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(REVIEW) Bitten Hair, by Tessa Berring


In this review, Nasim Luczaj teases at the tensile, playful and thingly poetics of Tessa Berring’s brilliant new collection, Bitten Hair (Blue Diode, 2019). 

> I have been getting the taste for the life of a still house. By a still house, I mean a still life blown into more dimensions – into silence, walkthrough, hums, windows willed open, soon closed again. Poetry agitates the margins, Berring says in an interview. ‘The far edge of the page is where to lay your glove’, she says in a poem.

> The customary still life is often of fruit: the settled, the perishable. It tells us about how we are also so. ‘Sentences in vases (…) last around three days’. It’s hard to say if we outlive our sentences. Bitten Hair happily connects signs just by connection, as objects are brought together by a house. No discernible rhyme or reason. They lie in the same drawer, on the same tongue.  A voice exclaims, lists, brings you to love it. The undulled, categorised as dull, flourishes. The world is more exciting because it is mundane. Sharp as a lucid dream we choose to pace ourselves in. The disarray of living is common to everyone, Berring says in an interview. ‘Things take place’, she says in a poem.

> Maybe it would be nice for objects to reshuffle at night, grow sudden legs and run all the way along the tabletop, along the other side, run onto the radiator. Maybe not. Working from home is very specific. ‘Call it another day, call it a pussy cat / call it a soft bound atlas / of the word’.

> I started reading Bitten Hair in a surgery waiting room. That’s also where the collection ends – though I didn’t get that far in one sitting – with a poem entitled ‘The Surgery is Filled with Female Poets’. Their voices chatter the way through waiting. At least some of them are waiting to lie and face an unknown with open legs, like I am. It was a really nice accident. Now what if I’d spent the day looking for an off-white bathmat and read Berring’s poem on making the same purchase? The particularity of what Berring brings in can be fun where it conjoins with the reader’s life, but more importantly, it settles them down in the world they are in, careful to hold on both to the vibrancy and the trivia. With poetry, we cushion the temperature of our experience, we affirm small cosmologies in which the elements are ready to tilt towards us, so far into us that they get to be something else in the process. In a difficult moment, we need it affirmed that there is space for detail, space for exaggeration, for heat, and also for coolness – promiscuity, ‘sexual langorousness’, crossings of hardness and softness. Berring’s poems don’t cushion; they give room for living. I go back home and exaggerate my condition just to heighten the enjoyment of reading all the rest in bed.  

> Bitter Hair invites such an attitude. I exaggerate a small clinical experience and I exaggerate my love for mugs of the house and a shadow I see of a curtain knotted to let in more lit background for reflection, even exaggerate the extent of my exaggeration. Bitten Hair makes me feel wowed, simply, uncritically; wowed from the retina, the heart, the leg, the whole resonating body (and all hair on it, yet unparted). Bent a bit, as a bite bends, or as light urges a plant to bend.

> My general impression of lying with my legs open at the clinic was that of being a pair of antlers hung up from a wall turned ground, a pair mysteriously dabbled in, as if there were a mind left there. Now in Berring’s cosmology, legs are usually scissors. Funny, then, that hair appears always bitten not cut. They’re like the fixed adjectives of ancient Greek: that’s just what – in Bitten Hair – hair is, as some things are something or other for Homer[1]. The bittenness comes back, like a poohstick emerging from under a totally forgotten bridge, for you to feel oh yes, life is lots of losing, and again to lose yourself to the still life. The past tense like a poise of elbow, a particular way of resting one’s arm on what is very much the present. Things have already been said, been bitten, been done, but even so, when I asked myself: is there actually any past tense in this book, without looking, I thought no, absolutely none.

