Ciaran Berry

CriticismCommentaryQuotationsReferences

Life
1971- [Ciaran M. Berry]; b. Dublin; grew up in Carna, Co. Galway and Falcarragh, Co. Donegal; educ. UUC [Coleraine], BA, 1993; received a New York Times Fellowship and worked as Language Lecturer NYU (grad. MFA, 2003); appt. Adjunct at Queens College, and Grad. Asst. at NYU; now teaches at Trinity College, in Hartford, Connecticut;

issued The Sphere of Birds (2008), winner of the Jerwood Aldeburgh Prize and the inaugural Michael Murphy Prize, 2011; issued a second collection, The Dead Zoo (Oct. 2013) - from Gallery Press [incls. acknowledge to Peter Fallon, inter al., as ‘teachers’]; with Atsuro Riley, winner of Whiting Poetry Award, 2012;

has contrib. to AGNI, The Threepenny Review, Ploughshares, The Missouri Review, and The New Republic; and the inaugural Michael Murphy Memorial Award, Whiting Writers’ Award for poetry, 2012; lives in Connecticut and teaches at Trinity College in Hartford; called a ‘a truly substantial, original, new voice’ (Fiona Sampson, Irish Times); gave reading at The Poet's House. 2 Aug. 2014.

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Works
The Sphere of Birds (Crab Orchard Press/S. Illinois UP 2008; Oldcastel [Ireland]: Gallery Books), 76pp.; The Dead Zoo (Oldcastle: Gallery Press 2013) [q.pp.].

contrib.  “April 1941”, in Best Irish Poetry in English, 2010, ed. Matthew Sweeney (Southword Editions [2011])

Also published in Best American Poetry 2008, Best New Poets 2006, and Best of Irish Poetry 2009 and [Do.] 2010; contrib. to AGNI, Crazyhorse, Ecotone, Gulf Coast, Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry London, and The Threepenny Review, The Missouri Review, The Threepenny Review, Gettysburg Review, Green Mountains Review, Ontario Review, and Notre Dame Review.

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Criticism
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum, review of The Sphere of Birds, in Southern Indiana Review (Spring 2009) - available online [accessed 23.07.2014]; John McAuliffe, review of The Dead Zoo, in The Irish Times (9 Nov. 2013), Weekend [see extract]; Ailbhe Darcy, ‘Frolicking in the Ether’ [review of The Dead Zoo], in Dublin Review of Books (27 Jan 2014) [see extract].

See extracts under Commentary - infra.

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Commentary

John McAuliffe, review of The Dead Zoo, in The Irish Times (9 Nov. 2013), Weekend:
[...] 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’.

(See full-text version in RICORSO Library > “Criticism” > Reviews - via index or as attached.)

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Ailbhe Darcy, ‘Frolicking in the Ether’ [review of The Dead Zoo], in Dublin Review of Books (27 Jan 2014)

[...] 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.’ [...] 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.

(See full-text version in RICORSO Library > “Criticism” > Reviews - via index or as attached.)

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Quotations


  Electrocuting an Elephant
 

Like mourners, or men setting out early for a duel,
they follow these six tons, this hunk of flesh,
muddy and whorled, this elephant they tried once to hang
because she killed three men and survived

their carrots laced with cyanide. Coney Island, 1903,
and the handheld camera that gets all of this down
is a clock for seeing, as Barthes tells us it ought to be,
the image forever ticking over as three men,

in sepia and near-silhouette, step through a vacant lot,
follow the lead of the burly handler, who carries
a sleek whip, a coil of rope, as he leads his charge towards
the spot where they will set two of her feet

in copper shoes. Think of the boy, who sat in front of you
that year in school, led by the ear to the corner
of the classroom because he couldn’t spell vengeance
after three turns. Think of the bull, three summers old,

pulled by the horns towards the place of sacrifice
so that bees might rise up out of its pooled blood.
And this too must be the way they took Bartholomew
after he made the King’s brother deny his gods -

