Books

Vanessa Berry
Gentle and Fierce

There are complex, fundamental questions around how we relate to non-human animals. How can we find a way to organise our systems so they are not exploitative or degrading and are not poisoning the land and water we all depend on? What might a genuinely sustainable ethic of cross-species interdependence look like? Are our cultural stories and mythologies about animals harmful or helpful?

Vanessa Berry’s latest collection of essays, Gentle and Fierce, doesn’t tackle these questions head-on, though it is haunted by them. It takes an idiosyncratic and personal approach, energised by curiosity and care for what is immediately before us. Berry’s guiding philosophy is perhaps most clearly signalled 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 against collective amnesia”.

This is a modest book, intimate and ruminant. Reading it reminded me of the posture that is required when encountering a wild animal – or indeed 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 some sharp and nourishing aphorisms, it’s overwhelmingly a book of lyrical reflections on subjectivity, memory and change. Berry’s writing meanders attentively through scenes of her childhood and young adulthood, where animals appeared most commonly inside kitsch objects, music videos, books and clothing. These animals, mediated and heavily symbolic, are experienced as familiars, fellow travellers associated with the fraught journey of growing up and finding a stable identity.

In “The Sinking Horse”, Berry remembers watching Artax the horse being inexorably claimed by mud in the film of The NeverEnding Story. This segues hauntingly into an account of the creeping Nothing of self-consciousness and depression, of ecocide and waves of plastic. “A Spider in My Cup” opens with the compelling vision, “as much camp as eerie”, of watching The Cure’s Robert Smith being eaten by a giant spider in the music video for “Lullaby”, which shifts into a meditation on how writing is akin to web-weaving and self-making, threads emerging from the writer’s own body.

For more than 20 years, Berry has written the autobiographical zine I Am a Camera. She is also a visual artist and each essay of Gentle and Fierce opens with a poetic drawing – a family of carolling magpies, the figure of a rabbit on the surface of the full moon, an author photo of Georges Perec with a cat seated on his shoulder.

In the opening essay, Berry writes of the insect’s compound eye, suggesting that her approach will be similarly multifaceted, seeing “how the past braids into the present and how it shapes what is to come”. It’s a profound and ambitious metaphor that the book doesn’t quite manage to execute. These essays are focused and singular rather than vast and multiple.

Berry attends to the nearby and the small, the shy creatures of laneways and share houses. In a discontinuous chain of urban scenes, “Animal Chronicle I” notices and considers millipedes, beetles, common mynas, a turtle, cockatoos, carp, a friend’s dogs and more. One of the most poised and moving essays is “Fly Away Bird”, where Berry, grieving a friend who has died of cancer, sits with magpies who seem to sing to her in consolation. Her awareness that this is a human projection makes it no less affecting or real.

While these essays are intimate, they are also quietly exploratory, allowing unexpected associations to take form. At times, moving down an apparently straight corridor of thought, a trapdoor will open. In “Mink Coat”, Berry sees a ferocious hybrid, a dragon, on a tile of the reconstructed Ishtar Gate in Berlin’s Pergamonmuseum and becomes herself as a child, her mother, grandmother, all the generations before her. In “Junk Bug”, the titular insect, carrying on its back the husks of aphids and mites it has killed, becomes the writer, carrying postcards and magazine clippings, memories and echoes of memories. Elsewhere she recalls the epiphany of observing blood cells under a microscope, awakening to the possibility that she “could think of [her]self as a collection as much as an entity”.

Humans, it seems, are as liable to transform as any larva, and more connected to others than we might assume.

Berry explores the formal possibilities of the essay with subtlety and discretion, so Gentle and Fierce never feels aggressive, predictable or ostentatious. It is itself gentle, inhabiting much more of what she calls “a persistent whisper, calm and consoling” than its counterpart, ferocity. This is likely due to the book’s elegiac undertone; an acute appreciation not only of what has been already lost but of the lives that we may yet lose.

This foreboding ought to inspire fierce action, but it could also prompt us to revive a neglected gentleness. In “The Ceramic Zoo”, Berry recalls the delicate figurines of animals that populated her childhood home, her rapture at their beauty and anxiety at their vulnerability. She carried these sensations out into the paddocks surrounding the house, which teemed with life. “My greatest wish,” she says, “was to move carefully through the world, to pose no threat to anything around me.”

Andy Jackson

Giramondo, 192pp, $26.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 24, 2021 as "Gentle and Fierce, Vanessa Berry".

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Reviewer: Andy Jackson