Collection of animals and monsters has definite heartbeat
Ciaran Berry confirms his status as a big beast among Irish poets
Dead Zoo: the title poem takes its name from the nickname of the Natural History Museum and begins by replicating its familiar display. Photograph: Frank Miller
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 (the Gallery Press, €18.95/€11.95), 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.”