2014, Bird, Black Country, Chatto & Windus, Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2014, Liz Berry, My Mother's Wedding Shoes, Nailmaking, poem, poems, Poetry, review, The Red Shoes, verse
Gormley’s Angel of the North feels like a guardian. Angels were not always sanitized cuties, flitting about on Tinkerbell wings. Exodus offers instead an Angel of Death and the Archangel Michael sits atop Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo, as legend has it that he sheathed his sword there to signal the end of the 590 plague. More recently, David Almond’s novel, Skellig, presents a blackened, emaciated excuse for an angel whose return to health keeps pace with that of a critically ill young girl. I chatted Skellig over after its 1999 publication with a guy who knew Almond at school. His sense was that the Angel of the North, completed the year before, resonated through the novel and that Skellig’s arthritic limbs and Gormley’s steel taking flight spoke of the regeneration of the industrial North East.
Liz Berry’s Black Country is a thing of wonder and her poems, winking in the light of her mother’s silver stilettos, are beaten to an airy thinness. The collection is satisfyingly cohesive and its opening poem, Bird, sets the tone. Free verse flies across the page as Berry stages a metamorphosis: ‘I spread my flight-greedy arms / to watch my fingers jewelling like ten hummingbirds, / my feet callousing to knuckly claws. / As my lips calcified to a hooked kiss / silence / then an exultation of larks filled the clouds / and, in my mother’s voice, chorused: / Tek flight , chick, goo far fer the winter.’ The poem’s euphoric and unrestrained, the ‘flight-greedy arms’ conjuring uncontrollable indulgence. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses petrification is often a punishment but, in Berry’s hands, ‘Jewels’ and ‘calcified’ evoke something flashy and substantial, a journey into womanhood, a future full of promise.
The forking paths of the journey offer divergent outcomes and, in The Red Shoes, the shoes feel like a good fit: ‘Crimson. Like flames, like the first sear of blood / that came in the night and daubed a heart on my bedsheets. / They made blushes look pale.’ That crimson, like the first sear of blood, would have us believe that they’re a rite of passage and there’s little to distinguish their jewelled pleasures from those in Bird: ‘On Saturdays, I pressed my lips to the steamy glass / of the shoe-shop window and blew them / a kiss. I was mad for their patent, // rubies that glistened up a dress, / flushed thighs with fever.’ Berry’s lines ooze sexual excitement and the tercets suggest a dance measure but the mood darkens ‘through the waste ground / to the filthy canal’ and ‘I heard the screams of girls who had danced // before me, their ankles severed, /toes / still tapping, white as wounded doves.’ Later in the collection, we read ‘My Mother’s Wedding Shoes.’ The couplets suggest togetherness as ‘I try on your silver stilettos; ones you bought / before I was born, to wear at a wedding perhaps.’ ‘As a girl I longed to be fairytaled by shoes like these / while you kept me in lace-ups, classroom brogues / you’d polish each Sunday so your face shone back. / Now I understand what those plain soles meant: // Walk away, mah wench, from this town, that wedding. / Tek yer books an’ yer sense an’ keep on walking.’ Perhaps this is why Berry’s couplets aren’t quite couplets, why they don’t rhyme — like Heaney’s Clearances 4, or Harrison’s The School of Eloquence — aspiration pushes the chick off the ledge.
Nailmaking offers a different vision of the future – a dark transformation, as the poem’s appraising voice presents woman as little more than an extension of the hammer she swings: ‘The nimble ones was best, / grew sharp and quick as the nails they struck / from the scorching fire.’ ‘Nimble ones’ effaces the workers’ humanity as they grow as sharp as nails and, with ‘tongue skimming the soot on er lips,’ the girl consumes her job as it consumes her.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of this superb collection, this hymn to the West Midlands and act of love. Berry’s poems, even in their darker moments, are lifted by simple pragmatism and the idealism of youth. Put aside The Passionate Shepherd to His Love and ‘Come wi’ me, ban, sum to Tipton-on-Cut, / the real Little Venice, reisty and wild as the midden in August.’
Buy Black Country from Random House