POETRY BOOK SOCIETY RECOMMENDATION
‘Berry is that rare thing, a truly substantial, original, new voice . . .’
— Fiona Sampson, The Irish Times
Reading Ovid on a transatlantic flight while registering concerns for his new-born son (‘How can we keep him from the harm this world can be . . .’), conjuring a mirage in the West of Ireland a century ago, and evoking teenage longing and lusts in recreations of ‘the morning after the night before’, Ciaran Berry’s powerfully resonant second collection focuses also on Nero’s circus in full swing and the thoughts of St Augustine, the pathologist who kept Einstein’s brain, Darwin’s expeditions and discoveries, a Japanese ghost ship adrift after a tsunami, and the ‘Beltway’ sniper attacks of 2002.
The formal thrust of Ciaran Berry’s purposeful art attests to ‘the dead still living / on the living page’ and the lives preserved in, and beyond, a museum of natural history, the ‘dead zoo’ of the book’s title. Here poems straddle the ages and the ocean between the author’s home place and a new home in America as they confirm his ‘extraordinary range and maturity . . . virtuosity . . . and originality that lies in the sustained sophistication of poetic thought’ (The Irish Times).
Collection of animals and monsters has definite heartbeat
Ciaran Berry confirms his status as a big beast among Irish poets.
Ciaran Berry’s The Sphere of Birds (2008) was probably the most garlanded debut of the past decade, winning the Crab Orchard, Jerwood and Michael Murphy Memorial prizes; in 2012, Berry, who grew up in Ireland but has lived in the US for several years, also received a Whiting Award. His new book, The Dead Zoo, is equally impressive.
The title poem, which takes its name from the nickname of the Natural History Museum in Dublin, begins by replicating its familiar display: “a basking shark caught off the coast of Clare, / and this eel with a frog stuck in its throat, / their fused bodies white as a stoat in winter.” Many writers would be happy to leave this scene with that image of consumption neatly described in relation to another predator, the stoat, but Berry’s poems dig down into their material:
In the swimming-pool blue of the ethyl alcohol
they might come to define shock or hunger –
the eel’s mouth opened like an eye-toothed snare,
lost in the gulp that is its last supper,
the frog’s legs forever desperate and askew,
and neither prey nor predator aware
of how their embrace fixes and lingers,
the moment stilled and distilled, offered up
as parable or prayer to whoever wanders
This is a speculative, witty meditation, punning on how the creatures are “distilled” but also setting up the analogies with which the poem will continue to work as the speaker faces up to a bedraggled polar bear, “insert[ing] / into the bullet hole my middle finger, / finding a new way to say ‘silent’, to say ‘still’ ”, before calling attention to the way his own art of noticing things is also an embalmer’s art as it records the passage of a school tour through the display by their “smudged thumbprints and spent breath”.
This poem is exemplary of Berry’s method: he weaves narrative threads and has a keen eye for arresting images and a confident way of dwelling on both, so their range and pertinence seem to expand as we read.
Berry’s book is, also, unusually original and unified in its theme: the tone may be predominately elegiac, but these elegies are oddly hopeful as they search out unimagined corners of human experience.
His poems about music take varied approaches: ‘4’33’ uses John Cage as a starting point, ‘On the Jukebox of the Morning After’ and the ‘Night Before’ recounts the break-up of a youthful covers band, and ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, written in the voice of the hymn’s composer, Frances Alexander, imagines that animals are “at least an inkling of something more / than just the light and fire of this present tense.”
The title poem’s freak scenes are, then, just the beginning of Berry’s sustained meditation on animals, monsters and monstrosity. Readers will meet creatures not previously seen in Irish literature, although their antecedents populate ancient tales, Spenser’s Faerie Queen, Stoker’s Dracula and the works of Irish fantasy writers: Nero’s circus and more recent freak acts Tom Thumb and the Hilton Sisters, a man who thinks he is the creature from the Black Lagoon, the Irish Sheep Boy and the Centaur of Volos, whose creation typically allows us to see a modern couple attending a wedding in Greece, the act of sculpture (“one creature belches / out the other”), and a memory of the poet’s encounter with bulls as a child, “their breath kettle-steam in a life / that seems by now, almost fiction”.
Berry’s monsters are often poised at the point of birth or death. He also conjures a related series of scenes where one way of life meets its end just as another arrives, notably in the western mirage of ‘At Ballyconneely (1908)’, which sees, at sea, “an entire town, floodlit at midnight”: “someone said it must be New York / and someone else Boston” but “No one said mirage. No one said a reflection of the moon. / No one said Shangri-La. No one said Xanadu. / That’s not the sort of people they were.”
The opening poem, ‘The Silent Reader’, finds the same moment of sudden change in the interwoven narratives of St Augustine’s first sight of St Ambrose and the poet’s account of his grandfather’s death and his survival in a bequest of books, characterised as “his own small plea / against extinction, meeting the dead still living / on the living page”. Before we reach that conclusion, though, Berry presents us with an image of Augustine witnessing Ambrose reading:
Courtyard, olive tree
suddenly barely there, even the bench
on which he sits obscured, so that
if you tapped Ambrose on the shoulder
to ask his place of birth, his mother’s
maiden name, he’d have to pause
to remember what he was and is.
Berry’s control of rhythm here, the way his beat carries the reader across the lines and stanza breaks, mimics the attention he describes. That level, steady line and narrative tension, reminiscent of Eamon Grennan and Tom French, characterises Berry’s resonant writing across this marvellous book, catching Augustine’s amazement as well as the spellbound fact of reading.
— John McAuliffe, The Irish Times (9 November 2013)
Frolicking in the Ether
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