Dear Boy by Emily Berry
Faber and Faber, Paperback.
57 pages, 978-0-571-28405-4, £9.99.
In a recent interview Emily Berry recounts that ‘A friend who has just read [Dear Boy] said it made him think of Lena Dunham and Sheila Heti, who are obviously not within the genre, but why must we always remain within the genre?’ Berry’s unnamed friend makes an astute comparison. Like Lena Dunham’s zeitgeist-courting HBO series Girls and Sheila Heti’s ‘non-fiction’ novel How Should a Person Be? Berry gives us middle-class twenty something female life in queasy close up, with its heartbreaks, missed trains and self-centred anxiety about the future. In doing this she tackles themes that are perceived not to be the ‘traditional’ terrain of poetry, but of blogs, TV, and conversations over brunch in East London. Despite, or perhaps because of this, Berry has no problem turning these subjects into fresh, original poems, confidently rendering the painful tug of war between innocence and experience that makes up early adulthood. Whilst her narratives have more in common with Girls than that of her poetic contemporaries, it is her use of poetry’s particular intimacy that allows for work that is far more subtle and profound than Dunham’s, admittedly excellent, TV output.
The poems in Dear Boy skewer the point at which adolescent optimism and adult responsibility meet. Berry portrays young people caught in a struggle between self obsession and curiosity about the wider world. So a trip to New York in ‘I Heart NY’ is simultaneously a giddy list of commodified tourist experience and an uneasy look at the price of capitalist pleasure:
In New York their faces light up when you speak.
We bought socks in the gift shop of some big hotel
where is that sold? How much for eating cupcakes
on my birthday from the famous bakery
and admiring San Franciscan boys in aviators? Oh –
and when we went for mani-pedis, we sat in a row
and Korean ladies kneeled at our feet.
Berry focuses on this fine line between enjoyment and exploitation throughout the book, especially in her narratives of love and sexuality, which manage to be coy and sweet one minute, and dark the next. In ‘A Short Guide to Corseting’ we have a narrator who is complicit in her restraint, seemingly as keen on changing her body as her boyfriend is:
We agreed small waists were more attractive;
we were in a loving and supportive relationship.
Obviously there is an irony to these lines, and yet Berry does not give us a pitiable figure: a woman being exploited who we should judge or feel sorry for. Instead the poem allows us to see the disturbing outcome of a desire for restraint, whilst also suggesting the strange kind of liberation this restraint can provide. The final half-rhyme here, in an otherwise unrhymed poem, conveys the narrator’s experience within its own formal structure: she is reduced to her bare minimum, the poem’s sonic balance exemplifying her pleasure in this reduction, the paradoxical freedom and security of a limiting structure:
I use only the top half of
my lungs; there’s just room to breathe. I’ve still got
more than enough. I’ve realised how little we need.
Again in ‘The Value of Submission’ there is a narrator complicit in an expression of sexuality that she finds both disturbing and appealing. In this case it is a boyfriend’s interest in sadomasochism, and Berry deftly reveals the divisions created in the narrator’s self by her contradictory, complicated desires:
she wondered what her future self
might make of this: the startled phone
giving up his voice; how to answer a betrayal
she had blessed. Why do these things
happen, and what becomes of them,
all the strange disowned moments
standing about like lightning-struck trees.
The startling image of disowned moments as lightning-struck trees illuminates the experience of looking back on decisions one has made as totally unfamiliar, the past self becoming unrecognisable, alien, to the current self. This alienation is brilliantly enacted in the poem through the question ‘Why do these things/happen’ being left in a sentence without a question mark, capturing both the desire to understand oneself and the awareness that full knowledge can never be achieved. In bringing this state of unknowing, of active absence, tangibly to life, Berry can access the moment of transition into adulthood in a way that the inflexible statements of prose would struggle to match. Within the poem’s fluctuating, contradictory language Berry can communicate the jarring, yet hugely significant, realisation that the self is not a fixed, linear entity, but one capable of painful, unpredictable shifts.
It is this revelation of how desire can challenge and transform identity that makes Dear Boy such an original book. Berry is unafraid to represent a version of youthful relationships and experience that is profoundly conflicted and difficult, whilst also being full of a genuine passion for life and its pleasures. As we see in the last poem of the book ‘Bad New Government,’ Berry is also unusually honest about the solipsism that comes with this complicated process of personal discovery, where the vagaries of love, sex, friendship and self can seem as important as world events:
I want to go very fast and email you about the following
happy circumstances: early rosebuds, a birthday party, a new cake recipe but
today it’s hot water bottles and austerity breakfast and my toast burns in protest
I am writing my first political poem which is also (always) about my love for you.
Berry’s exploration of the ugly and the exhilarating qualities of youth makes for an impressive first collection, offering poetry that effectively brings together charming naivety and knowing, pitch black humour.