Mild and Fierce
Artists usually dislike having the sobriquet “quirky” connected to them. Rightly so: it is a pallid descriptor, all coy distance and faintly absurd camp. But I could not aid experience it used to Vanessa Berry’s fourth e book, Mild and Fierce. Here, Berry employs a range of characteristic strategies – along with a detached style – to reflect on animals, as nicely as her daily life as an creator, zine-maker, daughter, and young self.
Berry’s design depends on diffidence, on positioning objects in advance of subjects as she writes in a chapter about a wildlife park in Germany, “I was external to the scenes heading on about me, like a qualifications figure”. This externality is mirrored in the syntax (Berry is fond of employing “for” as a conjunction) and sinuous circumspection of her prose a usual sentence manages to mix the passive voice with a motion like a camera tracking again from its item until finally the subject matter lastly arrives into watch: “On the other aspect of the path was an aviary within which an owl stared from orange eyes the colour of marigolds.” (My italics.)
Tortuous and twee, this take out from Berry’s topics – zoomed-out, flippantly ambling – characterises not only the producing but the essays’ development. Glass Fish gives us rooms within rooms Rabbit Island, a “thought-path” that crosses continents Frank the Bear, a museum corridor that doubles as a time machine. The most unconventional occurs in Lassie Appear Property as Berry imagines a torch beam monitoring throughout a variety of objets mémoire through the dim. The most clever, Junk Bug, splices Kafka with an eye for ephemera reminiscent of Georges Perec.
Berry’s Russian doll constructions sometimes recall that other anthropologist of reminiscences and mental association, Gerald Murnane (see, for instance, Perec’s Cat, with its inside worlds and visions inside visions).
Lassie Occur Property, would make the affiliation clearer nevertheless, as Berry writes: “I envisage [a memory] nearly as if it is real, but even in the most vivid of my psychological illustrations or photos, there are shadows and elisions. Occasionally, when I occur up from a shadow, or feel the edges of what I remember and what I visualize, I wish I could action through memory, be actually inside that time and spot yet again as if it is the present.”
In a chapter concerning The Neverending Tale and time’s passing Berry evokes a sense of youthful indirection, an “urge to disappear”. The sentiment recollects Charlotte Wooden in her early twenties, reading, “with a bleak type of recognition”, the protagonist of Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip: “Thankfully,” Wood wrote, “that younger self of mine – who like [Garner’s protagonist] hung about endlessly waiting, who could not, would not stand up for herself – has pale into my extended-distant previous.”
When Berry reflects on her younger self there is the perception of a man or woman who, in their twenties, inhabited “the underside of life”, not so significantly in subversion as self-abnegation, “full of plaintiveness and masochism”, as Wooden put it.