Some Memorials May Be Unstable: Elegy & the Absurd
Stranger, Baby, by Emily Berry. Faber & Faber, 64 pp., $15.95.
In 1981, a thirty-seven-year-old professor from Stanford University died while hiking in the Philippines where she and her husband, Renato Rosaldo, were researching the Ifugal, a community known for its centuries-old rice terraces carved high in the mountainside. But it was among another tribe, whose traditions once included head hunting as a means of purging grief-induced rage, that years earlier Rosaldo discovered and spent more than a decade trying to understand liget (pronounced “ley-gut”), an emotion unique to the Ilongot culture that, while energizing, sometimes engenders violence from bereavement. Felt singularly and also expressed communally, the Ilongot experience liget as vitality, a way of articulating an otherwise all-consuming despair.
Although Rosaldo devoted himself to studying the Ilongot and their customs, for a long time liget itself remained conceptual, muted. It was only later when the anthropologist was back in California and thousands of miles from the rainforest where his wife died that, overcome with loss, a surge of feeling began to overtake him. The emotion was so powerful and alien that, as Rosaldo recalls, he pulled his car over to the side of the highway. Alone, he began to moan. What came next was an electric feeling and an out-breath, one the scholar recognized, finally, as the very essence of liget. Rosaldo let the waves of despair wash over him. Afterwards, he felt relief. So much, in fact, that the grief-stricken spouse soon made a regular practice of driving to remote places in order to practice liget without fear of interruption or judgment. On the margins of isolated roads he finally felt free enough to let his wailing explode into a guttural howl.
I first heard Rosaldo’s story on National Public Radio’s Invisibilia, a podcast that investigates the underlying feelings and ideas that influence our human behavior. While I found the two-part episode fascinating, at the time I had no idea just how thoroughly the show’s account of the intersection between grief and sound, language and death, would prepare me to read a book of poetry recently published in England. Emily Berry’s Dear Boy won Great Britain’s 2013 Forward Prize for Best First Collection, as well as its Hawthornden Prize. The poet follows her full-length debut with Stranger, Baby, a finalist for the Forward Prize, which narrates the aftermath of loss. “It is perfectly true that she obsessed me,” acknowledges the speaker of “Ghost Dance,” “in spite of the fact that she died when I was thirteen, / until I was forty-four. A mother’s death lasts a lot of years / What shall we do?” What Berry does is test the lyric’s capacity to render ongoing pain by exploring the tension between absence and attachment. Casting a cool shadow across Stranger, Baby is an epigraph sourced to Sigmund Freud: “The loss of a mother must be something very strange …” But if Freud strikes a clinical note, it’s because Berry resists anything approximating the confessional. In a register that’s often matter-of-fact she instead presses language structurally, experimenting with staccato lines, caesurae, white space, prose fragments, and a lyric play written in two voices, among other more traditional poetic forms. What becomes clear in reading Stranger, Baby is that bereavement is ultimately unfathomable, at times teetering on the absurd. In other words, the collection’s true subject isn’t limited to Berry’s private grief, but hinges on the poet’s inability to adequately express the far reaches of despair, thereby reflecting the gifts and limitations of elegy itself.
Clearly in mourning but with some distance from the initial shock of her mother’s death, in many ways the poet resembles the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo. Like Rosaldo, who experienced the depths of his loss after testing the new sounds of liget, Berry struggles to uncover a form of bereavement she can not only recognize, but also inhabit, hear, sing, repeat, and thereby release. Unlike Rosaldo, however, Berry narrates neither the remote rainforest nor Northern California, but a more generalized margin between land and ocean as the book moves between the destructive and live-sustaining elements of water and fire. Situated “at the dangerous shore,” the tide ominously baits the speaker with Siren-like repetition: “Live your wish, Live your wish” chides the sea. Stranger, Baby opens with “Sign of the Anchor,” which calls to mind Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning.” Twelve lines to Berry’s eleven, Smith’s poem likewise features a victim failed by language, overcome, broken, and left with little consolation as he calls out from his watery grave. Unlike Smith’s drowned man, however, Berry’s speaker doesn’t cry for help even as her “protective symbols” dissolve. “I opened my eyes,” Berry remembers in the poem’s final moments, as if in anticipation of some epiphany,
… and saw the sign of the anchor burning.
