Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

‘All our past lives’: on Emily Berry’s ‘Unexhausted Time’

Nicola Healey

I have long admired the way Emily Berry’s poetry handles complex thought, not just feeling, within carefully considered sentences, her intelligent sensitivity to our interior lives, and her attention to the idiosyncratic, often overlooked, details of living, but Unexhausted Time (Faber, 2022) is my favourite of her collections to date. I found it hugely satisfying to read, a commanding and special work that deserves notable recognition. To take such a vast and nebulous abstract as time itself and pin it down in the original and thought-provoking way that she has is a formidable achievement. Berry has a gratifying sense of literary communion, history and inheritance, multifaceted perspective, vulnerability and power, and humility in the face of the insurgent forces of life and time; this combination feels unique among her contemporaries, and permeates these pages in a profound and moving way.


The opening poem, ‘(The gate stood open)’, conveys a protracted, impending doom through a train slowly braking before its stop, which I interpreted as a life being too aware of its final destination (or endings in general). The poem ends:


            I’m expecting something
and it feels like wearing a silk shirt …
Language incorrigible, same as hurt.


This is a wonderfully immediate, tactile simile: there is something incipient and on-edge about silk, especially against the skin. It is material, yet feels ephemeral, barely there, with the fluidity of water, even as if it has independent volition.[1] Perhaps it is like time itself, the perpetually arriving moment. It is ‘like something almost being said’, as Larkin said of the trees coming into leaf. Here, this silky expectation seems to hint at the seductiveness of the death drive.


This hovering apprehension sets the tone for what follows where, to excavate ‘unexhausted’ time, these searching poems, situated in the haze of what we don’t know, probe where surfaces meet, merge, fail to meet, and even repel: the intangible zones between time periods, people (strangers and known people), the living and the dead, consciousness and dreams, self and the natural environment, and between the spoken and the unsaid. The poems often pivot on liminal sites of transaction, such as skins and seals (real, metaphoric and psychic), demonstrating how these can be both a protector and a barrier, a site of irritation, but also the gateway to expression and connection.


Berry presents the conflicts that the interface of language itself poses, however, and seems to dive underneath language, and below the surface of our thoughts, showing a piercing mind as it is grappling with the essential instability of living and time. She has an acute sensitivity to atmospheres, what is almost being said, and what actually lies beyond words; she creates atmospheres, rather than just describing them (she is so good at doing this, there is often a filmic feel to her poems). In a way, the whole book is its own atmosphere. Though at times the poems are frustratingly elliptical or evasive, this also creates intriguing mystery. She tends to draw back from declarations, which can be too definitive and risk leaving behind other elusive layers of the truth, which may be unreachable or unknowable through language.




In ‘The Incredible History of Patient M.’ (Dear Boy, Faber, 2013), Berry seemed to criticise the idea of atemporality, or not paying attention to time, history or narrative, as the overbearing doctor (who isn’t wearing a watch) states ‘Time is nothing’, ‘Time is nowhere, / like a dead bird in a cave.’ Unexhausted Time posits that time does, in fact, press in on us everywhere, showing how the past is always with us, is even, in some way, our home. ‘The past is our country’ (not ‘a foreign country’, as the saying goes), she writes in ‘(Late summer)’. This collection extends, in a more human and nuanced way, T. S. Eliot’s meditation on the relationship between past, present and future in Four Quartets, which explores ideas of pre-destination, free will, moral responsibility and relativity:


Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.[2]


I often felt the presiding spirit of Eliot in Unexhausted Time, and that this collection solidifies Berry’s status as one of our most important and influential contemporary poets, comparable to his relentless exploration of the frontier of the human spirit. Berry considers the ‘unredeemable’ nature of time, showing how unwanted the past’s continued presence can be through highly-effective similes that incorporate dirt and bodily dysfunction: ‘The past is parked next to me like a dirty van’, she writes in ‘(All statements purporting to be fact)’; and ‘the past came through like a hernia’ in ‘(My love was two pieces put together)’, a typically startling simile, perfectly pitched to encapsulate how visceral such a time-eruption can feel.


