Ciaran Berrys 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 (Gallery Press), 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 Berrys poems dig down into their material:
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 embalmers 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 Berrys 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.
Berrys 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: 433 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 hymns 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 poems freak scenes are, then, just the beginning of Berrys sustained meditation on animals, monsters and monstrosity. Readers will meet creatures not previously seen in Irish literature, although their antecedents populate ancient tales, Spensers Faerie Queen, Stokers Dracula and the works of Irish fantasy writers: Neros 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 poets encounter with bulls as a child, their breath kettle-steam in a life / that seems by now, almost fiction.
Berrys 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. / Thats 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 Augustines first sight of St Ambrose and the poets account of his grandfathers 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:
Berrys 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 Berrys resonant writing across this marvellous book, catching Augustines amazement as well as the spellbound fact of reading.