I had to go.
I shouted some words but they were lost when the waves crashed.
And ash rained from the sky.
I was far out, in wet denim, and the shore was a jolt when I looked back.
What’s remarkable about the above excerpt is not only Berry’s syntax, which unpredictably elongates and contracts as it surges forward like a muscular wave, but also the extent to which she directs and re-directs the narrative focus and subject of each line, deflecting and then defying her readers’ expectations. Even as physical action (i.e., eyes opening) suggests the inevitability of some revelation, the poet withholds any fresh insight or gesture that suggests renewal. Although the circumstances are ambiguous—is she swept away by the tide? lost like some sacrificial Ophelia in the undertow? is the final gesture baptismal? is the “jolt” an allusion to Lot’s wife who turns to salt as she looks back?—rather than opt for the safety of shore, the speaker knowingly enters water that’s both beautiful and deadly. What’s more, rather than parting the sea to offer safe passage, Berry instead clouds its waters, muting her own voice (“I shouted some words but they were lost …”) as the breaks come crashing down. As it heaves between description and declaration “Sign of the Anchor” sings with fatality. Maintains Berry in the poem’s shortest sentence, “I had to go.”
“[I]t is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing” begins “A Grave,” Marianne Moore’s haunting meditation on the sea and the living and dead that inhabit it, “but you cannot stand in the middle of this.” And, yet, to stand, or, perhaps more precisely, to take a stand, is exactly what Berry attempts. As she observes in “Picnic,” “If you are not happy, the sea is not happy / … Watching the sea is like watching something in pieces continually striving to be whole.” Without question Berry recognizes in herself the ocean’s brokenness. What rises, she affirms again and again, will pitch then break before dragging its body back under. But although its movement recurs, water takes many shapes—a fact Stranger, Baby exploits. Throughout the collection, the sea at times seems to be Berry’s mother, the fathomless body of grief, even the poet herself. The ocean comforts, lambastes, seduces, eclipses. “The mood of the sea is catching,” concedes Berry, “Your eyes wear out from all the glitches / I sat there watching it and I can assure you it is so / Its colour became the colour of my eyes”; meaning, whether it hurts or heals water transforms what it touches.
Throughout Stranger, Baby liquid is everywhere. In glass bowls. In lakes. In tears. And in rain. “I watched the day run down the pane,” writes Berry in “Ghost Dance,” the sprawling penultimate poem in which she goes on to say,
In your ear I whisper many answers
I do not know the questions
My self is a river, yours is a sea
When the waves hit the shore they say something unrepeatable
A river cannot survive in the sea
I was cold at first and you were warm
You took me over and I lost my temperature
You took me over and I cried the way a sea cries
I cried the way the sea cries when it has swallowed a river
If water is a shape-shifter, if the sea is known to swallow the river, can either be trusted? And what of the self? What of intellect? Our all-too human intuition? Throughout Stranger, Baby everything is met with suspicion, including the poet herself. “My thoughts are wrong. My thoughts are wrong,” Berry admonishes in “Picnic,” “The thought that my thoughts are wrong is wrong.” So what or who inspires Stranger, Baby’s equivocality? Perhaps it’s the good doctor himself. After all, in the poem “Freud’s Beautiful Things” it’s the psychoanalyst who chides “What makes all autobiographies worthless is, after all, their mendacity.” Whatever the seriousness of the speaker’s distrust or self-doubt, her commitment to introspection and articulation remains steadfast.“Yesterday and today have been bad days,” Berry admits, before proving such anguish fruitful: “This oceanic feeling, continuous inner monologues / I said, ‘All the beautiful things I still have to say will have to remain unsaid,’ and the writing table flooded.”
