FROLICKING IN THE ETHER
The Dead Zoo by Ciaran Berry
The “personhood debate” is news that stays news, ready to be puzzled over with each slow birth and slow death. To the expectant mother, the creature kicking inside her, in its infinite strangeness and infinite potential, may seem more fully another person than the newborn infant, floppy and dependent and suckling at her breast; or even than the toddler, imitative and repetitive and attaining each developmental milestone at its pre-ordained time. We fear the slave, the android and the hybrid for what they do to our fragile sense of what’s human and what’s not. When Zeus rapes Leda, it’s doubly terrible and doubly thrilling, because he’s part person, part swan. When Star Trek’s Data repays our sympathy with a flash of clumsy personality, our laughter is half relief. Abortion activists wield posters of foetuses with faces as though these were weapons; portraits of soulful chimpanzees tug at our empathy-strings; but we also make out a man in the moon and the shocked facial expressions of certain houses and electrical sockets.
Surely things should be more straightforward once we’re dead. As Ciaran Berry puts it, “the great striptease / that waits beyond this one” is the moment when “whatever moves / the body sheds its cheap dress”. However we had defined the soul or the mind or the person, after death we can agree that it’s fled – whether altogether or elsewhere. And yet, even in the most secular societies, we’re rarely capable of behaving as though the corpse were really, immediately just a discarded garment. Our selves tend to linger. This problem, our troubling sense that we do not make a clean break at death, any more than we get off to a clean start at birth, is for art an opportunity. And it’s at the centre of Berry’s second collection of poetry, The Dead Zoo. “A Mutiny”, perhaps the collection’s most moving poem, conveys the pain that’s at stake. In the poem, Alzheimer’s disease eats away dreadfully at Berry’s grandmother’s mind, blurring the difference between her presence and her absence. Berry compares this horrible betrayal of the person to the failure of a bees’ dance:
and we know, surely, where all this must lead –
the keeper like a lost god in his white get-up
as he awaits the workers that will never return,
Auguste D, in her cramped chamber, enquiring,
“This face I touch now,
is it yours or mine?”
I’ll admit that I wish that Berry had let a little more of his book come as close to the bone as this, since he can be so searing. But the title The Dead Zoo is Dublin slang for the Museum of Natural History; and Berry’s investigation only rarely takes him to the familial or the personal. It more often leads him away to the venues where we have made a cold spectacle of death, death’s processes and the questions death raises. “Such questions,” he explains, “bring us not only to religion,”
but to the striped tent pitched at the edge of town,
where a sword slips clean as liquor into the parched throat
of the tattooed man, and the magician’s assistant smiles
as she lies down where her body will be sawn
and then re-sewn, offered for our applause or derision . . .
The Dead Zoo takes in a giddy swathe of museums, exhibitions, circuses and star turns, from Augustine’s first glimpse of a man reading without moving his lips, “meeting the dead still living / on the living page”, to a ruthlessly efficient serial killer in its final poem. While the sword swallower and the conjurer perform the tense borders between life and death, sideshow freaks outside are blurring the distinctions between what’s human and what’s not. Diane Arbus is the volume’s presiding spirit, and her haunting photograph of Siamese twins one of its leitmotifs. The book’s title refers as well to Gunther von Hagen’s controversial travelling exhibition of plastinated human corpses, which turns up more than once; and, self-reflexively, to the book itself, as a curated collection of little lyric exhibits.
In other words, Berry assembles his collection out of a concerted trawl through relevant images, documents and characters. Many of the poems are ekphrastic; others are acts of ventriloquism; and there is a lengthy list of sources at the back of the book. The poet graduated from New York University with an MFA in writing poetry, and the American MFA culture shows in this feel of a project wholly preconceived and systematically carried out, almost like a doctoral dissertation. Fortunately, Berry has knitted so skilfully that the sense of a systematic project pales, in the end, against the sense of an achievement. The Dead Zoo is big and complex, intricate and impressively coherent.
The pleasure to be found in standing back from Berry’s collection and feeling as though you might briefly hold this whole great complicated matter in your head is the kind of pleasure to which Paul Muldoon has habituated readers. And although, as John McAuliffe has remarked, many of the freakish characters we encounter in A Dead Zoo feel novel to Irish poetry, in fact Berry’s investigation of the monstrous and spectacular feeds on Muldoon’s own carnival of the hybrid, Mules (1977), in which a man is glimpsed “sawing a woman in half” and lovers become Siamese twins. Berry’s poems almost always move as Muldoon’s poems do, too – by thought association. His son in a plane makes him think of Daedalus trying to fly. Running along the Hudson makes him think about how he’s not thinking about the latest advertisement for trainers. A dead eel swallowing a dead frog makes him think of a white stoat – and must make us think of Robert Frost’s “dimpled spider, fat and white, / On a white heal-all, holding up a moth.”
Whereas it was Berry’s astonishing capacity for control that left me reeling at The Dead Zoo’s end, at one point he invites us to take his poems as little shots of ether, a drug that causes pleasurable confusion and a loss of control altogether. “The Ether Drinkers” slyly alludes to Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” with its pun on “etherized” likening sublime poetic rapture to being conked out on an operating table. Prufrock beckons: “Let us go,” and vacillates uselessly. Berry beckons similarly: “Come on.” But in place of a jaded, fearful Prufrock, he offers the means to get one’s rocks off. Populated with market sellers hawking cures for any imaginable ailment, generously-bosomed women, screeching preachers and boys going cross-eyed with the ether, “The Ether Drinkers” insists we make some fun of the time we’ve got:
Every morning the soul
chooses a set of clothes to go with its clown shoes
before hobbling out into the ring. Every evening
it takes up a shovel to clean up after the elephants.
In between times, if it wants to, it can swing
above silence and the shadow of its undoing
like a sequined girl hanging from a trapeze,
a pinstriped boy cranking a hurdy-gurdy, or
these ladies and gentlemen rising in the basket
of their inebriate balloon. Take my hand, step down,
my dear. Let us frolic together now on the ether.
The form of the lyric poem itself here becomes the little inebriate balloon in which we may frolic, set temporarily free between times. And, after its intellectual heft, it’s true that the other great pleasure of The Dead Zoo is a sensual one. Its music is exquisite, long lines bearing assonantal echoes sedately and rhythmically forward. Berry’s poetry is a treat to read aloud, “a honed thing coaxed to humming”, as he suggests the human body might be when drugged up right. But what “is it we’re supposed / to learn” from such spectacle?” another poem asks. The final lines of The Dead Zoo, which we might take for part-answer, are a cry of anguish (“for crying / out loud”) at death’s absurdity in the end, at the impossibility of any control over anything at all:
“Call me God,” the killer wrote on his card
in ballpoint pen. What else, that year,
could we have called him, death having fallen like snow
from envelopes with no return address while men
dug in the rubble downtown for teeth and rings?
The rottweilers coming back every morning,
ready to tear apart any fleshed or feathered thing?
There was a raccoon rotting on the lawn, for crying
out loud, and the air reeked still of burning.
Berry’s poems are little monuments to art’s ability to transcend, briefly and thoroughly absurdly, the limited time of our lives. They stand up to death by blurring death’s edges.
— Ailbhe Darcy, Dublin Review of Books