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.”
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.