As a debut collection, Emily Berry’s Dear Boy intrigues, capturing the imagination with a sense of poetic experimentation. Yet Berry rarely forges any profound or emotional link with her readers, and seems strangely distant as a narrator. This is odd, as there is significant intimacy in her settings and themes.
This is not to say that Dear Boy represents a failure, or is somehow unworthy. Quite the opposite – Berry creates subtly crafted moments which amuse, beguile and even gently disturb. Yet these moments remain so sparse that she never truly succeeds in creating an immersive experience that comes from emotional investment or reflective meaning. Rather, Dear Boy displays what Berry can do with individual poems, perhaps at the expense of a cohesive whole.
Despite this absence of unifying direction, the collection nurtures multiple themes which permeate, creating commonalities and contrasts, if not consistently lucid connections. The idea of love, and its related concepts of individuality, setting, modernity and gender is clearly paramount. Undoubtedly, modernity is an issue in Dear Boy, yet it remains undeveloped and somewhat out of focus, being treated as a mere fact or incidence in the form of “email” or “voicemail”. Conceivably, the use of modern forms of communication as an expressive medium for love could be more effectively explored.” However, it is the idea of gender, which best showcases Berry’s ability and range of voice, as she moves from the overtly feminine narrative stance of poems such as “Letter to Husband” or “A Short Guide to Corseting”, to the masculine, in “Devil Music”. The latter is one of the most captivating works of the entire collection, a poem in which Berry explores gender roles. The masculinising potential of the traditional workplace is well represented by “my suit and tie”. Concurrent with this male-framed world, Berry paints the suppression of youthful imagination and creative fantasy as another negative aspect of the modern professional sphere:
… I silenced myself
devotedly until my devil soul twisted
and bucked, and was still.
The concept of the imagination, is obviously crucial to Berry’s own poetic process. The narrator implores the titular Dear Boy, “don’t be so literal”. Indeed, Berry’s statement that “You know perfectly well I believe nothing worthwhile is explainable” indicates her valuing of the imaginative in the creative process.
Perhaps this review has thus far lacked sufficient praise for Berry’s style. Her flourishes of imagery may strike the reader as stark, being all the more so when set against the relatively plain, conversational backdrop of her verse. The end of “Dear Boy”, a sudden outpouring of poetic language and creative thought, illustrates this well. The beautiful, evocative image of the sea as “a blunt spur at our heels” stands out as an enviable example of linguistic prowess.
Berry also seems, at times, to stray towards the autobiographical, in intimately-toned poems like “Everything She Does is Not Her Fault”. That tone is sorely missed elsewhere. However, the opening poem, “Our Love Could Spoil Dinner” is a work of characterised mini-fiction, which undermines the notion of Berry as an autobiographical poet in the examination and ultimate dismissal of a fictional biographer, “hampered by his boarding-school education”.
Only time will tell where and how Berry develops, how her voice adapts to experience and from where her potential inspiration will arise. Despite being a rather mixed bag of fiction – playful one moment and serious the next, Dear Boy certainly provides glimpses of a poet who is capable of invading the public consciousness to share a poetic world centred on creative escapism.