one guard gripping the prisoner’s left arm and the three others,
who follow, unable to muster a single word
as they march down the main street of their village
towards the blue edge of the Caspian Sea,

where they will dispose of this son of Tolomai,
taking turns to open him with knives. What do they think
as they sulk after the condemned, this trinity,
who are not quite men yet despite their pristine uniforms,

or these others like extras from one of the first westerns
with their hats and mustaches, their say-nothing expressions
that barely make it beyond the ground sand of the lens
and onto this reel that unravels as I find myself

thinking again about that boy who, in Scoil Muire,
sat in the front row of those battered desks
with the defunct inkwells the dry hinges that opened
into a box to store your books? This time he’s reeling off

the names of birds. He makes a fist and hammers it
against his skull to bring forth robin redbreast, stonechat, crow,
while the rest of us raise our hands with what we think
are the right answers and hold our breaths trying not to laugh.

The truth is, I can’t remember his name, only the way
his clothes reeked of stale milk and hay, and how
his father once tied a frying pan between the legs of their mongrel
to discourage it from running after cars. I’d like

to whisper this story into the ear of the keeper
before the film goes any further, before they reach
the spot where a crowd waits, impatient,
shifting from foot to foot. I’d like to tell him how,

after those four boys have done their dirty work
and turned into something older than they were before,
Bartholomew becomes that figure above the altar
in the Sistine Chapel who holds up a tanner’s knife

and his own skin, another saint made patron
to those who wield the tools that worked his exit
from this world. And though it changes nothing,
I want to explain how, when the elephant falls, she falls

like a cropped elm. First the shudder, then the toppling
as the surge ripples through each nerve and vein,
and she drops in silence and a fit of steam to lie there
prone, one eye opened that I wish I could close.

   
  Over By
 

Swell pummels rock, darkens sand, creeps upshore
to stir beach stones and periwinkle shells,
the bone-dry bladderwrack and sea lettuce
out of which swarms of flies rise, disturbed,
to hang their scrim above the waterline,
a low fog of wing, thorax, abdomen.
The give and take of waves, their push and drag,
symbol for all that is given and snatched away,
or so the old story goes, the fishwife's tale
in which we're born and die on the tide's turn,

shucked out into the world when water's high
against quayside, barge, and quarterdeck,
then loosed from this, the bodies current stilled
when the sea retreats, folds in upon itself,
leaving behind odd boots, smoothed shards of glass,
each new day’s array of carcasses:
an unwanted dog drowned in a black bin bag,
an eyeless pollack, a black-headed gull,
sometimes a fisherman, or a humpback whale.
All that’s pelagic, all that’s nautical,

must end up on this wind-battered shore,
hence all those sea fables and their metaphors,
all that blarney about Oisin and Bran,
the latter convinced by homesick Nechtan
to leave behind their island of women
and sail back to a mainland where everyone
they’d known had gone to ground, become the soil
they had once tilled and hoed. And so, come to the end
of his own voyage, returned centuries on,
and unaware of how he cheated death,

Nechtan extends a foot from the currach
and, on touching home turf, is turned to sand,
a small urn’s worth of ground down flesh and bone,
a splash of bright atoms the squall will catch
and disperse over beach, bog, glen, mountain,
minute fragments in the great beating down
to topsoil, humus, loam that is endless.
Almost bent double with his crooked spine
as he stood at the end of the gravel path
leaning hard on a hawthorn walking stick,