Too easily, people, especially politicians, and certain schools of psychology, wish us to ignore or disown the past and ‘move on’, involving a sleight of hand, an amnesia and self-deception, on an epic scale in reality; even a self-annihilation. It is an act of uncomfortable vigilance, allegiance to complex truth and responsibility to the human condition that Berry’s poems seem to refuse this notion, and show how impossible such a relinquishment is, anyway, as we cannot control when the past, especially traumatic memories, will suddenly break through; it is as ‘incorrigible’ (or ‘unredeemable’) as ‘hurt’. The poem-speaker drives that dirty van to a ‘deserted forest’, but ‘It always comes back. / And there are new messages …’. Not only does the past return to haunt us, there is yet still more to learn from it (and that may be where the redemption lies). At the extreme end of this experience, this collapsing of time – where the past is literally felt as the present – is also how sufferers of post-traumatic stress experience time.


The brief poem ‘House’, on suicide, whose spare language in short lines heightens its stark effect, suggests how little we change our behaviour or learn from the past. It seems to consider, if we could go back in time to prevent something terrible from happening, the impossibility of acting any differently or having an influence. The man in this poem is perhaps the same man who appears in ‘(This story is a leaf)’: ‘For a long time a man was dying, / making himself die, he couldn’t stop, / and we forgot, we did our best to forget him.’ Perhaps ‘House’ is on having to relive someone’s suicide on the anniversary of their death: ‘We have to live / through it again in time.’ Or perhaps the poem’s desensitisation is about living with someone who is slowly self-destructing – incrementally dying – and there is nothing you can do to help them, or it is too painful to look at (Eliot, again: ‘the time of death is every moment’).[3] Though we cannot change past events, we have more power over preventing history from repeating itself. ‘He’ is still alive now, and potentially everyone. Yet the poem’s air of futility recognises human ‘mistakes’, our fallibility and self-protective denial, in the midst of awareness and hoping for the best: ‘We make them again, every time, / we think it might be different this time.’


In an Editorial to The Poetry Review (Summer 2020), Berry asked ‘What if we accepted that the past is still with us – it is seen, lived, every day: abuses of power, racial injustice, gender inequality, neglect of those who most need looking after – and requires our attention?’ ‘What if we could use this time’ (prompted by the pandemic’s eery upheaval of time’s flow) ‘to learn something about care?’ These are important questions: if we do not attend to the past with thought and care, and notice its insidious ongoing impact, direct and more diffuse, those who are stuck in the past or its consequences won’t really be freed. The seeds of the future are laid in the past: that is how part of the future has often already happened, even if it isn’t yet realised or known. We are often required to deny this truth because it is too amorphous and invisible, and to believe, instead, that the future is completely in our hands. ‘I fear a catastrophe that has already occurred’, Berry writes in ‘(This story is a leaf)’. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which focuses on the mechanical present not the past, and, unfortunately, has been the dominant therapeutic model in the twenty-first century (primarily because it is deemed cost-effective, in a short-termist way) would call this predicting of the future ‘catastrophising’, a ‘thinking error’ or a ‘cognitive distortion’; I would call it very observant and intuitive. At the level of our days, ‘Remembering the future’, Graham Caveney writes, is also ‘the paradox of phobia’, whereby a floating fear, conditioned by the past, infects and suffuses the present and future; becomes it. ‘The what if unable to escape the tyranny of what was’; ‘the fear of a breakdown that has already occurred’.[4]


That is not to say that Berry’s poems don’t evince hope for the future. I initially interpreted ‘unexhausted time’ to mean quite literally time that has not been ‘exhausted’ (even if the person is); so not used up. Time which, even if seemingly empty, harbours unused, waiting potential and energy, like an ungerminated seed, if we can glimpse or find an opening into it, or the right environmental conditions; almost like a wormhole. Such an opening in space–time is suggested in ‘(To write a poem)’: ‘I would fall / through a tear in time to get there’. These conditions often occur by chance, as she implies in ‘(I will tell you in detail)’: ‘Writing was a mist rising off my life, that’s all, / dependent on atmospheric conditions for its / existence.’ The title also evokes the enigmatic nature of time: time that hasn’t given up all its secrets (and may never do so). It is a brilliant title, and brilliantly apposite for this poised collection. ‘I do believe the future / can influence the past’, she states in ‘(My love was two pieces put together)’ – this is perhaps the only way a troublesome past can be controlled into abeyance, and past ghosts exorcised – by finding true stability or new life in the present (or the future), which then fuel it with more liberating power than the past.


