Sweet and fierce | Saturday newspaper
There are complex and fundamental questions about our relationship with non-human animals. How can we find a way to organize our systems so that they aren’t exploitative or degrading and poison the land and water we all depend on? What might a truly enduring ethic of interdependence between species look like? Are our cultural stories and animal mythologies harmful or helpful?
Vanessa Berry’s latest collection of essays, Sweet and fierce, does not tackle these questions head-on, although they haunt him. He takes an idiosyncratic and personal approach, energized by curiosity and concern for what is immediately in front of us. Berry’s guiding philosophy is perhaps most clearly signaled in the essay “Animal Chronicle II”, where she writes “Noticing and recording the animals around us, and how they have shaped our lives, is a way to fight. collective amnesia “.
It is a modest, intimate and ruminating book. Reading it reminded me of the posture necessary to meet a wild animal – even a domestic cat. I had to be still and patient for the writing to reveal itself to me.
Although the essays are peppered with vivid and nourishing aphorisms, it is essentially a book of lyrical reflections on subjectivity, memory, and change. Berry’s writing carefully winds through scenes from his childhood and early adulthood, where animals most often appeared inside kitsch items, music videos, books, and clothing. These animals, publicized and strongly symbolic, are experienced as familiars, travel companions associated with the difficult journey of growing up and finding a stable identity.
In “The Sinking Horse”, Berry remembers seeing Artax the horse inexorably claimed by the mud in the film The never-ending story. It hauntingly follows on with a tale of the creeping nothingness of self-awareness and depression, ecocide and waves of plastic. “A Spider in My Cup” opens with the compelling vision, “as much camp as weird,” of watching Robert Smith of The Cure get eaten by a giant spider in the music video for “Lullaby”, which turns into a meditation on how the weaving of the web and self-making is akin to threads emerging from the writer’s own body.
For over 20 years, Berry has been writing the autobiographical zine I am a camera. She is also a visual artist and every essay by Sweet and fierce opens with a poetic drawing – a family of singing magpies, the figure of a rabbit on the surface of the full moon, an author’s photo of Georges Perec with a cat sitting on his shoulder.
In the opening essay, Berry talks about the insect’s compound eye, suggesting that his approach will be just as multifaceted, seeing “how the past blends into the present and how it shapes what is to come.” It is a deep and ambitious metaphor that the book does not quite manage to execute. These trials are focused and singular rather than large and multiple.
Berry takes care of the relatives and the little ones, the timid creatures of the alleys and shared houses. In a discontinuous chain of urban scenes, “Animal Chronicle I” notices and considers centipedes, beetles, common mynas, a turtle, cockatoos, carp, friend’s dogs and more. One of the most poised and moving essays is “Fly Away Bird,” where Berry, grieving for a friend who died of cancer, sits with magpies who seem to sing songs of consolation to him. His awareness that this is a human projection does not make it any less touching or real.
While these essays are intimate, they are also discreetly exploratory, allowing unexpected associations to take shape. Sometimes, as you walk down a seemingly straight line of thought, a trap door will open. In “Mink Coat,” Berry sees a fierce hybrid, a dragon, on a reconstructed Ishtar Gate tile at the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin and becomes a child herself, her mother, her grandmother, all generations before her. In “Junk Bug”, the titular insect, carrying on its back the envelopes of aphids and mites it has killed, becomes the writer, carrying postcards and magazine clippings, memorabilia and echoes of memories. Elsewhere, she remembers the epiphany of observing blood cells under a microscope, awakening to the possibility that she “might think of [her]itself as a collection as much as as an entity ”.
Humans, it seems, are as susceptible to transformation as any larva, and more connected to others than one might imagine.
Berry explores the formal possibilities of the essay with subtlety and discretion. Sweet and fierce never feels aggressive, predictable or ostentatious. He himself is gentle, inhabiting much more of what she calls “a lingering, calm, and comforting whisper” than his counterpart, ferocity. This is probably due to the elegiac undertone of the book; a keen appreciation of not only what has already been lost, but the lives we may still lose.
This foreboding should inspire fierce action, but it could also inspire us to rekindle a neglected sweetness. In “The Ceramic Zoo”, Berry remembers the delicate figurines of animals that inhabited his childhood home, his delight at their beauty and his anguish at their vulnerability. She carried these sensations to the paddocks surrounding the house, which was teeming with life. “My greatest wish,” she said, “was to move cautiously around the world, not to pose any threat to anything around me. “
Giramondo, 192pp, $ 26.95
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 24, 2021 under the title “Gentle and Fierce, Vanessa Berry”.
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