Mici Dubh Thimi used to enthrall me
with wild stories of his time over by -
which meant anywhere across the water,
anywhere that could be reached by boat,
hence the harsh Edinburgh or Glasgow
Mici and his brother had once sailed for
to carry hod or work shovel and pick,
but also, perhaps, where he thought it would end,
after that gravel path met the main road,
after the final waters showed their course

towards, let’s say, an outcrop of white rock,
the sea unkinked and sun-dappled below
an island full of whiskey and tobacco,
where he would settle with a Woodbine and a glass,
full, perhaps, of the same bliss as this cormorant
above my head that, lured by the shimmer
of rockfish, gathers its wings and plunges
like something dropped, reckless with instinct.
A pure thing, without doubt, without question,
as its beak breaks the water’s cold surface

the entire bird is swallowed up, consumed
by spume and backwash, slap and sway of brine.
The Bilqula ancients believed the soul
would quit the body like this, in a winged shape,
breaking from the nape of the neck, rising
into whatever sphere it would enter.
To others, it was a fine dust, essence
that could escape through the navel or nose,
the mouth, the feet, by way of a fresh cut,
a yawn, a sneeze. Or else it was a thumb-

sized manikin who sat on a plush throne
in the crown of the head, who resembled
in every aspect the form of his or her
carrier; who, when the body slept, was prone
to wander, dropping down through the ear;
who, when death came, would permanently leave,
begin that slow journey across the sea,
through blanket bog and field, or venturing down
that beaten track poor Orpheus followed
to plead for the return of his child bride,

her ankles still swollen from the snake bite.
I love these old stories, each conjecture
like a stone skimmed across the blue surface -
although (I know) stones sink, although
even the rough ones are worked smooth
and pushed against the dunes by the spring tides,
and, then in winter, carried to sea again
to be worked over, smoothed stone to pebble,
and pebble to this sand I step across
picking up scallop shells, a mermaid’s purse,

dragging this grief that’s endless and useless,
that resolves nothing and consoles nothing.
The light now giving way, a beam of white
from the lighthouse on a nearby island
scans the rough bay for any sign of life
and finds a trawler motoring towards the line
where the sky becomes sea and vice versa.
A reef bell cries among the orange bouys,
and now, reaching its height for the last time,
that cormorant tucks in its wings, and dives.

—From The Sphere of Birds (2009); given in Poem of the Week, ed. Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum - online [accessed 23.07.2014].

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April 1941

In a Belfast of smokestacks and linen mills,
as a crane in the shipyard creaks to a stop
above the lough and men in work clothes pull
through the dock gates, my grandfather walks home
past girls who spin loose skipping ropes and jump
while their brothers thump a leather ball
against a gable end. Dusk seeps into the red
brick streets the experts say Hitler will never bomb.
A boy hawking The Newsletter cries ‘Delia
Murphy for the Ulster Hall’ and my granda
passes down the Falls just as a quarter moon
appears above the new munitions plant.
On reaching his front door he stops to note
how the blackout order is defied by house lights
all across the city’s west. Inside, he takes
his son Patrick onto his knee and greets
a wife who labours at sideboard and stove
to make enough of rationed beef and potatoes
for four children and a forever famished husband.
Her plump belly brushes the cooker knobs
as, within the watery glove of her red womb,
my mother, perhaps nineteen inches long,
points her wee head towards the open, makes
ready to be born into this mid-war month.
But before she tumbles out into this world
two hundred Heinkels and Junkers must swarm
across the Irish Sea, their shadows black crosses
on calm water, their cranked engines all hum
and splutter above the cormorants and guillemots
that dive for mackerel. Beneath the weight
of shells the York Street spinning mill must
split and spill six storeys of timber, concrete
and steel into bedrooms and living rooms on Vere
and Sussex Street. Delia Murphy must try
to sing “Three Lovely Lassies” above the drone
of air-raid sirens, while fifty miles away,
at Glenshane Pass, fire crews who’ve paused
to let their engines cool, watch the flames billow
above North Belfast. My grandmother’s waters
will break over the kitchen tiles as volunteers
empty the Falls Road Baths and fill the deep end
with the unclaimed dead. My mother’s head
will come bloodied between her mother’s legs
as an exodus of cars and cattle trucks rattles
away from this city where, just now, all is calm.
Three hours before the first bomb whistles down
my grandpa takes his place at the table, prepares
a pipe, while his wife arranges cutlery and delft.

—From The Sphere of Birds (2009); quoted by Brian Turner at Poetry Foundation website (11 April 2010) - available online [accessed 23.07.2014].