Nevertheless, even new life necessitates a letting go of a past life. Berry’s focus seems to be on nonlinear time and hypothetical parallel lives in time, which dips into quantum theory; what we could have been, or could still be, or even in some way still are (these poems don’t settle for, or with, one plane of existence). ‘What if just under this layer of life you could / find the old one, moving forward just the same, / and just above, what’s yet to come’, she thoughtfully ponders in ‘(You trod your lonely path)’. The theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli has shown, in The Order of Time (2017), how time doesn’t just pass in a linear way; it surrounds us like an atmosphere: ‘We inhabit time as fish live in water’. [5] Yet time is more than watery: it infiltrates us and our space insolubly, or we its, ‘for time is an emulsion’, John Ashbery writes in ‘Soonest Mended’. The substance of time is mercurial, elastic, plasmatic, even an illusion, and inextricably linked with space, and our relationships. As Berry writes in ‘(This is the story of a man)’, it ‘pool[s] in corners / abominably’.


Unexhausted Time’s title is taken from a quotation in Anne Carson’s Economy of the Unlost, which forms the epigraph to Berry’s collection:


‘Attempts at description are stupid,’ George Eliot says, yet one may encounter a fragment of unexhausted time. Who can name its transactions, the sense that fell through us of untouchable wind, unknown effort – one black mane?


I very much liked Berry’s explanation of her title in the PBS Bulletin: ‘A fragment of unexhausted time could be another way of describing a time slip, those things that return to us as unfinished business, which we might also call memories, but they are world-memories, not just personal ones’.[6] Perhaps a poem itself is a ‘fragment of unexhausted time’, or unexcavated time, even a time machine, as it is both a vehicle and, like all true art, a slip of space–time-transcending uncharted terrain, an atmosphere, for both writer and reader to (re-)create and travel through, with endless unknown ‘transactions’. Berry traces Carson’s quotation back to its source in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, where Eliot continues:


who can all at once describe a human being? Even when he [or she] is presented to us we only begin that knowledge of his [or her] appearance which must be completed by innumerable impressions under differing circumstances.


Unexhausted Time, Berry goes on to say, takes up this challenge of going beyond present appearances (surfaces) to portray a multi-layered, probing – rather than one-sided and fixed – human being – ‘or, shall we say, life’ – under shifting, often conflicting circumstances across time, but where time happens all at once. This is a very ambitious exploration of personhood, humanity and ‘unfinished business’ that attends to the loose ends of life, which she more than achieves with flair, in all its frustrating complexities.




This book’s deeply impressive humane achievement, however, is not just Berry’s alert sense of the protean psychic form in the face of shifting time, but her refined, almost preternatural attunement to the permeable boundaries between human beings, and to how much we make (and unmake) each other. In the first section of the book, a series of tender fragments which seem to coalesce around a relationship breakdown, she presents our fundamental porosity: how difficult it can be to protect ourselves from powerful feelings, both our own and those of others. ‘How can I be less porous?’, a friend asks (‘(In this house)’):


             Yes, how
can we keep our love from showing.
Should we keep our love from showing.
The intimacy is too much or it’s not enough


The lines ‘Every life that touched mine so close / to the surface’ seem to usher in a usurpation of identity, as the speaker finds ‘your voice / coming out of my mouth’. In the poem that follows, ‘(The boxes were there)’, the speaker has lost self- and life-understanding, a sense of meaning, as though disconnected from her core: ‘I do not know the things I know’; ‘I do not see / what there is to be seen’. With this use of subtle repetition and questioning, where lines are altered slightly each time, a circumlocution again reminiscent of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, Berry often mediates on uncertainty and doubt, exploring how can we really be sure that we know anything, as though riffing on Plato’s account of Socrates: ‘I know that I know nothing’. The poem ultimately hints at the relational and communication difficulties posed by self-containment, whereby an emotional-psychic shield, and barrier, kept the speaker together:


Maybe I should have asked for more …
but I was sealed up, like a package
that must be delivered whole,
or not at all …


There is a self-confounding paradox in this brilliantly exact simile, yet vague context, making the reader experience an impasse of confusion, just as the speaker did.


