I’ve been reading Emily Berry’s debut book of poetry Dear Boy and I’ve fallen in love with it. She twists a surreal edginess in a pragmatic tone, you seem to begin in one place and end up in another. The narratives lead you through odd, surprising images, comical to a degree. Her phrasing is easy to follow, the simplicity accentuates the absurd in it’s frank manner, for example in one of my favourite poems My Perpendicular Daughter:
…they hung her
upside down inside me: now she sticks
straight out, gets in the way when I stand
close to walls.
The role and expectation reversal plays imminently throughout her works, such as the immature parent, or the disturbing doctor. This theme is repeated in The Tea-Party Cats, where power is explored cleverly, the cats admired and the protagonist fearful of her otherness, her “taillessness”. I love the assonance of that neologism, phonologically reminding me of ‘tastelessness’. Images of formality, overt prestige and suave manner intimidate the voice of the poem, but all under an impression of artificiality. I wonder if this poem is exploring the kinds of people that society looks up to, presented as a group of seemingly narcissistic cats, especially the final three lines which conclude by threatening the cats’ previously established ‘perfect’ image. I think there is something about cats that imply a kind of underhand, elegantly deft nature, seen in “whose whiskers nicely referenced their bowties.”
I really respect what Berry has done here because as a writer I find it difficult address issues in this kind of light-hearted tone. Dark and depressing definitely comes easier, but Berry’s poems are playful, genuinely fun to read. This is the kind of stuff I’d like to experiment with. Let me know what you think about this poem, I’d love to hear your view and if you get the chance I would recommend having a flick through the book.
The Tea-Party Cats
by Emily Berry
We’re suspicious of the tea-party cats;
we don’t know why. They all turned out so well
today and aired their charming characters;
they were so smart they frightened us to death.
We longed to have their style and easy knack
of fitting in; we feared our taillessness
would show us up, or our sickly looking
skin. We tried our best all afternoon,
but nothing seemed to do – we spilled our tea
into the saucer, we couldn’t think of things
to say, we weren’t as dapper as these cats
whose whiskers nicely referenced their bowties.
We stood in corners, if you want to know,
nibbling biscuits though our mouths were dry.
Some of us slipped away before the end.
I stayed until the speeches, when the cats
thanked each other proudly, proposing
endless toasts; and then one of them exposed
a weakness, but quickly covered it up.