Liz Berry was born in the Black Country and now lives in Birmingham. She received an Eric Gregory Award in 2009, an Arvon-Jerwood Mentorship in 2011 and won the Poetry London competition in 2012. Her pamphlet The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls was published by Tall Lighthouse in 2010. Liz works as the assistant poetry editor at Ambit magazine. Her debut collection, Black Country (Chatto & Windus, 2014), was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2014.
Liz Berry’s extraordinary debut collection, Black Country (Chatto & Windus, 2014), was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2014. Her Black Country poems are rooted in place, in the West Midlands, a heartland of iron foundries, coal mines and steel mills, where she was born. Though she has lived in London and now lives in Birmingham.
According to Ben Wilkinson in The Guardian she writes “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.” Such as in Bird, where 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”.
Liz Berry writes: “When I moved away from the Black Country something of my heart was left behind. The place haunted me, haunted my work: its darkness, its gutted landscape, its folklore and music, its story of industrial wonder and decline, and - most significantly - its dialect. My poems became letters to and from the area, love letters, ghostly letters, letters home. I wanted to explore the magic within the Black Country's grit and to celebrate its beautiful, though sadly often much maligned, language as the stuff of poetry. Black Country dialect is a rich word hoard and I found it thrilling to see how it could make poems sing and fizz. So many people who I love, and have loved, have spoken in Black Country dialect and so it seemed important to me that it should be treasured.”
This sparing use of dialect she imagines as if from a ‘box,jemmied open/to let years of lost words spill out – /bibble, fettle, tay, wum,’ and it gives her poems their distinctive flavour.
Liz Berry continues: “Although the poems are full of true and tender feelings for places and people, I didn't want them to be too sweet or mawkish. There's magic in the storytelling but it's dark magic. The Black Country is rough and ready, there's violence and filth in its history, a great deal of blunt humour. I wanted that toughness, that blackness, to be the grounding for the moments of ecstasy and flight within the poems.”
Kate Kellaway writes in The Observer “These poems need to be studied slowly yet there is, as one reads on, a sense of gathering speed, a flightiness, a readiness to soar, and, most of all, an awareness of Berry's inclination to be, in some way, allied with birds. She writes, in the best sense, on a wing and a prayer...Liz Berry knows her own flight-path, that is for sure, coming in to land with a beautiful poem The Night You were Born in which she imagines her partner's birth while pregnant with his son. It is moving because not overworked. It exists as an imagined and a remembered moment.”
What it would have been to have seen you, pushed
howling, from that red tent of legs,
the first word on the page of our story.
Liz Berry has an earthy, no-nonsense appeal and is able to write poems that celebrate the pleasures of the flesh and with genuine eroticism. She is a startlingly good performer and in her appearance at Ledbury Poetry Festival showed an exceptional ability to connect with the audience.
Liz Berry is one of several poets commissioned for the Waterlines project, a collaboration between the Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust. One of her poems The Black Delph Bride, a canal murder ballad, was made into a beautifully eerie film by Alastair Cook. Liz Berry’s poem Bird featured in The Best British Poetry 2013. She has acted as assistant poetry editor at Ambit magazine.
When I became a bird, Lord, nothing could not stop me.
The air feathered
as I knelt
by my open window for the charm –
black on gold,
last star of the dawn.
Singing, they came:
throstles, jenny wrens,
jack squalors swinging their anchors through the clouds.
My heart beat like a wing.
I shed my nightdress to the drowning arms of the dark,
my shoes to the sun’s widening mouth.
I found my bones hollowing to slender pipes,
my shoulder blades tufting down.
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
then an exultation of larks filled the clouds
and, in my mother’s voice, chorused:
Tek flight, chick, goo far fer the Winter.
So I left girlhood behind me like a blue egg
and stepped off
from the window ledge.
How light I was
as they lifted me up from Wren’s Nest
bore me over the edgelands of concrete and coal.
I saw my grandmother waving up from her fode,
the infant school and factory,
let the zephrs carry me out to the coast.
Lunars I flew
battered and tuneless
the storms turned me insideout like a fury,
there wasn’t one small part of my body didn’t bawl.
Until I felt it at last the rush of squall thrilling my wing
and I knew my voice
was no longer words but song black upon black.
I raised my throat to the wind
and this is what I sang…
charm/birdsong or dawn chorus
jack squalor/ swallow
/ Birmingham Roller
“We spent our lives down in the blackness… those birds brought us up to the light.”