‘Scholar’, in which a close friend, ‘a scholar of / unbelief’, classifies the poem-speaker as ‘a believer in / symbols’, and places her in a ‘designated category’, shows how Berry resists such classification: ‘I did / not like to think of myself as belonging to a / category.’ This discomfort with being identified and fixed among a group like a specimen recalls T. S. Eliot’s fear in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’: ‘The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase, / And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, / When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall’. Berry gently critiques the urge to name things (which implies they are then permanently known) in ‘(For a number of months)’: ‘A feeling was named and I was sorry then / to have lost its magic unknownness’. In the context of the rest of the poem – a therapist’s leave-taking, which the speaker feels is premature – this made me think of how unsatisfactory it can feel when the fields of psychology and psychiatry have a label for every feeling or state. It can demystify the human condition, and be quite depressing, even dehumanising. A part of the human condition is unknown and unknowable, and life is an art as well as a science. It is reassuring when poets hold up and protect this ‘magic unknownness’, and leave room for the spirit and the unseen.


Communicative unease re-emerges in ‘Therapy’, where the ‘deep, impermeable / silence’ of a young man in a workshop has the ‘queasy atmosphere’ of ‘something sealed with / a film’, which had perhaps ‘formed due to the substance’s fear of / contamination through exposure to air.’ This man’s self-protective inability to mentally access his surroundings reminded me of Berry’s ‘Girl on a Liner’ (Stranger, Baby, Faber, 2017): ‘Sometimes the world goes very hard / and cannot be got into; I slide off its surfaces / and I am trying to take in air, or trying not to.’ Berry shows how, for some people, airing ineffable problems brings not relief, but a fear of becoming tainted via exposure and the residue of shame it can bring. One can fear being misinterpreted or misunderstood, or just not listened to, not cared about, once your thoughts and feelings hit the air and come into the possession of the listener; ‘you can never / really see yourself the way others do’, she later writes in ‘(Light)’. Like the earlier speaker, who was ‘sealed up, like a package’, Berry presents the difficulties, to the point of impossibility, which surround true connection, communication and trust, in the quest towards knowledge and understanding. The man in ‘Therapy’ ‘was always drawing up overflowing buckets’ from his sadness but then ‘dropping them back down again’ before they could be truly seen. One is again reminded of the frustrations and deflation in Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’: ‘It is impossible to say just what I mean!’; ‘“That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant, at all.”’ In ‘(One day you would say those words)’, Berry repeats the image of the well to imply that, ultimately, we keep trying to speak to quell isolation: ‘But we go on / lowering the bucket into the well. Afterwards, / perhaps, we don’t feel so alone.’ For the young man in ‘Therapy’, however, the inner risk to self of speaking appears to be too great.


In ‘The Remains of the Day’, Berry returns to this theme and seems to criticise such withholding if one is to progress: ‘The only way you will get / any answers is by revealing something.’ This time, the air is presented as a soothing, even seductive analgesic: ‘the air clings to me like a thick layer of / menthol balm, trying to draw something out, / some sickness.’ Menthol balm, however, acts only on the skin, cooling then warming to distract one from deeper pain; the clever, unspoken implication seems to be that talking won’t be a cure, and even involves tricking the mind. She acknowledges, in ‘News’, that even when pain is expressed, it does not necessarily bring catharsis, nor does it heal the original psychic wound – pain can prove ‘indestructible’:


                        I used to
believe that if you write things down you can
keep them away from you. So far this has not
proved to be true.


So, whether we withhold or try to explain, a buried inconsolability can remain. In ‘The Remains of the Day’, Berry states that ‘The only way to fall / asleep is to forget about being awake, but I / remember everything’, which points to the pressure of being such a cerebral repository, the mental toll it takes; a state of seemingly permanent wakefulness.


