: ‘I have got it in me [ . . . ] Undigested! Whole! The dead body of a woman!’ (‘Tragedy for One Voice’). These slippages between high and low registers, detachment and melodrama, pathos and bathos, are certainly unpredictable, keeping the reader engaged through surprise.
There are drawbacks, however, to relying on such tonal shifts. Some of Berry’s poems when taken individually come across as too controlled or aloof to inspire emotional investment in the speaker’s sense of loss. In the same vein, some of Berry’s shorter poems, like ‘So’, ‘Part’, or ‘Two Rooms’ feel slightly underdeveloped and lack urgency as stand-alone poems. Yet this instability in tone collectively functions as a unifying force. Taken together, even these less interesting poems carry a resonance beyond themselves that charges Stranger, Baby’s bewildering and negative spaces with the intimate buzz of a theatrical performance.
Nowhere is this electric performance more evident than in what I consider to be the collection’s tour de force: ‘Freud’s Beautiful Things’. This poem joins a sequence in which Berry reanimates and repurposes the well-plundered carcass of Freudian theory to astonishingly powerful effect. In a self-critical voice that is quintessential Berry, the poem opens with a confession: ‘I have some sad news for you / I am just a symbol, a shadow cast on paper’, and unfolds to explore the breakdown of language initiated by immense grief. This dissolution is mirrored in the poem’s fragmented free verse and multiple ellipses:
The whole thing reminds me of the man trying to rescue
a birdcage from the burning house
(I feel compelled to express myself poetically)
I am not normally a hunter of relics, but . . .
It was this childhood scene . . .
(My mother . . . )
All the while I kept thinking: her face has such a wild look
. . . as though she had never existed
Berry’s feminist voice resonates in this poem as she resists even debating Freudian ideas about any inherent violence wrapped up in the mother-daughter-dyad. While the mother’s face may be ‘wild’ to the speaker, it is also unmistakably beloved. Instead, Berry invests her energies in a deconstruction of bankrupt, sense-making language—even therapeutic language—when confronting death’s losses. Romanticised, pathologised, or repressive language is portrayed in this poem as futile, even tyrannical, as each frustrates efforts to reassemble a multivalent self in the aftermath of profound loss or trauma.
And yet as Berry’s collection asserts, we continue to rely on language as the mechanism to communicate our pain to others (we feel compelled to express ourselves poetically). In this spirit, the poem pivots in its final lines towards a meditation on lack as a possible source of creative, revivifying energies: ‘I said, ‘All the beautiful things I still have to say will have to remain unsaid’, and the writing table flooded’ (‘Freud’s Beautiful Things’). Here, Berry’s speaker turns, tenderly, towards the limitations and self-doubt for which she often criticises herself throughout the collection. She envisions this kind of Keatsian negative capability as the space in which to forge paths out from under the oppressive hand of a deadened, clichéd language of grief.
Stranger, Baby is in many ways the outcome of Berry charging down those paths with courage and relentless obsession. This collection was not the book about grief that I expected, nor will it be, I imagine, for many readers. And yet, as Berry’s poetry enthuses, what would typical poetry about grief even look like? More than an elegy or a strict psychological dissection of loss, Stranger, Baby is a collection about becoming strange through the crucible of grief—strange to our loved ones, to societal expectations, even to ourselves—and living to tell about it. As reading Berry’s luminous poems should remind us, finding new language to communicate this peculiarity requires tenderness, self-awareness, and, crucially, what the speaker chases after in ‘The End’: a longing to transform grief’s most difficult losses into a ‘strange love for the living, strange love for the dead’.
Alexa Winik grew up in the Canadian border city of Windsor and earned her BA in English Literature at Cedarville University. Before relocating to the east coast of Scotland in 2015, she worked in Michigan as an editor at a non-profit that provided educational and mentoring resources for people in prison. She holds an MLitt in Women, Writing and Gender from the University of St Andrews, where she is now completing an MFA in Creative Writing-Poetry. Despite living as an expat for almost a decade, she still thinks the most beautiful place on earth is Clearwater Lake in northwestern Ontario.