But constant self-study doesn’t mean Berry trusts what the floodgates unloose. In “Now all my poems are about death I feel as though I’m really living,” for example, she describes photographing herself in a cemetery in an effort to later “observe” her bereavement or offer some tangible evidence of her sorrow. Here, grief becomes performance. “I pose and yet I cannot pose,” concedes Berry. There’s something absurd about the speaker’s physical posturing in a cemetery, the lengths she’s willing to go in order publically to pay respect to the dead. Of course, as a writer, Berry links such posturing directly to language—specifically, to the effectiveness of poetry’s ritualization of words as a communal expression of loss. “A sign says: Some memorials may be unstable,” she points out, gesturing toward the headstones’ delicacy, as well as the fragility of the elegiac mode itself. Yet, even as the speaker artificially stages her grief in the photograph, there’s always some demand for further proof to quantify or, more accurately, qualify her grief: “But what is the silence like, someone wanted to know.” To which Berry answers, “I knelt, I spoke, I cried, I wrote this down, regretted it.”
What’s to regret? Her words? Tears? What Dickinson calls “the Auction / Of the Mind of Man”? Or, perhaps it’s her tendency to withhold? As much as I enjoy Stranger, Baby, I long for more tenderness—lapses not into nostalgia or confession, but moments when Berry might reveal a fuller portrait of the book’s composite mother figure. Perhaps this desire reflects my expectations regarding form: part of elegy’s tradition is decorum; after all, elegy memorializes the loved one via lament and praise. Whether the poet ultimately receives or refuses consolation, as D.A. Powell suggests, or eventually plunges further into grief doesn’t matter. Whatever their outcome, elegies typically reveal some personal details about the deceased, even if those details are imagined or suggested via metaphor. We learn particulars about the pub-going fisherman in Seamus Heaney’s “Casualty,” for instance, or those friends lost to AIDS in Thom Gunn’s The Man With Night Sweats. Even public figures held at a distance like Abraham Lincoln, Emmett Till, and Yeats are made more accessible by elegists Whitman, Brooks, and Auden. Traditional elegies, in other words, individualize their subjects. Through intimacy they relinquish distance and time.
But is it fair to ask Berry to reveal more? The collection’s title, after all, isn’t Stranger, Mother but Stranger, Baby. From its beginning, the book emphasizes that which is infantile, underdeveloped, odd. In this case, an early estrangement impedes the kind of mother-daughter intimacy forged over a lifetime, a point Berry emphasizes in “Ghost Dance”:
I wanted to tell her You don’t even know me! to get rid of the
feeling of being known, and I wanted to keep the feeling, I
wanted to keep her, I wanted to tell her how much it hurt, and
ask her how much it hurt, I wanted to ask her how someone
known can become strange, and how a stranger could become
In fact, the more I read Stranger, Baby, returning again to the poems not out of obligation but with curiosity and true admiration, the more I realize I don’t want to change Berry as a poet. Why criticize her instinct to intellectualize pain when it proves generative and inventive? After all, at a time when so many young writers labor to appear clever, Berry’s slyness doesn’t show the sweat. “Freud’s Horses,” an odd poem made of several fragments, for example, suddenly magnifies via its last unpunctuated line. “I am thinking of eating a pomegranate,” Berry off-handedly adds, abruptly shifting from the main subject. The speaker’s casual remark about craving fruit, meanwhile, sends Persephone and Demeter surging into the stanza casting the poem in a richer and more complicated light. Elsewhere in Stranger, Baby Berry appears to invert the myth of the abducted child so that it isn’t the daughter but the mother who perpetually returns to the underworld, as when in “Procession” the speaker recalls that “Once I saw my mother rowing // At night across water // I called to her and she looked back // Smiling beautifully”. The aforementioned lines feature one of the collection’s rare moments of genuine interaction, even as the primary gesture remains one of leave-taking. In Stranger, Baby, however, Berry’s solitude isn’t ultimately unrequited: though the mother figure dies, it’s the poet’s fraught relationship with language that survives. In this sense, art becomes a lasting companion as Berry strives to transform her isolation and abandonment into something alive on the page.