In her first editorial to The Poetry Review (Spring 2017), Berry explored feelings, vulnerability and exposure. She recalled how, when she was young, her cat used to bring frogs into the house, and she had to return them to the garden. Because ‘Their skin is so thin and their heartbeat so close’, ‘Holding a frog was a bit like holding a feeling’, she noted, a stunningly apt observation. Not only that, but a blurring of boundaries occurred such that it was hard to tell whether the feeling belonged to her or the frog. This diffusion of identity and ‘ownership’ occurs when we read good poems, she observes, or just when we confide in one another: we hope our feelings will be held, protected, by the consciousness of another, and provoke a sense of collective understanding and responsibility, thereby turning the exposure into a connective strength for all concerned.




As with this simple frog, which informed her thinking at a fundamental level, I particularly enjoyed how Berry allows animals more space to shine in Unexhausted Time, surrounding them with a gentle but beatific light, which suggests a sacred significance, as we see in ‘(Late spring evening)’: ‘It is something to see a heron in sunlight, / or the way a duckling stands and stretches itself / tall’; in ‘(Light)’: ‘See how the cat / anoints herself in the sunbeam’; and in the whole of ‘Dream of a Dog’. These brief creaturely descriptions, especially of their transient movements, are all the more powerful for being so unadorned: she allows the grace of the animals to speak for themselves. Animals are more enigmatic than humans because they are even more unknowable and exist outside language. Attention to animals, because they live so much in the present moment, is also one of the ways we can control the threatening weight of the past, and allay our fears over the future, helping us to go on. As Berry writes in ‘(I felt I was born in a time)’, ‘our motivations’ are often concealed, ‘like the lives / of unseen creatures that keep us alive…’. Dogs can tether us to life and living: ‘if I had a dog she would be a kind of faith’, she considers. ‘Dream of a Dog’ was possibly my favourite poem. It is a numinous poem, where the more-relaxed speaker finds ‘your words are travelling / through me, or, no, they travel over me, the / way a breeze makes fabric touch us’. This time, another person’s words caress rather than possess the speaker, who is more accepting of incomplete knowledge, trusting to the future:


                I do not see what I know
and everything beneath that, which I may
come to know, or may not, the slow slow
discernment of the deep layer


Understated rhyme, repetition, sibilance and alliteration are used to great effect, heightening the hypnotic and expansive feel of this dream-state poem. Berry captures the quiddity of the animal, from the ‘soft tips / of her ears in sleep’ down to how ‘her paws / bend at the wrist in supplication’ (I love it when my sister’s dog flexes her paws in this way, and the stretch then extends through to each individual claw). A dream of a poem.


There is an incantatory, mystic feel to many of these lyrical poems, as if they come from a force beyond their author, which gives them a timeless, even otherworldly, quality. Berry’s skilled attention to the sounds of words, and her deployment of repeated phrases and rhythm, aid this shimmering tone, creating subtle, mesmeric sonic echoes, especially in ‘Dream of a Dog’. In ‘(Light)’, another delicate and captivating poem, where the speaker seems entirely at one with her surrounding elements and the present moment, the beautifully simple opening cadences, emphases and word order – ‘low sun, this alive, this / evening’ – evoke both Wordsworth (‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive’, The Prelude) and Shakespeare (‘This blessed plot, this earth, this realm’, Richard II). The charged simplicity of her language here, combined with this occasional archaic syntax and inflections, her usual conversational twists and insights, the unfolding rhythm and visionary tone, all give the poem an unexpectedly biblical air, like a modern psalm. The poem feels full of meaning, yet sheer as gossamer (as does ‘(It was as if I was asleep)’, a radiant fragment). I like the way Berry cautiously figures the sunbeams as being ‘like ways through’, but ‘they’re not real ways / through they’re just a reminder that there / may be a way through’, a fine distinction to make.