> A pair of scissors carries some sense that feels like a whole sense ready to cut other things whole. A woman’s weapon. You could say the poems womansplain. Remind you of a poise, a type of wisdom. On p. 24, we read:

I found a woman with abstract hands and yellow cheeks who said, ‘philosophy is no consolation for bitten hair’

A woman, abstract, found? A woman, as per, reminding us matter. The volume is concluded by ‘The Most Emotional Woman’ – a sequence of 16 poems, all of which begin with the line ‘I am a most emotional woman’. They are bitter play, ‘more / than a little comedy strip, but less / than a battlefield, where even / living things are not alive’. Some of them remind me of a friend, so I send a couple to him, and he replies: Bit morbid, followed by a kind of summary: I am an emotional human / I collect bits of rubbish / Then look at them in a white room. It makes me wonder what it would be like to read this whole collection not as a woman, at least not as a woman who would notice the ‘woman’ being tipped at ease into ‘human’; not as someone who reaches tenderly for rubbish and is almost always seated in a white room, finally of her own, eyeing all the womanhood, the rubbish, how much breathing can be done in these walls.

> There’s a worry there but do forget my doubts. Almost anyone can click with these poems. Bitten Hair is both utterly playful and ever so inhabitable – it’s like visiting one of those vibrant pretend houses with vibrant pretend cookers you buy for children so they can pretend to be adults, except this place is house-sized, fully furnished, comfortable. ‘Utopia is a tiny place / that closes, see it closes’, we read on a postcard enclosed with the book – an extra poem for us to furnish some surface with. A still to throw. I feel almost subjected to all the dazzling, quick-stroked still life, the play contained. There are so many clothes (‘wear lace if I have to’, ‘it’s good having jeans / all over my legs’), fruits (‘orange’, ‘persimmon’), paraphernalia (‘upright Madonnas’, ‘thigh-high statue of a hare / pointing a rifle at a yucca plant’, ‘(hair-dryer, hair-dryer)’, ‘vending machine’, ‘spatula’, ‘ghosts / on the handles of her saucepans’, ‘an upturned colander’, not to mention the elements on a list of objects towards the collection’s end: ‘exotic / objects like printed bed clothes / and soft men, coffee pots decorated / with green enamel sun-loungers, / the teeth from some sacrificial bull’.

> The voice comes fully furnished, but also with an assurance of space. Not once do I hit my funny bone. I don’t know Berring’s reasons for living in Scotland, but I’m here for the high ceilings (shoutout also to the plus-size puddles still hanging about on the occasional viciously sunny day, like those members of an afterparty who won’t leave and who, strewn across precious sofa space in semisleep, reflect what this world might actually be). Below this ceiling, I can wave my scissor legs. Inverted, lifted, drunk from, drunk on. ‘A foundation can give way at any / moment’, and doesn’t.

> Things don’t have to step out of themselves to matter. They are no servants to metaphor. They don’t stand for. They’re here for themselves, for an elation that can emerge from configuration, for the meeting points between them and what the voice is up to, down for, in the vein of Gertrude Stein or Ducks, Newburyport.

> There is something Steinian not only in terms of nouns but also in devotion to syntax for something like its own sake, for instance in the line: ‘being alive is / and tabby cats’. The lists of things and connections between them are quietly mystifying, as when you list to yourself what’s in the cupboard and string together a meal, making forgetful laps round your own kitchen to make it all work. The poem could be a timelapse of this. The motions are essential to the taste.

> There’s a cosmology to these objects, these actions. Philosophy is mentioned, questions are often asked, but only once do we move overtly into metaphysics, in the poem ‘Small Talk, Say, Flies’:

It’s basically that we don’t want it to end And we know we don’t want it to end So we stand in our sewn clothes and laugh out loud About how near death is, how near nothing is Despite waltzing on a stage in turquoise light Despite meat and anemones and gas-lit routes through a park

The little of life is fit in, rendered glad awareness – before it ceases or we cease. Each poem a swatch for some extravagant part of the house. The house is spacious and it’s yours.


[1] At least according to Anne Carson in Autobiography of Red.


Bitten Hair is now available to order from Blue Diode.


Text: Nasim Luczaj

Published: 26/5/20


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