Making a world in his own image

POETRY: CIARAN BERRY'S debut is clearly inflected by his study and work in the States

POETRY:CIARAN BERRY'S debut is clearly inflected by his study and work in the States. The Sphere of Birds brings a reflective, sometimes reflexive, technique to bear on the familiar materials of childhood, "that decade we lived on the outskirts of town", writes Fiona Sampson

The book has indeed received an award in the US; and its carefully-inflected tone and conscious search for meaning remind one what is fashionable "over there". I say this, though, merely to get it out of the way. For Berry is that rare thing, a truly substantial, original, new voice.

This originality lies not in a ready-reckoning of flamboyant technique, but in the sustained sophistication of poetic thought. Berry makes associations through imagery. The fragile tokenism of The Parsley Necklace his mother used to hang round his neck, as a folk-cure against travel sickness, leads him to think about Petit, high-wire walker, and Hart Crane, who jumped from Brooklyn Bridge - why?

Think of the filigree shape of parsley and the wrought-iron filigree of the bridge.


But that's not enough for this never-facile poet. Instead, the connection made has to do with travel sickness itself, "Something about the body's wish to move at its own pace,/ resistance to the confined space of our beige Renault 4,/ another fear to add to a list ". It's a connection which is both felt and illustrated. And in a characteristic step further, into virtuosity, Berry imagines and then transforms Crane with Petit: "it is Crane's shadow that hovers a few feet/ above Petit in the shape of the all-seeing gull that catches/ the tightrope walker's eye // Or else the gull is death personified ". Feel how, with the lightest of touches, this retroactively turns the suicide Crane into a memento mori, while opening a way back to the child in the car, "trying to trick/ my body towards a false calm".

There's nothing gratuitous about such virtuosity. The poems of this book's first section, in particular, have extraordinary range and maturity. Bringing a rangy, springy connectedness to the world of genuine sensory experience - no "conceit" poems on some borrowed trope of history or science here, though history and science work through the weave - Berry draws together intellection, emotion and the sensory so that every apprehension seems necessary.

This is the mark of someone making a world in their own image. And if, to our unhabituated ears, his regular seven- and eight-foot blank lines can at first seem too wordy, Berry's control of these larger metrics is impeccable. If you want to see how much is left for poetry to do - and if you want to spot a poet with the potential to write some of the great poems of the 21st century - read The Sphere of Birds.

Richard Tillinghast, former Professor of English at Michigan, travels in the opposite direction. The poems of The New Life, his eighth collection, apparently record that journey. The first section, in particular, functions as a kind of title sequence, and includes a translation from Dante.

These are poems of great openness and exhilaration, told in open, exhilarating free verse that gallops down the page. The gallop, though, is furnished with acute observation. The New Life "begins as imperceptibly/ as the sound of a fountain pen/ filling with fresh ink".

In Meeting on the Turret Stairs (after the famous 19th-century painting), a sexy reverie ends with the narrator waking: "I could smell a river close by,/ your body opening to my hands". Among "Luminous days and straight-up skies", two of the most striking poems are encounters with death. In Watcher Over the Dead, the poet sees "the man I had known" in his coffin, "His face clenched around some preoccupation".

And Camille Monet on Her Deathbed is a subtle, and at the same time ruthless, look at how death strikes the artist: "Her husband has brushstroked her in in a hurry as she lies there dead./ What looks like a bridal veil rides up over her head // Of her what do we know other/ than smudges of pigment".

The implication of opportunism is well-made: and contrasts with the whole-heartedness of this collection.

Aidan Rooney's Tightrope is a substantial volume which explores both sides of the Atlantic - and of life - with the deftness of a true phrase-maker, who gives us "your heart's high-strung desires", "the flimsiest funicular" of a spider's web. Sometimes refreshing his language with dialect - "their skirts awful summery/ for the night that was in it" - and sometimes punning, as when a drunken Accident "was all kept quiet" in a landscape of peaceful fields; sometimes borrowing Gaelic, or French, for tricky bi-lingual play; sometimes debunking classic French verse, his is a lively, but always literary, presence.

Most touching is May Altar, in memory of his mother. Here quiet understatement - his mother's shade exhibits "a certain coolness in your manner/ as if to show some hurt you hadn't been invited" - earns transcendency: "your assumption/ in a place you'll find anointed/ with blue, perpetual blossom".

Quincy R Lehr is another American who has relocated to Ireland. Across the Grid of Streets, his first full collection, is published in an attractive format, though unfortunately in italics throughout. These long, busy poems demonstrate much energy and narrative talent. It will be interesting to see how Lehr develops as he engages with the fruitful constraints of canon and form.

The Sphere of Birds By Ciaran Berry The Gallery Press 82pp. €11.95

The New Life By Richard Tillinghast Copper Beech Press (Providence), 56pp. $13

Tightrope By Aidan Rooney The Gallery Press, 70pp. €11.95

Across the Grid of Streets By Quincy R Lehr Seven Towers, 81pp. €15

Fiona Sampson's latest collection is Common Prayer (2008). She is the editor of Poetry Review