(Jim Showell – Tumbling Pigeons and the Black Country)
Wench, yowm the colour of ower town:
concrete, steel, oily rainbow of the cut.
Ower streets am in yer wings,
ower factory chimdeys plumes on yer chest,
yer heart’s the china ower owd girls dust
in their tranklement cabinets.
Bred to dazzlin in backyards by men
whose onds grew soft as feathers
just to touch you, cradle you from egg
through each jeth-defying tumble.
Little acrobat of the terraces,
we’m winged when we gaze at you
jimmucking the breeze, somersaulting through
the white breathed prayer of January
and rolling back up like a babby’s yo-yo
caught by the open donny of the clouds.
yowm/ you are
tranklement/bits & bobs or ornaments
babby/ little child
/ Christmas Eve
Tonight the Black Country is tinselled by sleet
falling on the little towns lit up in the darkness
like constellations – the Pigeon, the Collier -
and upon the shooting stars of boy racers
who comet through the streets in white Novas.
It’s blowing in drifts from the pit banks,
over the brown ribbon of the cut, over Beacon Hill,
through the laploved chimneys of the factories.
Sleet is tumbling into the lap of the plastercast Mary
by the manger at St Jude’s, her face gorgeous and naive
as the last Bilston carnival queen.
In the low-rise flats opposite the cemetery,
Mrs Showell is turning on her fibre-optic tree
and unfolding her ticket for the rollover lottery
though we ay never 'ad a bit o luck in ower lives
and upstairs in the box-rooms of a thousand semis
hearts are stuttering and minds unravelling
like unfinished knitting.
And the sleet fattens and softens to snow,
blanking the crowded rows of terraces
and their tiny hankies of garden, white now, surrendering
their birdfeeders and sandpits, the shed Mick built
last Autumn when the factory clammed up.
And the work’s gone again
and the old boys are up at dawn to clock on nowhere
except walk their dogs and sigh
at the cars streaming to call centres and supermarkets
because there ay nuthin in it that’s mon’s werk,
really bab, there ay…
But it’s coming down now, really coming
over the stands at the Molinuex, over Billy Wright
kicking his dreams into the ring road
and in the dark behind the mechanics
the O’Feeney’s boy props his BMX against the lock-ups
and unzips to piss a flower into the snow
well gi me strength Lord, to turn the other cheek
for we’m the only ones half way decent round ere
and the tower blocks are advent calendars,
every curtain pulled to reveal a snow-blurred face.
And it’s Christmas soon, abide it or not,
for now the pubs are illuminated pink and gold
The Crooked House, Ma Pardoes, The Struggling Mon
and snow is filling women’s hair like blossom
and someone is drunk already and throwing a punch
and someone is jamming a key in a changed lock
shouting fer christ’s sake, Myra, yo’ll freeze me to jeth
and a hundred new bikes are being wrapped in sheets
and small pyjamas warmed on fireguards
and children are saying one more minute, just one, Mom
and the old girls are watching someone die on a soap
and feeling every snow they’ve ever seen set in their bones.
It’s snowing on us all
and I think of you, Eloise, down there in your terrace,
feeding your baby or touching his hand to the snow
and although we can’t ever go back or be what we were
I can tell you, honestly, I’d give up everything I’ve worked for
or thought I wanted in this life,
to be with you tonight.
“Dainty footwear turns a young lady into an altogether more beautiful creature…”
(Etiquette for Ladies - Eliza Sell)
Trottering down the oss road in me new hooves
I’m farmyardy sweet, fresh from the filth
of straw an' swill, the trembly-leg sniff
of the slaughter wagon. A guzzler, gilt.
Trollopy an' canting. Root yer tongue beneath
me frock an' gulp the brute stench of the sty.
I’ve stopped denying meself: nibbling
grateful as a pet on baby-leaves, afeared
of the glutton of belly an' rump. I’ve sunk
an when lads howd out opples on soft city palms
I guttle an' spit, for I need a mon
wi’ a body like a trough of tumbly slop
to bury me snout in.
All them saft years of hiding at ‘ome
then prancing like a pony for some sod to bridle
an' shove down the pit, shying away
from ‘is dirty fists. All them nights,
me eyes rolling white in the dark when the sow I am
was squailin an' biting to gerrout.
