The Home Child (Chatto, £14.99), by Liz Berry, is perhaps one of the most anticipated second collections of the decade. The poet, whose Forward Prize-winning debut Black Country introduced a rich and arresting new voice in British writing, followed up with a small (but no less lucid) pamphlet The Republic of Motherhood in 2018, which gained traction with readers like few pamphlets in recent memory. Now, nine years after her debut, Berry has made an enchanting return.
Based in both archival research and imaginative reconstruction, The Home Child is a novel in verse, following Eliza Showell, the poet’s great aunt, who was sent alone, aged 12, from the Middlemore Children’s Emigration Homes in Birmingham to rural Nova Scotia. The book is framed with a brief but striking introduction that informs us of the context of Eliza’s journey: between 1860 and 1960, Berry writes, “over 100,000 of Britain’s poorest and most vulnerable children emigrated to Canada to work as indentured farm labourers and domestic servants”.
In Bilston, where the story begins, the industrial town of furnaces and factories is brought to Blakean life, full of “pounding and hammering”, “a smutter of lamps, the drunken air”. Eliza is a child staring out of a cold window: “Her eyelashes / upon the glass – / dark wings in the frost.” The narrative voice opens into lyrics that are spoken in collectives, bearing communal witness, or in the language of the historical record, or in the lonely, dialect-jewelled singular, which becomes dislocated from its origin like “flowers torn from their black roots”.
Animalistic imagery – women like vixens, children becoming moths, birds or flowers – runs through the poems a deep thread of fantasy and fable: “girl is a pit oss, a thrush, a white ferret, a lark.” Berry inhabits the deep longing and loneliness of an isolated child, and combines the historical and the personal, the local and international, weaving them into a story that has its own accumulating emotional force. In this book, too, Berry is unafraid of the darkness of the narrative she is uncovering. There are strong hints of violence (sexual assault, murder, domestic abuse) that gather around Eliza’s voice like a brewing storm. It is the sort of poem that might, one day, make a brilliant libretto.
‘I miss breakfast rolls and the sense of humour but our life in the US has been as normal as anyone else’s with young kids’
Emma Must has her own imagistic sharpness, too: we imagine ‘phytoplankton / discarding their skeletons in a warm shelf sea, / quietly as snow’, and the cadences of her verse are elegant and well-calibrated
Belfast-based poet Emma Must’s The Ballad of Yellow Wednesday (Valley Press, £10.99) is an ambitious debut, which like Berry’s book is rooted in a historical event and is powered by the dual imperatives of documentation and narrative. In a time of increased friction between land activists and landowners in Britain – the latter of whom own a horrifying percentage of the country – Must’s account of a 1992 protest that led to a large grass-roots movement is timely. When construction of a new section of motorway was planned through a protected area of land, Twyford Down, direct actions and mass protests ensued, resulting in the poet and six others spending time in Holloway Prison.
The poems move between lyrics and more fragmented forms. At the heart is the title poem, which uses the ballad as a form of folk memory, inscribing the event of the protest in oral tradition:
Humpbacked and brutal,
They drive through the dark.
Under silent black rubber
The trembling chalk.
The rhyming of “dark” and “chalk” hints at an accented speech. A key poetic touchstone throughout is Seamus Heaney, with Michael Longley as a vibrant presence too. The opening poem, Chalk, with Flints, echoes Heaney’s Anahorish, with its blending of language and earth. In Must’s poem, “dark fricatives spark in the lyric ground”, and the soil is a “breathy vowel.” Later, solidarity is figured through Heaney’s image of the human chain.
Must has her own imagistic sharpness, too: we imagine ‘phytoplankton / discarding their skeletons in a warm shelf sea, / quietly as snow’, and the cadences of her verse are elegant and well-calibrated. Alongside images that recall battles and revolutions, there is a close focus on the botanical and the geological that gives this debut its vivid idiom.
By turns haunting and comic, always arresting and sharply defined, Will Harris’s collection is original and strange in the best senses of those words
The opening poem of Will Harris’s second collection, Brother Poem (Granta, £10.99), strikes a satiric tone that nevertheless instils a fearful sensation in the reader:
In June, outrageous stood the flagons on
the pavement which extended to the river
where we spoke of everything except
the fear that would, when habit ended, be
depended on. Our fear of darkness as
the fear of darkness never ending.
Playfully inhabiting an outdated idiom, Harris’s poem jars brilliantly, clashing the vulnerable against the comic, mocking nationalism and confessing isolation: the speaker “kissed / the face of England once discreetly, though / it wasn’t you”.
Throughout this collection, which also takes a narrative form, Harris addresses a fictional brother, though the poems are so beautifully and convincingly written that their subject feels utterly real. In part a coming-of-age sequence, there is an artful spectrality here that never gives up its precision, with the real and the fictional giving way to each other, the voice of the speaker emerging from a “river mind”, moving through dreams and localities. Sentences and ideas interlock with a haunting deliberation:
this pain would pass. With foreign voices
other willows conversed. Precordial leaves.
And I was quiet, as if I’d lost a brother.
By turns haunting and comic, always arresting and sharply defined, Harris’s collection is original and strange in the best senses of those words.
As might be expected from a man who was in his 80s when he - Thomas Kinsella - wrote most of these poems, old age, death and metaphysical questions proliferate
Last but not least, we have the late Thomas Kinsella’s Last Poems (Carcanet, £12.99). Collected from his final five Peppercanister pamphlets (published 2006-2011), and with a substantial number of new poems, this will be a must-read book for those interested in this giant of Irish poetry. As might be expected from a man who was in his 80s when he wrote most of these poems, old age, death and metaphysical questions proliferate. The first pamphlet, Marginal Economy, opens with a chilling, untitled poem that finds the speaker ‘Wandering alone / from abandoned room to room / down the corridors of a derelict hotel, / searching for a lost urinal’. The gentle rhyme (“hotel” / “urinal”) is sardonic, and finds a similar jet-black humour in the final stanza, which turns outwards in its address:
picking the works of my days apart,
will you find what you need
in the waste still to come?
The body becomes estranged in these poems, which are often steely and bleak: “My brain at the window, / absorbing a new view of the world”. The night city is eerie, populated with exiles and ghostly memories. There is the looming presence of oblivion, the taste of mortality, as when in a poem from Belief and Unbelief the speaker comes across an insect, smells the memories of his own life, and then receives ‘a tiny taste of death, / with my foot crackling the insect’s little glands / in the dry moss on the stone’. Is this a vision of the earth receiving the dead, being nourished, or is it a vision only of brutality? The truth of these poems always lies between the two. Kinsella’s lines are beautifully wrought, the stanzas gently rhymed, and the poet, in masterful style, at once delivers and undercuts the ‘rhetoric’ of beauty and consolation.