We tend to think of elegy as a tempered lament: its stanzas mourn and seek consolation while holding—or perhaps holding back—the restless animal called grief. Part of the elegist’s unsaid task is to shape and give form to the difficult feelings one hopes to contain. Berry, to her credit, recognizes the gift of figurative language, its power to suggest feeling rather than state it outright. “The sun went in behind a cloud and all the daffodils darkened,” she describes in “Procession.” Yet, she’s also a writer unwilling to exploit the image, one who understands the absurdity of lyricizing language to the point that it no longer reflects those unwieldy feelings or experiences that drive us toward the edge. Perhaps no poem conveys this idea more than the delightfully dark and comic “Tidal Wave Speaks.” Half elegy, half ars poetica, the poem follows in its entirety:
This is what I did.
Laid it all out like tidal wave.
Thought you could in fact
lay out a tidal wave
Coming for me. Coming for you.
Thought, with the right attitude, you could train it to sing.
My hands were wet.
My face was wet.
Tidal Wave don’t sing, said Tidal Wave.
Tidal Wave crash.
What the poem forewarns is that feeling in its purest form—whether grief recorded in Stranger, Baby, or its antithesis—is inevitable. “Coming for me. Coming for you,” there’s no hope of staying dry as the waters rise and gather strength. So why do we, as Berry points out, try to wrench anguish into something beautiful? Why do we believe we can “train [feeling] to sing”? “The wave always returns, and always returns as a different wave,” claims the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva in her essay “Poets with History and Poets Without History.” And in Berry’s case in “Tidal Wave Speaks” and throughout her collection, as is the case with Rosaldo’s experience with liget, the wave returns in greater volume and force. Like many poets, Berry asks whether it is possible to shape grief. What sets Stranger, Baby apart, however, is that as Berry ignores, confronts, affirms, obsesses, and sings about a mother who is everywhere and nowhere, she further questions whether shaping loss actually changes our concept of it.
Although Berry closes the book with a collage of scribbled black marker overlaid with typewritten script, Stranger, Baby truly ends with the poem “Canopy.” The trees that grow where the sea once was, Berry reports, “shook everything off until they were bare and / clean. They held on to the ground with their long feet and leant / into the gale and back again.” Rooted down, we’re now safely on land and far from the opening poem whose speaker willingly enters dangerous waters. Bent on survival, Berry now recognizes that the “weather was inside.” Unlike the majority of the poems in the book, the final one is punctuated, its periods underscoring closure. What’s more, water no longer threatens but sustains, as Berry demonstrates via a final run-on sentence in which she makes good on her promise in “Tidal Wave Speaks.” “I was crying and it felt like I was feeding,” she recalls, laying it all out,
… Be my mother, I said
to the trees, in the language of the trees, which can’t be transcribed,
and they shook their hair back, and they bent low with their
many arms, and they looked into my eyes as only trees can
look into the eyes of a person, they touched me with the rain
on their fingers till I was all droplets, till I was a mist, and they
said they would.
Moore posits in “A Grave” that if things dropped in the ocean “turn and twist, it is neither with volition nor consciousness.” But in “Canopy” and throughout Stranger, Baby Berry works to prove otherwise. She’s a writer who’s wholly immersed, yet willful; at times conflicted, but hypnotic. By culling phrases, turning them over while consistently interrogating her own feelings and assumptions, Berry poses difficult questions: How do we shape loss? Is it ever really possible for language to consol? Where is art in all of this? Where is love?
Shara Lessley, a contributing editor, is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale and The Explosive Expert’s Wife. With Bruce Snider, she is the co-editor of The Poem’s Country, an anthology of essays on place and poetic practice. She lives in Oxford, England.