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 jaw 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.
From Black Country (Chatto & Windus, 2014), © Liz Berry.
When I left school in 2017, I was surprised by my own reaction. For some of my time there, I had felt pretty out of place. There were many individuals whom I had formed deep connections with and was sad to be leaving; I am lucky to still be in touch with some of them today. But my school time felt more marked by skipping assemblies to sit in the toilets with my friend, chattering our rudimentary feminist critiques of the boys in our class, than by listening to the school’s choice of ‘inspirational speakers’. Or by singing through countless sore throats in December because the harmonies had to be right. Or by trying to read my Latin textbook underneath desks in ‘Learning for Life and Work’ classes (here our notoriously strait-laced teacher cautioned us against the perils of ‘having sex on a beach in Dubai’. ‘I can’t even understand why you’d do it!’, she said.) I spent some of my time walking out of classes muttering Nobody understands!; other times I’d sit inside them, happily arguing with teachers whose lessons consisted of them dictating Sparksnotes for us to copy down. Sometimes I went to the library instead of class; sometimes I was sent back to class. I opened the books that hadn’t been borrowed since 1957; the books that the librarian was discarding because no one read them, I took home. Every day I walked to school in bright white trainers with neon-pink laces, and changed them as soon as I arrived; every few weeks I’d spar with a teacher who told me I was ‘ruining the school’s reputation’. Am I really? I asked her.
At the end of the year, however, I felt a huge sense of loss – for my close friends, whom I’d never be able to interact with in the same way again; for the friends I sat beside in classes and never saw on the weekends; for the teachers I loved and who would be retiring, not to be replaced; even for the teachers whose threadbare Sparksnotes arguments I would not poke holes in again. I think this poem captures something of that complex loss. In the voice of a primary school teacher (the childlike register of ‘clashy bashy’ works well for this), it takes us through several formative experiences which the speaker has guided their students through. What I find compelling is that these experiences are frequently poised between intimate and ominous. The tenderness of ‘curling my hand over another hand / to hinge the crocodile jaw of the scissors’ could equally sound a little invasive; and the threat of the crocodile jaw is never far off. I’m reminded of Holden Caulfield’s tender, if confused, dreams of being the catcher in the rye. But the protective instinct here is maternal and, I think, more thoughtful. Importantly – and unlike Holden – Miss Berry manages to bring some resolution to the loss of the children she has raised. ‘Even in September my heart is June’: it’s a closing phrase which is excellently ambivalent. What does it mean for your heart to be June in September? Does it mean that you are stuck in June, unable to leave behind what has passed? Or is your September made richer by your memory of June? I think there’s also a nod to the famous Gwendolyn Brooks poem, here: but I’ll have to leave that for another email!
I hope you are well; and I hope you can find some joyful moments to remember 2020 by, amidst all the monotony and chaos and loss. It’s been exactly one year since I started this newsletter; it has certainly given me a lot of comfort and connection through what felt to me like a significant time. I am very grateful to all of you for that.
Take care; here’s to 2021!