Michael Bartholomew-Biggs reviews

the patron saint of schoolgirls by Liz Berry and Fair’s Fair by Susan Utting





The patron saint of schoolgirls
by Liz Berry,
tall-lighthouse press, 2010,
ISBN 978 1 904551 82 9

Fair’s Fair by Susan Utting,
Two Rivers Press, 2012,
ISBN: 978-1-901677-80-5

 While chatting recently with my good friend James about poetic reputations we both began to wonder why poetry readings are reviewed so much less frequently than poetry books.  Of course a book is an artefact that can be purchased (or avoided) as a result of a good (bad) review; whereas a reading is a one-off event for which review could resemble “locking the stable door &c, &c…”  Yet most poets sell most of their books at readings and so attendances are important; and it would be useful if poets could get recognition in print for being good readers.  The question of what makes a “good reading” is not one I shall pursue here, except to say that it must involve the recognition that a spoken poem has one chance and one chance only to make its impact.  It is important therefore to think about the length and “difficulty” of each poem in a programme; and to be sensitive to the audience in terms of the pace of delivery, the relevance of introductions and the mix of light and shade in the material.   (John Hartley Williams gives some very interesting thoughts on Reading Out Loud in issue 3 of the Bow-Wow Shop which can be found at
Readers of the present review might also care to air their own ideas on the subject via the ‘comment’ facility at the end of this posting.)

The above remarks are relevant to the present review because my first encounter with Liz Berry was at a reading where, at the start, she was, to me, simply an unfamiliar name on the programme. By the end of the evening, however, I had been impressed both by the originality of her poetry and by her distinctive style of performing it.   And I had also bought her book the patron saint of schoolgirls published by tall-lighthouse as winner of their pamphlet competition.

The content of the patron saint of schoolgirls moves between fairy-tale fantasy and the gritty industrial reality from Berry’s Black Country origins. This mixture is nicely encapsulated in an image of the M6 toll lined with two million / pulped Mills & Boons. This quote comes from ‘Trucker’s Mate’, one of several poems dealing with fanciful encounters with masculinity. Elsewhere, ‘The Late Night Weatherman Who Used To Love Me’ sent me his love in the frost on the Gower, / the sunshine in Shetland, the Yarmouth breeze. In ‘Nailmaking’ there are dark warnings against marrying a nailing fella but in spite of these she’d gone to him anyway, in her last white frock. In the opening poem, ‘When I Was A Boy’, Berry fully (but briefly) embraces maleness: I was a boy every week-day afternoon / the year I was seven; but later in the book she appears to give up on the whole gender:

That year, with men turning thirty
still refusing to fly the nest,
we married birds instead.
(‘The Year We Married Birds’)

There is obviously a lively imagination at work here. But Berry does not simply make things up: she also knows how to use bizarre facts to fuel her imagination. The Mills & Boon volumes lining M6 may or may not be fictitious; but Berry can make a poem out of a report about coconuts floating in a Birmingham canal.

Among the most fanciful poems is ‘Fir’ about a Christmas tree that brought the wild into our house so that we got lost in you, drunk on your scent: / dense pine and the feral stink of pelt ; by the end of this poem we were down on all fours rolling like wolves. Similarly fantastic are the book’s title poem and ‘The Last Lady Ratcatcher’. But at the other down-to-earth extreme of Berry’s work , ‘Goodnight Irene’ is a well executed elegy, following an urban funeral procession

over the canal bridge, the Baptist chapel
still brave on the cut, baptising the Sunday believers
in boat bilge …

When you were a girl these streets shone
like the coal …
Now their names are like music, a requiem:
Darkly Lane, Snow Hill, Roseville, Wren’s Nest.

‘Homing’ is another strong poem that is rooted firmly and affectionately in reality as Berry recalls the idiosyncrasies of the Black Country accent and longs to hear it again in the mouth of someone who had for years kept your accent / in a box beneath the bed, / the lock rusted shut by hours of elocution.

It is also worth mentioning that the patron saint of schoolgirls includes a sestina in which the subject matter is well-served by the form – something, alas, that is not the case in too many instances of the sestina.

Liz Berry is currently Emerging Poet in Residence at Kingston University; and she has been described as “an accomplished new voice” and “a compelling new voice”. She surely merits the praise that such labels and titles imply; but I do wonder whether those who bestow them are really doing her the best of favours. A poet’s newness or potential for development ought not to be their most important attribute.  To say a poet is a “new voice” may indicate we should not expect the imminent appearance of their “New & Selected”; but when does a “new voice” become simply a “voice” – one poet among many others who aspire to getting better at what they do?  To travel hopefully need not be to ignore the place we have already arrived at.  I would prefer to say that Berry is a good poet now and that her work is to be enjoyed for what it is.  It does not yet appear what it will be – although we can see good reason to be hopeful.

