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"Vowels ferrous as nails, consonants / you could lick the coal from":
Liz Berry's Black Country - review

They say poetry, like charity, begins at home. If her debut book of poems is anything to go by, Liz Berry would surely agree. Along with its lavish, atmospheric cover image of a bird’s dark plumage, what is immediately striking about Black Country, winner of the Forward prize for best first collection, is the way it digs deep into the poet’s West Midlands roots, enlivening and reimagining the heritage of that eponymous heartland of iron foundries, coal mines and steel mills, on both personal and public footings.

Here are Thomas Telford’s “fabled waterways” and the swaggering Lady Godiva, the right hook of the “Tipton Slasher” and the legend of “The Black Delph Bride”. Even a “Birmingham Roller”, the unlikely pigeon famous for its tumbling backflips in mid-flight, turns up: an emblem of light and hope amid the dark post-industrial hinterland. And, of course, the “bostin fittle” – Black Country dialect for “great food” – of granny’s homemade “faggots minced with kidney and suet”, as Berry brings her readers’ “lips to the hide of the past: / salty, dark, unexpected”.

What gives much of Berry’s poetry its distinctive flavour is her use of the vernacular. Scots dialect has long been honoured in verse, but regional English accents tend to receive short shrift, if not outright mockery. For Berry, the idiomatic twang of home is something to be sung and celebrated: “bibble, fittle, tay, wum, / vowels ferrous as nails, consonants / you could lick the coal from”. In “Nailmaking”, the historic “wenches’ werk” of forging iron into spikes to fit horseshoes is brought fiercely to life, as a young girl “turns out two hundred an hour, / tongue skimming the soot on er lips, / onds moulding heat”.

Berry clearly identifies with these women, shaping her honed but fast-flowing lines with the same mixture of craft and urgency, spitting and fizzing with living language. In this way, “Nailmaking” echoes dramatic monologues elsewhere in the collection that look to give voice to a host of female characters, by turns strong, able, beguiling and charismatic. Some, like “The Last Lady Ratcatcher”, are whip-smart and strangely beautiful, sporting “a belt o’ silver rats / scrawling from buckle to back”; others reveal a shrewd innocence, as in the fanciful “The Red Shoes”, a defiant tale of a young girl’s rites of passage, in which the coveted shoes appear “like the first sear of blood / that came in the night and daubed a heart on my bedsheets”. “I danced so fast my shoes scorched the air,” hollers the speaker, “and the sun laid down, crimson, at my feet.” The wry recalcitrance of Carol Ann Duffy’s Feminine Gospels lingers in the background here, but in Berry’s knowing play and with penchant for the fairytale, so too does Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. “Sow”, another dialect-rich piece, recasts someone like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath as a “trollopy an’ canting” pig who’s “stopped denying meself”. “Riling on me back in the muck, / out of me mind wi’ grunting pleasure”, she is a creature who knows her own mind: “sticking V to the cockerel / prissy an’ crowing on ’is high church spire”.

In a host of voices and styles, feminine liberation and gender subversion bubble throughout Black Country. Some poems, for example, convince less than others: the “trackies”-wearing, council-estate clients of a hairdresser in the forgettable “Carmella”, who seem as much mocked as admired, however unintentionally. But when Berry hits the mark, her boldness and descriptive finesse can transform the most conventional spaces and objects. A steam room finds “feet, shoulders, stomachs jewelled with veins / are sexless / in the fug”; the “tight lips” of oysters at a wedding feast let loose “the stench of the sea”; even a silver birch becomes a scene of prepubescent possibility, how “the sex I knew before sex” was “a pebble thrown / into the pond of me”. These poems succeed because of the way they combine emphatic direct address (though frequently funny, Berry’s poetry has little time for irony or wheedling caution), with a nonetheless secretive quality, and a persuasive diction that draws the reader in. As the pupil-turned-heavenly-spirit in “The Patron Saint of School Girls” puts it: “A cult developed. The Head Girl / kissed my cheek in the dark-room … / Love flowed out of me like honey / from a hive.”

For all its preoccupation with the unbridled pleasures of the flesh and the earthy, no-nonsense appeal of her beloved Black Country, however, Berry’s writing often seems curiously intent on conjuring a kind of spiritual transcendence. Biblical imagery abounds, as in the aforementioned angelic saint disappearing “in an astonishing ring of brightness”, or the eerie, primary-school retelling of “The Assumption”, “Christ the Lamb / beckoning the children into a field of white”. Such moments are among the most earnest in the collection, and can make some of the lesser poems of place and people seem, perhaps unfairly, like so much regional tub-thumping and lip service to feminism.

But it is the book’s opening poem, “Bird”, that enacts a truly visceral metamorphosis. Here, storms turn the poet “inside out like a fury … / Until I felt at last the rush of squall thrilling my wing / and I knew my voice / was no longer words but song”. Taken alongside a sympathy for the Echo of Greek mythology (“Wherever girls’ voices are lost, / I am”), it is a manifesto piece, announcing a chameleonic verse of ventriloquising playfulness, reported dialect, memorable imagery and often ballad-like musicality. Black Country is a singularly impressive book from a talented writer, and like all the best poetry, begs to be read aloud.

first published in The Guardian, Saturday 22 November 2014