Review by Helena Fornells
Soap is quite the thing
Soap and pieces of fruit are central poetic images in the domestic world conjured up in Tessa Berring’s Bitten Hair (Blue Diode Press, 2019). Empty rooms, a bathtub, a microwave, an electric blender, a bathmat, green disinfectant, saucepans, white sheets – household items ground, shape, and trigger poetic material. Objects of beauty worthy of contemplation, the varied succession of fruit – apple, redcurrant, plum, lemon, persimmon, orange, pomegranate, tangerine – are not only decorative but establish the mood and rhythm of the poems’ thoughts:
Lemons turn soft
in the microwave
Apples won’t juice
in my electric blender
In the space of the home, a quiet voice invites the reader into a world of intimate scenes, as in ‘Idea for Persimmons’:
To run barefoot
with sex or soap
to quarter persimmons
and start to chew
Intimate actions at home may symbolise broader interactions with the outside world at times; the speaker navigates the intimate and the social with a tendency of moving from the interior towards the exterior:
I bought a bathmat
on Sunday morning
of not worshipping God
at exactly the same time
The spaces and perspectives that make up the collection, physical and symbolic, are predominantly female, closing with the sequence ‘The Most Emotional Woman’ and the poem ‘The Surgery is Filled with Female Poets’. In the succession of poems that take on the voices of a variety of female characters, the representation of women feels far from idealised or easily politicised, avoiding the creation of a stable or stereotyped female subjectivity. From the woman ‘who bound her face / in hot spun sugar / as a protest against everything?’ to the ‘woman with abstract hands and yellow cheeks / who said, “philosophy is no consolation for bitten hair”’ to the woman who ‘cannot be anybody’s / mother today’, a multifaceted experience is represented. However, there are also unifying moments in the poems which manifest an attitude of solidarity and kindness among women, as with this peculiar gesture of accommodation: ‘certain seats are red if you need to bleed discreetly’.
The union of the domestic and the female on one same plane is easily at risk of eliciting, on one side, images of routine, boredom, and traditionally oppressive female labour, and on the other extreme, a fetishised space of reclusion where magic, imagination, and privacy provide women and home keepers with a pleasant alternative reality. Tessa Berring’s poetry does not align with either of those visions. In her work, uncanniness supersedes routine and sentimentalism and gives space for the intimate voice of the poems to speak unromantically, sometimes mischievously, about the incohesive spectrum of thoughts, feelings and occurrences that may be contained in the world of home and that may be carried beyond it.
The fragmentation of thought contributes to the complexity of the experience portrayed:
No one sleeps in this house –
sex and broken necklaces
that’s what I mean
Sometimes the sky
is all I can think about
In Bitten Hair, juxtaposition decidedly prevails over accumulation and consequence. Reading the poems is like having a conversation with a playfully evasive character who does not want to dwell on the seriousness of any one thought for too long but who manages, at the same time, to convey a deeply felt interior reality developed by a unique imagination.
The poems join unlikely combinations of objects and ideas:
I could live on oranges if that would work
but last night I was a rubber ball, and a star said
I bet you bought face cream last year
Juxtaposition works as a way of thinking through sensory links which may seem random but, in the development of what feels like a coherent sensibility, reveal the meaningful workings of spontaneous association. It also seems to stage a rejection of the poem as an intellectual puzzle where every single object has to be placed in the right spot in order to submit to an aesthetic rationale or hierarchy; instead, images and thoughts descend and settle (‘lightly placed / unspeakable things’) into the poems rather playfully and anarchically, as if the speaker was sitting down at home with time to think and experience her surroundings at leisure and with fresh enjoyment:
Beneath the furniture – look!
a prone woman thinks
about the difference
between the surface of a pond
and the surface of a table;
The internal logic that rules the poems is highly idiosyncratic, producing unusual similes and associations that impede straightforward metaphorical thinking and require the activation of the reader’s visual imagination:
she walks across the floor
stiff as a basin
I am warm as froth
and language is froth
The poems’ language, as the place where these juxtapositions and disruptions take place, is employed to trigger thoughts and images that exist between its words. Without the unsettling effect of the stark contrasts it would be hard to inhabit and explore the space towards which the poems are pointing at:
Like whether there are shadows
or a space
between the words
blouse, gnat, grip, core, lint, jelly, lulla-lulla
Through these disjunctive relations, the desires of the poems’ whimsical speakers scatter in many different directions, posing a multiplicity of complex wishes and demands:
I am a most emotional woman;
how insistent I am, how swollen.
Lock me in a house where
I can listen to the flight
of hawk moths, dress up
in my own shadows,
put my arms around my own
shoulders, keep marigolds
on a windowsill.
The speaker guides the listener with indications for how to please her, whether in poetry:
I like lean words,
you know, like ‘spirit’
and lightly placed
or in romance:
Talk of sad love
or those tiny egg-ish daisies
is how to woo me completely
The poems establish a game in which outsiders will only be allowed into the speaker’s world in her own terms after having satisfied a miscellaneous collection of desires. It is in these demands that the most powerful elements of Berring’s poetry come together: sharp juxtapositions, the emotional relevance of daily objects as poetic images, the cryptic personality of the speakers, the intimacy of private hopes and thoughts, and above all, a mischievous playfulness that persists throughout the collection.
Various lines tease and pull the reader into the game: ‘I need prawn shells and wet leaves / emeralds and banana trees and orange trees’. The speaker seeks an active response from the listener: ‘Call me / a locust, slowly / and repetitively / I won’t mind!’. These calls for attention reveal that the strong intimacy developed in the poems is not hermetic but susceptible to the outside world and responsive to the contributions and interactions of others.
It is in fact the intimacy of Tessa Berring’s poetic world which allows for her particular brand of playfulness to develop through the creation of personal rules which form the logic of her rather private poetics – quietness calls out for conversation and welcomes visitors better than a loud host may do.
The humour of the poems, moreover, enters the realms of irreverent childish play with a series of riddles and word games – ‘T is for catastrophe, P for mutability, / L for upholstery, why not?’ – and lines that take pleasure in easy contradiction:
the cow and the clouds
are not pretty
oh yes they are pretty
oh no they’re not
The speaker eschews the seriousness of set aesthetic structures in poetry and the intellectual hierarchy often created by an illusion of certainty is messed with again and again:
I am a most emotional woman
who finds ghosts on the handles
of my saucepans. Who finds ghosts
on the handles of her saucepans?
I do. What uneasy thoughts they
The strange interior world of Tessa Berring’s collection, her generosity in inviting readers into the private humour of the poems, the instability provided by her avoidance of rigid or cohesive poetic narratives, make the experience of reading Bitten Hair fun, startling, rewarding. Their fragmentation and constant change of direction makes it impossible for the poems to become a space of comfort – they choose, instead, to remain curious and open.
Helena Fornells is a poet from Barcelona currently based in Edinburgh. Aside from writing, Helena works as a bookseller and freelance translator.