Liz Berry on underpasses, edgelands, woods and the “utterly rapturous”

A dingy corner between brick walls
Scenes from The Passion: The Evening, 2001, by George Shaw. Humbrol enamel on board, 43 x 53 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London.

My poems, ‘The First Path’ and ‘The Evening’, are part of a series, ‘Scenes from The Passion’, which is inspired by artist George Shaw’s paintings of the Tile Hill estate in Coventry. The paintings are beautiful and eerie, exploring liminal places – bus stops and underpasses, edgelands and woods – unpeopled in the gloaming. They reminded me of my home in the Black Country. I was living away at the time and, like Shaw, trying to find a way to explore the place I’d left behind. Speaking about Tile Hill, Shaw said: “I haunted this place and now it haunts me.” I knew that feeling exactly. The paintings were the key I used to let myself back in.

‘The First Path’ was the first of the poems to be written, after a night spent trying to rescue a little Staffie bitch who had been abandoned and locked in the allotments in the falling snow. It was near to Easter and her pitifulness and fear as she streaked, bloody-pawed, through the scrubland seemed almost holy. As in Shaw’s work, I wanted to make the ordinary and uncelebrated into something beautiful and redemptive. That same impulse was behind ‘The Evening’, a poem inspired by Shaw’s painting of a dirty, damp gulley at the back of a working men’s club. It made me think of adolescent sex, of moments when it feels entirely possible to transcend the place you’re in and become something utterly rapturous, almost angelic.

Liz’s poem, ‘The First Path’, was first published in Poetry Review, 103:4, Winter 2013.