“We spent our lives down in the blackness……those bird
brought us up to the light” – Jim Showell, Tumbling pigeons & the Black Country
Wench, yowm the colour of ower town:
concrete, steel, oily rainbow of the cut.
Ower streets am in yer wings,
ower factory chimdeys plumes on yer chest,
yer heart’s the china ower owd girls dust
in their tranklement cabinets.
Bred to dazzlin in backyards by men
whose onds grew soft as feathers
just to touch you, cradle you from egg
through each jeth-defying tumble.
Little acrobats of the terraces,
We’m winged when we gaze at you
Jimmucking the breeze, somersaulting through
the white-breathed prayer of january
and rolling back up like a babby’s yo-yo
caught by the open donny of the clouds.
Tranklement/ ornaments (bits & Bobs): wench/affectionate name for a female: yowm/ you are: cut/ canal: onds/hands: jimmucking/ shaking: babby/ little child: donny/hand (child)
Black Country is an area of the West Midlands metropolitan county in England, north and west of Birmingham. It includes parts of the boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton. During the Industrial Revolution, it became one of the most industrialised parts of Britain with coal mines, coking, iron foundries and steel mills producing a high level of air pollution. The region gained its name in the mid nineteenth century due to the smoke from the many thousands of ironworking foundries and forges plus also the working of the shallow and 30ft thick coal seams. Elihu Burritt, the American Consul to Birmingham in 1862, described the area 'Black by day and red by night'.
It mizzled the night you died
but you’d already gone
back to your owd mon’s garden
with your yellow frock on.
In the beds, goosegogs furred,
peas climbed cane wigwams,
your brothers shirt danced
on the line. And you, thirteen
again, sensing light above,
raised your hand to shade
your eyes from the sun.
Mizzled/ rained: owd mon/ dad
Liz Berry was born in this region & still lives there now (Birmingham), so it makes perfect sense for her debut collection of poetry to be set there as well, but what makes this collection stand out is the language used. Liz Berry has drawn on the dialect of the Black Country and by combining this with its history & her own has created an extraordinary collection of poetry rooted into the landscape and yet at that same instant somersaulting, turning as though a bird in flight. The words come off the page almost as if they were incantations as though by reciting the “owd words” you are not merely harking back to the past but raising it fully formed into the present, with the dialect forming a vital part of the poems not just as some form of tranklement, (love that word) but a way of placing this region its landscape and people on the map. This is not just a wonderful personal debut collection of poetry it’s a paean to a world that is changing, to a landscape that was carved out for a specific purpose, that now no longer exists. Liz Berry’s Black country, is like the region - there’s a darkness born out of the landscape, but there is also a humour, a tenderness that reflects it’s people and is there as a defence against all that the darkness represents.
For years you kept your accent
in a box beneath the bed
the lock rusted shut by hours of elocution
how now brown cow
the teacher’s ruler across your legs.
We heard it escape sometimes,
A guttural uh on the phone to your sister,
saft or blart to a taxi driver
unpacking your bags from his boot.
I loved itsthick drawl, g’s that rang.
Clearing your house, the only thing
I wanted was that box, jemmied open
To let years of lost words spill out –
Bibble, fittle, tay, wum,
vowells ferrous as nails, consonants
you could lick the coal from.
I wanted to swallow them all: the pits
Railways, factories thunking and clanging
The night shift, the red brick
Back-to-back you were born in.
I wanted to forge your voice
In my mouth, a blacksmith’s furnace;
Shout it from the roofs,
Send your words, like pigeons,
fluttering for home.
Black Country (Chatto & Windus, 2014), was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, received a Somerset Maugham Award and won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2014, it was also chosen as a book of the year by The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Mail, The Big Issue and The Morning Star.
Liz Berry received an Eric Gregory Award in 2009, an Arvon-Jerwood Mentorship in 2011 and won the Poetry London competition in 2012. Her pamphlet The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls was published by Tall Lighthouse in 2010. Her poems have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, been broadcast on BBC Radio and recorded for the Poetry Archive.
Points of View
“These are poems of great vitality and charm. Seasoned with the dialect of Liz Berry’s home territory, but with a linguistic and lyric freshness independent of that, they offer nourishment – right bostin fittle, in fact – to readers hungry for the real thing.” (Christopher Reid)
“Ecstatic, quicksilver poems, ablaze with originality, curiosity and a passion for words.” (Ruth Padel)
"Liz Berry makes you look at the world differently. Her book is a real appreciation of a place that’s not often appreciated. She is a fresh, exciting and distinctive new voice. Her work is that rare thing, a collection that leaves you feeling full of real optimism and hope"(Jeremy Paxman, Forward Prize Judge)
"I have wondered why the wit, warmth and energy of the West Midlands had no voice amongst the younger English poets. Now it has. Liz Berry is the Black Country’s shining daughter."(Alison Brackenbury)
"Superb… a sooty, soaring hymn to her native West Midlands, scattered with words of dialect that light up the lines like lamps. Expect to hear a great deal more from her in years to come.(Sarah Crown, Guardian)"