A Story I Am In is not just James Berry’s life in poetry but a book of all the lives he witnessed or was part of – a story of life itself. He came to Britain in 1948, in the first postwar wave of Jamaican emigration, later becoming one of the first black writers in Britain to achieve wider recognition.
Poetry mattered to Berry from an early age, exposed to two main languages: the standard English of Bible and prayerbook heard every Sunday at church, with all its rhythms and sounding patterns; and the tunes of everyday Jamaican language, with its sayings and proverbs, its special dialect words with their African connections, its expression of a roots culture. These experiences gave him that strong and particular Caribbean awareness of language which has nourished his poetry over many years.
This major retrospective of his work covers five collections published over four decades, plus a selection from four books of poetry for children. Much of his poetry celebrates the divided world of a lifelong outsider. Growing up in Jamaica, Berry felt as much disturbed by his African background as by the European slave-trade and its aftermath. His poetry shows how ‘root agonies’ made him view Africa as a thoughtless and neglectful mother, how his years in Britain – most of his adult life – left him worried by past, present and future.
Yet despite these powerful feelings of hurt, of anger at injustice, Berry's poetry is powerfully lyrical and full of delight in nature, and human nature. He vividly recalls the sounds and sights of his childhood, and in his work there is always a nostalgia for clear water and sunshine and ripe fruit. He himself observed that West Indian poetry 'has something to say and there is a compulsive beauty about the way it is being said'. It is this compulsive beauty that Berry's poetry communicates so strongly.
'When I think of James Berry’s poetry I think of celebration… celebration with an echo of despair, but his urge to find worth and joy in both the remembered life of his rural Jamaican childhood and in his sojourn as a "bluefoot traveller" in Britain through the last forty years, is the real motive force of his work… Berry has been at the forefront of the struggle to validate and honour the language people of West Indian origin in Britain actually speak’ – Stewart Brown
James Berry: Poet of the Windrush Generation
James Berry reads eight poems from A Story I Am In: Selected Poems. The first three poems are originally from his collection Hot Earth Cold Earth, which celebrated the divided world of a lifelong outsider, a poet of two tongues, ‘Hot Earth’ Creole and ‘Cold Earth’ English (‘Defendant in a Jamaican Court’, ‘Words of a Jamaican Laas Moment Them’, ‘Early Days Thinking Is Only So Much’). These are followed by five poems from Windrush Songs giving voice to the people who came on the first ships from the Caribbean, whose journeys held strange echoes of earlier sea voyages which had brought ancestors from Africa to the slave plantations (‘To Travel This Ship’, ‘Englan Voice’, ‘In the Land and Sea Culture-crossed’, ‘New Space’, ‘Wind-rush’). Pamela Robertson-Pearce filmed him at home in Chiswick in June 2007 for Bloodaxe’s first DVD-anthology, In Person: 30 Poets (2008).