A tour through the towpaths with Liz Berry
Come wi’ me, bab, wum to Tipton-on-Cut, starts Liz Berry’s poem – a call, from a knowing voice, to investigate one of the most significant sites of the region. The cut, it’s everywhere and nowhere – perfect territory for Berry, who leads us, through her poems, into these haunting sites and to experiences of transformation or epiphany – often preceded by passing through something mucky, animalistic, feral.
In the main, the cut is probably seen as a place of leisure and pleasure – dog walking, fishing, boat trips, family bike rides, but it shares this sense of wholesome enjoyment and domesticity with its sense of history and heritage. We get this in Berry’s “Tipton-on-Cut” where Telford’s fabled waterways with their mix of old pubs, the church, parklands also hold the crumbling altar of BDF Steelworks. It’s evident in “Goodnight Irene”; over the canal bridge, the Baptist Chapel / still brave on the cut […] past the marlpit, the warehouses, / the Indian shop, the streets left to squatters, their pebble-dashed terraces emptied by time.
Another clash is between the wild, untamed, natural with the constructed, manufactured, manmade. The canal networks were forged with drills, digging, labour and engineering, but what was also created was habitat, eco-systems and, curiously, those odd places where the wild and the natural tangle with the industrial. When we think of the landmarks of the canals we think of grasses, water birds, wild flowers, but also old glassworks, ruined steelworks, industrial estates, locks and gatehouses. We think of housing estates and parks, but also woodlands, and also railway tracks and motorway junctions. Canals are places of graffiti and litter and places of conservation and natural beauty. Liz Berry’s poetry works with these clashes too. In her poem, “Gosty Hill” the space is shared between the natural – Iris, Rose of Sharon and Vixen, Mole, Adder – and the manufactured – Ocker Hill, Engine Arm, Withymoor Pit. Berry fuses the organic and manmade too, in “Black Delph Bride” the cut becomes a being: Black Delph, Black Delph, my girl she floats, / her bridgesmaids: eels and voles and stoats.
So, we get the clash and often fusion of green space and grey space, rural and urban, manmade and natural, tame and wild, safe and unsafe, passive and active. In Berry’s hands, the cut is a strange thing, constantly shedding its skin, constantly building, demolishing and rebuilding. She writes of the unnamable, slippery, in-between, spaces for transformation. Take the old tribal cliche of a young child being sent out from the village into the wild to prove their self, to earn their place, to become adult. They leave the tribe and complete a task, returning as adult. But, in that moment they are between states, no longer child, not quite adult. The subject needs that odd, off-kilter time-space to transcend their role. This is the very roots of narrative – transformation, transition, revolution. They are places away from the safe, structured world and its systems and rules. They hold the possibility of subversive, transgressive, rebellious activity.
This is why we see so much transformation and rites of passage in Berry’s poems. It’s no accident that “Gosty Hill”, with its mix of green and grey, is the site where I baptised mah wench as well as where I’ll be waitin at Delph Run with brick in me ond. The same can be said of “Tipton-on-Cut” where, after being led passed the drinkers, the workers, the sites and sounds we end in bacchanalian reverie as we lie on ower baltied bellies on the towpath / to sup the moon, like the head of a pint, / from ower cut.
The cut can be seen, especially in Berry’s visions, as arenas of shape-shifting, coming into being, of transformation and the carnivalesque.