‘When I saw the sea after many months it was such a meeting’
A while ago I took my boyfriend up north, to spend a weekend in the seaside town I grew up in. We walked up the pier in the blistering icy wind, walked through the Hall of Mirrors, clambered over the sand dunes and through the silent pine woods. In Broadhursts, the best second-hand bookshop in town, where I used to buy my Colin Danns and Margaret Mahys and Alan Garners and Philip Pullmans as a child, we riffled through stacks of paperback sci-fi and pulp novels with garish covers from the sixties and seventies. He bought me a battered copy of The Bees by one Jack Laflin, ‘A Horrifying Novel’ about ‘A Deadly Swarm’ of Africanized killer insects sweeping through Colombia and across the Andes. This book may’ve been one of the best reading experiences of my life. Have I been snobbish, stinting myself by sticking to literary fiction? The Bees is pure trash, with its auburn-haired, emerald-eyed heroine and maverick-scientist hero commissioned to save the world by putting up electrified fences, setting the surface of the Panama Canal alight with gasoline, mounting flamethrowers on ships. I’ve written poems using lines taken from the text, in which the bees are ‘cantankerous assassins’, in which a jaded mercenary, enlisted in a private army deep in the humid, claustrophobic jungle, growls through a chewed cigar: ‘The United States had its Peace Corps, well, by Jesus, we’re the War Corps!’ That’s been fun.
We walked through my village and down Burnley Road, the cruel wind howling and snapping at our backs, to have a look at my childhood house. Where I had The Bees tucked into the pocket of my coat, he, in contrast, had Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, which I’d finished reading the week before. Gwendoline grew up not far from here, though about a decade ahead of me, on the Wirral, and I see her recognize here the ‘sky’s cold threat … Dishrag clouds, leaking light’ that characterizes the region. I read Cold Water, Riley’s first novel, in my teens, when I was still living here, in the little semi with the yellow porch and leaded lights in the bay windows, the holly tree in the front garden. I adored the book, circling as I was at the time the dubious, dangerous, intoxicating pleasures of dive bars and scummy men, where everyone is hungry, thirsty, delusional, wild, vulnerable, tough, sad, yawning through late shifts and brutal dialogue. First Love is like Cold Water but sans innocence, like the earlier novel grown up in years and battered by experience. The desperate, acrimonious exchanges between Neve and Edwyn are horrible to read, evoking despicable power-play and misunderstanding and need in ways I found unsettlingly familiar. The loneliness is awful. The fear palpable. And it’s fucking funny, it’s great, it really is. It’s dark and bleak and clever.
Also dark, also bleak, also clever, is Stranger, Baby, the difficult second album of poems by Emily Berry, follow-up to her incendiary, prize-winning debut Dear Boy. As Ed and I walked on the beach, the distant sea a grey line on the horizon, the gulls swooping and landing to peck at desiccated bladderwrack and razor clams, I thought of Emily’s poetry, in which
Watching the sea is like watching something in pieces continually striving to be whole
In grief, as in other deeply felt emotions, poetry frequently turns to the sea, to ‘oceanic feeling’, finding recognition in the unknowable, tempestuous vastness of a wide body of water, of cold and suffocation, of changeability and unpredictability.
The sea is somewhere anything can happen You know when two seas come together there is deep pain and pleasure at the border
‘Everything Bad Is Permanent’
This landscape on the Merseyside coast, this strange, often bleak land, has been both pleasure and pain for me. On summer nights we stayed up all night drinking in the dunes, kicking sand and leaping from the tops, plaiting marram and collecting shells, kissing, smoking, talking until the sun rose palely over the far oil rig. I used to come here to cry sometimes, the cold wind whipping the tears dry on my face, salt on my lips, sand on my boots. More often, I was happy. It’s a place welcoming to big feeling. It’s complex and layered, but it can also feel reassuringly featureless when you need it to be, a flat, blank canvas wiped clean by the outgoing tide. Here’s a couple of lines from Joey Connolly’s long-awaited debut collection, Long Pass:
The uniform surface of the sea speaks of the gross magnitude of a suffocating nothingy fullness settled over by its surface.
‘Average Temperature at Surface Level’
Joey’s book is stuffed to the gills, a trove of variously shaped lexical treasures and linguistic abundance, like the wealth and diversity of shells and skeletons along the tideline. There’s grey water here, too:
The water fails in the February grey to glisten, but the whitenesses of loosed gullfeather can act up, stand in.
‘Escape to the Reservoir Café’
What Emily’s and Joey’s poetry has in common (and stylistically they’re not similar) is an ongoing attempt to enunciate something, to explain the inexplicable, to shape something problematic in words. ‘Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person’, asks Stranger, Baby, coming to terms with the death of a mother. In different ways, the poems in Long Pass are also concerned with getting it right, with exactitude, with accuracy, with truth, with translating the interior view out through the pane and into the world in one coherent piece. I think of Neve and Edwyn trying to make themselves heard, trying to understand themselves.
It’s hard sometimes to explain why something matters, why it seems so urgent that someone else is made to see. I wanted to bring him here ever since I met him, to give him the strange grey sea, the enormous sky, the bleak, cold, wild complexity of it. Maybe I wanted him to understand something of me by knowledge of the place that made me. Whether it was lost in translation, whether it made any sense, whether or not he (who, amusingly, ‘hates sand’) found anything to love about it, in the act of showing I saw things about it I hadn’t before, and have been able to write about my childhood, about that place, properly, for the first time since.
Emily Berry, Stranger, Baby (Faber, 2017)
Joey Connolly, Long Pass (Carcanet, 2017)
Jack Laflin, The Bees (Tempo Books, 1976)
Gwendoline Riley, First Love (Granta, 2017)