I will be going through the poets in Voice Recognition in chronological order, three by three, in the most part for practical purposes, before looking back over them as a whole at the end. The first trio consists of: Jay Bernard (b. 1988), Emily Berry (b. 1981) and Amy Blakemore (b. 1991).
Unsurprisingly, Berry’s is probably the most comfortable, the most effortless of the three, and she’s by far my favourite, though not without her flaws. She has mastered a completely unself-conscious colloquial register, and it is instantly likeable and immediately engaging. Her best poems, all of which deploy it, I will label ‘postcard poetry’, which is not the insult it may initially seem. They are address poems, deliberate yet conversational in tone. The first of these is the most literally postcardesque: ‘I ♥ NY’. It is fittingly reminiscent of O’Hara in Lunch Poems, a walkabout of mundane detail, addressed to one of the people the narrator spent time with in New York, excited and excitable. It makes no judgments. There’s no real point to it, as far as I can tell, beyond conveying the kind of frantic energy the narrator felt in the city, and the excitement and energy are perfectly reflected by the poem’s form and diction. At one point the Hudson is described as cracking up “so gorgeously” (27), and it is testament to Berry’s ability that this doesn’t jar. The imagery is controlled, mostly observational, tangibly descriptive rather than grandiose in order to reflect the immediacy of the observations, the ceaseless pace of city stimuli. The strongest image in the piece, wryly placed next to that Hudson description, shows her to be restrained enough in her lyricism to stray away from melodrama: “the clouds seemed to send down/light like spaceships marking where to land.” She even manages to insert meta elements, masking (and functioning) as social comment: “You can buy non-sequiturs in bundles now/from international supermarkets. And guilt,/where is that sold?” (28). In a poem largely made up of non-sequiturs.
Elsewhere, though, this self-referential awareness is lacking. ‘The Incredible History of Patient M.’ and ‘My Perpendicular Daughter’, while utterly enjoyable, are derivative of the post-Luke Kennard school of absurd, ironic, jeu poems that have swamped pretty much every journal since Kennard’s brilliant The Harbour Beyond The Movie. Bastard ruined it for the rest of us. Still, the latter Berry piece includes this: “I asked for milk/and tipped its long white screech right down” (30).
‘What I Did On My Summer Holidays’ succeeds due to its visceral, subtle shift from ‘I’ to ‘She’ as the poem’s narrator addresses her father’s suicide, skipping from lost child to an older and more detached, isolated narration . And ‘Questions I Wanted to Ask You in the Swimming Pool’ creates an affecting and unique extended metaphor from the titular pool: “how many times did we drift together, tired,/regret tautening over the bones of us the way skin does as it dries” (29).
It is through her refined colloquial style and inspired use of the second-person that her writing stands out and allows tried and tested themes and ideas to be freshly explored. However, and if such a thing is quantifiable, the objective best piece in her sequence is ‘A Short Guide to Corseting’. While on the surface, like ‘...Swimming Pool’ and so many other contemporary poems, it simply takes an individual metaphor and extends it, it also embodies so much of what is good about her writing at the same times as differing from the rest. Love comes “sideways, like a crab” (30). The narrator wants “to agree with love...to be carried off in its claws”, and the poem conveys humour at the same time as intense claustrophobia as the narrator crafts the smallest possible life, the most edited and honed one she can. “I’ve realised how little we need” (31). Whether we are supposed to agree with this or not is left ambiguous.
Bernard and Blakemore are for the most part far less developed. There are numerous shoddy line breaks that simply infuriate, the beginning of Bernard’s ‘Eight’ being a prime example. While both of their selections are clearly decent, promising even, I can’t help but yearn for something more refined and controlled. Blakemore, for instance, tries on a number of voices, and the furthest she gets from herself the greater they fail. ‘Making Money’ , for example, sounds artificial. There is no detectable voice attributable to the poet beyond a similar phrasing to the rest of her poems, and yet no believable representation of “the perplexing republic of drunken city traders” (36). It’s finely written enough, but it’s a transitional piece, an individual’s experiment in writing, part of the process of discovering one’s own voice and prevailing themes. Which is fine, just not what I’d expect to be offered by a leading collection of the “best young poets” of the day. She has more success elsewhere, though. ‘The Guests’ is an affectionate and convincing portrayal of childhood, “squint[ing] at guests”, wanting to know “who these strangers are” (34). ‘Achievement’, while not exactly a masterpiece, is probably the most enjoyable of her poems. It is believable and unaffected, a love poem of sorts that accepts and makes use of its limitations. The ‘you’ of the poem is “a God”, the “only thing” the narrator has “achieved in school”, and it quite beautifully conveys teenage longing without making the melodrama seem melodramatic. There is cynicism as N surveys the end of year celebrations: “This is a precursor to our future Christmas office parties” (35), and it is this dry narration, coupled with the kind expressions quoted above, that make the poem convincing.
Many of the same flaws can be carried over to Bernard. They too often read like transitional pieces, steps towards what she will eventually create. However, her opening poem, ‘Cadence’, is magnificent. Sure, there are lines and phrasings that could have been tightened just a tad, but it doesn’t really matter. The poem deconstructs contemporary black identity, but its simultaneous acceptance of the past and disregarding of it is universal. It is a powerful and convincing argument for oneself and one’s subjectivity:
‘Being young is an oxymoron –
are genes are old and as gnarled as the moon.
They are genes only: we’re columns of blood biding time,
caught by the delicate cadence that binds us, yes,
but that doesn’t mean I owe a thing to you.’
Equally, it describes perfectly the kind of attitude all aspiring young writers should have going forward: the awareness of the importance of all that has preceded, and the confidence to move on. It is by far my favourite poem so far in the anthology, the perfect place from which to begin reading and the perfect place to end this review.
Poetry in Aldeburgh 2017
7 months ago