Now no mon dare scupper me,
nor fancy-arse bints, for I’ve kicked the fence
an' I’m riling on me back in the muck,
out of me mind wi’ grunting pleasure,
trotters pointing to the heavens like chimdey pots,
sticking V to the cockerel
prissy an' crowing on ‘is high church spire.
oss road / street
canting / cheeky or saucy
squalin/squealing or crying
bints/derogatory slang for girls
/ Black Country
Commuters saw it first, vast
on the hillside by the A41,
a wingless Pegasus, hooves
kicking road into the distance.
It had appeared over night.
A black shadow on the scrub,
galloping above the gates
of the derelict factories,
facing East, towards the pits,
mouth parted as if it would
swallow the sun that rose
from behind the winding gear.
Word spread. Crowds gathered.
Kids, someone said,
but when they examined its flanks
they found pure coal,
coal where none had been mined
in years, where houses
still collapsed into empty shafts
and hills bore scars.
A gift from the underworld,
hauling the past
from the dead earth. Old men
knelt to breath the smoke
of its mane, whisper
in its ear, walked away
in silence, fists clenched,
faces streaked with tears.
For years you kept your accent
in a box beneath the bed,
the lock rusted shut by hours of elocution
how now brown cow
the teacher’s ruler across your legs.
We heard it escape sometimes,
a guttural uh on the phone to your sister,
saft or blart to a taxi driver
unpacking your bags from his boot.
I loved its thick drawl, g’s that rang.
Clearing your house, the only thing
I wanted was that box, jemmied open
to let years of lost words spill out –
bibble, fittle, tay, wum,
vowels ferrous as nails, consonants
you could lick the coal from.
I wanted to swallow them all: the pits,
railways, factories thunking and clanging
the night shift, the red brick
back-to-back you were born in.
I wanted to forge your voice
in my mouth, a blacksmith’s furnace;
shout it from the roofs,
send your words, like pigeons,
fluttering for home.
/ The Year We Married Birds
That year, with men turning thirty
still refusing to fly the nest,
we married birds instead.
Migrating snow buntings
swept into offices in the city,
took flocks of girls for Highland weddings.
Magpies smashed jewellers’ windows,
kites hovered above bridal shops,
a pigeon in Trafalgar Square learnt to kneel.
Sales of nesting boxes soared.
Soon cinemas were wild as woods in May
while restaurants served worms.
By June, a Russian kittiwake wed
the Minister’s daughter, gave her two
freckled eggs, a mansion on a cliff.
My own groom was a kingfisher:
enigmatic, bright. He gleamed in a metallic
turquoise suit, taught me about fishing
in the murky canal. We honeymooned
near the Wash, the saltmarshes
booming with courting bittern.
When I think of that year, I remember best
the fanning of his feathers
on my cheek, his white throat,
how every building, every street rang
with birdsong. How girls’ wedding dresses
lifted them into the trees like wings.
/ Miss Berry
I have learnt to write rows of o’s bobbing
hopeful as hot air balloons from the line’s tethers
and watched eight Springs of frogspawn
grow legs but never…
and conducted clashy-bashy orchestras
of chime bars ocarina thundering tambour
and curled my hand over another hand
to hinge the crocodile jaws of the scissors.
I have accompanied a small mourning party
to a blackbird’s burial plot
and rolled countless bodies, like coloured marbles,
across gym mats
and conducted science’s great experiments
using darkened cupboards, plastic cups and cress
and unhooked a high window on a stuffy day
and heard the room’s breath.
I have measured time by paper snowflakes,
blown eggs, bereft cocoons
and waved goodbye in Summer so many times
that even in September my heart is June.
/ The Night You Were Born
November 27th, a month before me, all the lights
in the Black Country out for the evening,
Wrens Nest tucked under a blanket of darkness,
mithered only by the fog-beams of your dad’s van
as it sped to the hospital. In the back, the dog,
snuffling in her bed of tools and woodshavings.
In the front, your mom, panting on the turns,
her frightened moon face waning at the window.
I think about that night when I doze, heavy
with our son, in the snow-soft hours.
What it would have been to have seen you, pushed
howling, from that red tent of legs,
the first word on the page of our story.
I press myself against you in the darkness, listen
for your murmur as he moves inside me. Oh love,
I can almost hear it now: that first cry –
a raw thread of sound spooling through Winter
to stitch our lives together.