All of this builds towards much more of a philosophical and spiritual feel than her previous collections, with an openness and a well-controlled restraint which is very appealing and immersive, often transcendent. This is partly due to her use of deep thought, reasoning and reflection within the poem. In The Poem: Lyric, Sign, Metre (2018), Don Paterson resists an ‘insidious movement which appears to be seeking the total concretisation of the poetic line.’ [7] ‘To get the air flowing through the poem again’, he argues, ‘we require the bravery of showing ourselves to be engaged in thought while in the act of writing’. ‘The subtlety and sophistication of a poet’s thought is most often evidenced by its complex, qualified, nuanced and dynamic unfolding, something which must be bodied forth in a varied, hypotactic syntax’, he writes (an unfolding which Berry is particularly good at). Such poems ‘show the writer in the process of making their discovery, so that the reader can re-enact and reactive it – not merely feel its after-effects, or learn the poet’s wise conclusions. The poem is open for the reader to extend its meaning’, and ‘Through this mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, the reader’s own mind is revived’. I did feel that my mind was revived by these time- and mind-bending poems. Berry proves that abstractness, roaming idea and airy thought do still belong in poems.


Berry’s freedom with line breaks can take a bit of getting used to, but their almost vertiginous feel aids the stream-of-consciousness aspect of many of these poems, rather than fixing the poem (and its subject) too much on the page. Her syntactical flexibility reflects how we actually think and feel things, which isn’t in a perfectly coherent way. The fragmented sentences in ‘Dream of a Dog’, for instance, and her frequent use of ellipses elsewhere, read to me like someone drifting in and out of sleep, thought or consciousness, a daydream or a trance, or time itself; I loved this effect. It is a collection that particularly enables re-reading due to this meditative, expectant quality.


By contrast, the prose poem, which dominates the middle section of the book, seems to channel and hold a flood-of-consciousness, like little reservoirs. Though they can appear deceptively simple and austere, world-weary, these confident, more contained poems are striking and yield real power, such as ‘Empty’, a bold, stark poem on being on the fringes of new motherhood, which can come to dominate a person’s life, such that it is hard to maintain friendships. When a pregnant friend explains that she was ‘going to die when / the child was born’, and so would like to meet up before then, the speaker deadpans that she is busy. This reminded me of Rebecca Watts’s witty poems in her debut collection, The Met Office Advises Caution (Carcanet, 2016), such as ‘Party’ and ‘When you have a baby’: ‘please don’t cease / to enquire after anyone else.’ Understandably, many poems on motherhood now exist, but it is rare and refreshing to find ones on how it changes our friendships and leaves those old friends, too, in a new and isolated zone; this seems to be an almost invisible, taboo subject.


Berry has a gift for isolating and elaborating such transient, inchoate feelings and thoughts which we often immediately recognise but might never have formalised, thereby fulfilling Keats’s belief that poetry should ‘strike the Reader as a wording of his [or her] own highest thoughts, and appear-almost a Remembrance’.[8] This gives a shared communality to these masterly poems, despite their introspective quality. Her subject is often all of us, the human mind, in all its confusion and contradictions: thought as it rubs up against feeling, and what happens when both of these ‘materials’ conflict with people and the outside world, and time’s passing – the friction and fallout that results, like static electricity. Floating psychic waste, in a way. ‘All our past lives and psychic debris bumped up / against the dock’ (‘(I will tell you in detail)’). Berry writes in ‘The Remains of the Day’: ‘There / is a bad thing in the mind that has not been / digested’ – this unassimilation, like the grit in an oyster, seems to fuel her restless quest.


[1] See João Cabral de Melo Neto’s ‘The Word Silk’ for a clever, animalistic conjuring of ‘the thing silk’, in Education by Stone: Selected Poems, tr. Richard Zenith (Archipelago Books, 2005), pp. 113–15.

[2] T. S. Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’, Four Quartets (Faber & Faber, 2001), p. 3.

[3] ‘The Dry Salvages’, Four Quartets, p. 28.

[4] Graham Caveney, On Agoraphobia (Picador, 2022), pp. 181, 159.

[5] Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, tr. Erica Segre and Simon Carnell (Penguin, 2019), p. 1.

[6] With the phrase ‘a time slip’, Berry is referring to an article by Lucie Elven in The New York Times (16 November 2021) on the urban legend of time travel.

[7] Don Paterson, The Poem: Lyric, Sign, Metre (Faber & Faber, 2018), pp. 98–101.

[8] John Keats, Selected Letters, ed. Robert Gittings (Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 66.