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Reading the Metamorphoses on a Transatlantic Flight

In Ovid, where the birds are manifestations of our grief,
we watch the tyrant Tereus who has just supped on the flesh
of his own son, transformed by loss and desire for revenge
into a stiff-crested hoopoe with a pronged beak to replace his sword.

We watch Ino’s distraught servant girls assume the shapes
of shearwaters as they follow their mistress over Juno’s cliffs,
and poor Cycnus, his love forever undeclared, turned
to a swan as he laments the sudden death of Phaeton.

We watch, thinking past the allegory, knowing no heron
springs up from our empathy when we see, through
the windscreen, a car pushed to the side of the highway
where shattered glass shines like a recent shower of rain

and a state trooper stoops to lay down his orange flames
as the traffic slows and weaves its way round him.
Or at least that’s what I’ve come to think up here,
winged with so many others in this approximate manner

somewhere between Saint Johns and the Blaskets, spine
of this book open across my knees, now, that our son’s asleep,
now that Icarus has flapped his homemade wings,
begun to rise away from the earth, his father’s terse warning.

How can we keep him from the harm this world can be,
our rose-cheeked boy, named for your uncle who drove a truck
through Queens, delivering cheesecakes and key lime pies
to the diners of Flushing and Kew Gardens?

Ginger head resting across your arm, he knows nothing
of how he’s borne aloft on jet fuel and aluminum, his first flight
marked by the thin yellow line we track across the screen
as we bear him, like an offering, towards the place I still call home,

the roads corkscrewing into the mountains, a broken rosary
of tidy towns where, driving once, I saw a man stripped
to the waist, chained to a sign, on what must have been the morning
after his stag night. Body smeared with treacle and feathers,

skin red and dry, it was as if he were a sunburned boy
just fallen from the sky; aware suddenly of his own limits,
the lack of anything like ichor in his veins. And even in the body
of this plane we’re grounded things, doing our best

to ignore the turbulence, channel surfing or pacing to pass
the time while the wine trembles in our plastic cups
and the seatbelt signs flash on and off and on.
It will be hours before we see dry land again, cats’ eyes

on the runway leading us towards the gate, the baggage claim,
the sudden weight of sleeplessness and cups of strong coffee.
Meantime, the clouds are like something from a cartoon,
and the birds go on mocking what Ovid makes of them,

picking the eyes out of the dead as if they were baubles or beads,
the shrike driving its beak through the field mouse
at great speed, marsh hawks amok among the winter trees.
If they could they would laugh at Icarus as he falls

face first towards the waves that will take possession of his limbs,
they’d laugh at Scylla in that instant before she becomes
one of them, as she loses her grip on the keel of that Cretan ship
and, for a split second, is simply falling.

—from The Dead School (2013); given at Poetry Daily > Berry > online.

References

Gallery Books has a Ciaran Berry page - which incls. link to uploaded video of his reading of “Slow Set” from The Dead Zoo (2013) at YouTube [online].

See also his LinkedIn page online [accessed 23.07.2014].

Trinity College (Hartford, Conn.) > Faculty webpages: ‘Ciaran M. Berry, Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program - with text: ’Ciaran Berry is an Irish poet who has spent the last decade living, writing, and teaching in the United States. His first full-length collection of poetry, The Sphere of Birds, was published in 2008 by Southern Illinois University Press in North America and by The Gallery Press in Ireland and the UK. His work has also been featured in The Best of Irish Poetry, Best American Poetry, Pushcart Prize XXXIII: Best of the Small Presses, and Best New Poets. In addition to leading workshops, Berry has in the past taught a range of classes in literature and expository writing. In the classroom, he encourages lively discussion and emphasizes the power of inductive reasoning, believing that all useful writing and thinking must, as Wendell Berry (no relation) suggests, be built “from the ground up.”’ [Available online at Trinity College [online] > Faculty [as fid=1353304]; accessed 22.07.2006.]