(It is also worth saying that trying to place a poet along some hypothetical career trajectory can be unhelpful at any stage. Many years ago, on seeing someone (I think it was the late Gavin Ewart) described as “the veteran poet” I was moved to write:
When we say that some poets are veterans
Do we mean that their verses were better once?
Do we think that their ballads
Were once crisp as fresh salads
But now they write limper and wetter ones?)

Let it now be said with the greatest possible clarity that Susan Utting is not a “veteran poet”.  However she does enjoy an established reputation and has five collections compared to Liz Berry’s one.  There are some similarities between her work and Berry’s – they can both surprise the reader and are ready to take imaginative risks.  (What’s more, both are good and lively readers, who can establish a particular rapport with an audience.)  Utting’s work, however, shows a somewhat greater range and more capacity for perspective and reflection than Berry’s has yet had the chance to demonstrate.

Susan Utting’s new collection Fair’s Fair (Two Rivers, 2012) shows off her talents to good advantage. One feature of the book that must strike the reader sooner rather than later is its coherence.  Although divided into three sections, the poems in each part are cleverly linked by ideas and images that keep drawing us further into Utting’s poetic vision.  Sometimes this linking involves adjoining poems sharing a concrete object – a restarted heart, a pan of water brought to a rolling boil.

In fact, Utting often includes familiar domestic objects in her poems; and – like Berry – she is quite prepared to play tricks with them. In ‘The Things’ she writes

For want of a foot, the shoe wept
like a babe in the crook of the wrong
woman’s arm …

and later in the same poem we find For want of a fist, the glove snivelled… This is dark fairy-tale stuff, indeed; but nevertheless it seems to stay a little closer to tangible reality than Berry’s more extreme flights of fancy.

Glass appears in a variety of guises throughout the book.  Early on, Utting contemplates ‘Giving up Mirrors’ and imagines eyes that have forgotten old reflected / selves, that see the world for all it is…; and then, towards the end of the book, in an anxious villanelle ‘Before the Storm’ she admits that superstition means I’m covering mirror , hiding knives again.  Elsewhere we meet glass in red-shuttered Amsterdam windows or as the transparent barrier imprisoning a museum exhibit or as a dangerous splinter in the skin which threatens seven years bad luck.

Time is another of Utting’s preoccupations. She contrasts clocks and our power to adjust them – at the altering of clocks / we reach the safe time – with the way that time itself goes by entirely outside our control . The distancing and de-personalising effect of elapsing time is effectively captured in the wonderfully laconic ‘Postcard Home’ which begins There’s weather here but so far no one’s / mentioned it.

Utting is a poet who enjoys language and celebrates her enjoyment.   In ‘Learning to Read’ she connects such enjoyment with a childhood memory of interpreting a Barber Shop sign as baa baa sheep. She allows herself to string together wonderful descriptive chains such as

Look at her flirt in her flash-vivid bolero
lash-flutter, hair-flick and kiss-me-soft smile
(‘Picture of my Mother as a Young Woman’)

Utting is very fond of such hyphenated compounds; but she rarely overdoes it and usually avoids anything predictable – e.g. choosing kiss-me-soft instead of the cliché kiss-me-quick.

Yet, remarkably for a poet who is so exuberant in her use of language, Utting also handles vulnerability very well. In ‘Naked’, the boy in the bathroom’s eyes is described as being more naked than Adam / after the apple. And a few pages on we meet

a child who climbs on a roof,
clings to the stack of the chimney
and weeps till her tears loosen the mortar.

These lines come from ‘Wanting the Moon’, which is inspired by an Edward Thomas poem.  Elsewhere, Utting gives her book greater depth by drawing on sources as diverse as Virgil, Charlotte Mew and Andy Warhol to augment her own personal vision and experience.

I’d like to close by revisiting Utting’s dexterity with language.  Besides her freely-scattered and lively compound adjectives, there are many other verbal felicities to be found throughout the book.  A frisbee is a light hearted discus; a woman talking while she smokes a cigarette experiences the thrill / of words burning, becoming caterpillars // of long ash; in a neighbourhood pub, smokers with their roll ups and full strength have kippered the walls. In the poem ‘Breathing’ – which concentrates a lifetime into four short stanzas – she tells us Age thickens us with air that’s heavy, toxic / with the teem and yowl of industry. Such quotations give a foretaste of the many pleasures and surprises that await the reader of this thoughtful and varied collection.