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A Review of Ciaran Berry's "The Sphere of Birds"

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The Southern Indiana Review, Spring 2009

Immortalized Meditation, a Review of Ciaran Berry's The Sphere of Birds

Ciaran Berry's debut collection of poetry, The Sphere of Birds, opens with the prefatory sonnet "Cold Pastoral."  The poem begins: "a crow shot dead and hung from a steel pole / warns other crows away from a field of grain / hard-won, where ochre ears change tack, go with / the wind" (1).  But "things weather fast here," he tells us in the poem's concluding sextet, "soon bird will be bone / ... / where the sky alters in seconds, shine to shower, / and harsher truths hit home, hour after hour..." (1)

Paying homage to Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Cold Pastoral" forecasts much of what's to come in the following three sections of this young poet's first collection-- poems that confer with memory, myth, and the landscape of Berry's Irish homeland; an ear for (but not the trappings of) traditional forms; a desire for what's honest about our lives; and, perhaps most of all, an eye keenly focused on the coordination of the past, present, and future in order to attain enlightenment.

The first poem of the first section, "Orchid," fuses an "off white bloom" Berry finds "in a field behind my parent's house," (5) with the ancient Greek myth of the orchid's conception, "sprang / from seed a mountain goat or escaped bull had spilled / as he withdrew from the warm loins of his mate," with the 19th Century orchid hunters William Arnold and Benedict Roezl and Charles Darwin who "glimpsed in its deep, fleshy petal whorls / the direction of his own and our future, / finding a new meaning for the word adaptation" (6). 

Similarly, "Over By" merges the "bone-dry bladderwrack and sea lettuce" (31) of the beach near Donegal, Ireland with the "Bilqula ancients [who] believed the soul / would quit the body like this, in a winged shape" and "homesick Nechtan...[who] unaware how he'd cheated death...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..." (32), all of which Berry borrows from the medieval Irish text "The Voyage of Bran" to perform his own meditation on the flight of the soul.

"Blindness" stays more local, exploring loss of sight with metaphor: this "darkness / emphatic as when the clock's short arm breaks back / an hour to let shadows loose over the lawn, to make / welcome // the fall's first frost" (11).  And with memory: "In double science after lunch /one boy argued it would happen if you touched yourself / too much or spent too long before the goggle box" (11).  And with definition: "revenge of the body...an unraveling / within the tissues, humors, rods and cones... / the soul's supposed door could no longer... / carry word and image upside / down into the flesh" (11).

"Oblique Projection" stays a little closer to home as well, opening with the memory of a schoolteacher drawing a 3-D figure on a chalkboard, the rectangle's "fragments suspended, until he pulls down verticals / and slots the horizontals in place, / making his fractured shape a solid" (41).  The poem goes on to immortalize Berry's classmates, reaching into their future lives and filling in the blanks between the past and present not unlike the teacher at the blackboard:

            At twelve, we pity no one but ourselves.

            the boy who sits alone in the front row

            [who] will fall between the sandbags we've dropped

            as stepping stones across the surface of a slurry pit,

            and sink down to his waist, his mouth,

            his eyes, and finally his hair, which will float

 

            for a moment like a discarded wig before

            he disappears.  Twelve years from here, one

            of those red-haired twins will take the other's eye...

            For the rest of us, though,

            nothing much will stir... (42)

The title poem brings together these elements of myth, history, and memory, to draw a parallel between he and his brother and the two best friends in the movie "Birdy."  If you've seen "Birdy," you know it's about a boy obsessed to the point of madness with becoming a bird and his best friend who, as a child, tries to help him "float on homemade, paper wings" (43) but, as an adult, is the only one who can bring him back from the "shellshock from a lost war... / ...locked up in a white room where a chair / and a cast iron bed is all the furniture" (44). 

Now, it's not clear exactly what ails Berry's brother who "sat almost entirely still / ... embracing whatever came to the feeder," (43) drawing birds on butcher paper, but Berry's breathtaking revelations at the end of the poem are enough: "All those viewings and I'm still not sure if it means something / about change, its vicious speed, or about wings, their pure fragility" (46-47); "death's an opportunist, / light on her feet..." (47); "In one of the last pictures [my brother] produced, a boy's shaved skull / ... / in supplication and regret, floats huge // above the charcoal pews and gothic arches of a church" (47).

In perhaps the collection's best poem "Electrocuting an Elephant" (included in 2008's Best American Poetry, edited by Charles Wright), the poem opens with a depiction of the Edison Company film bearing the same name in which Topsy, the elephant, is executed for killing three men at Coney Island in 1903.  Berry then leaps, comparing Topsy's execution to the sacrifice of a bull and the execution of Bartholomew, whose assassins take "turns to open him with knives" (21).  We are then taken to the boy "led by the ear to the corner / of the classroom because he couldn't spell vengeance / after three turns" (20), the boy whose name, Berry admits he can't remember:

            this time...reeling off

            the names of birds... [banging his fist]

            against his skull...

            while the rest of us raise our hands with what we think are the right answers

            and hold our breaths trying hard not to laugh" (21). 

In the concluding stanzas of "Electrocuting an Elephant," Berry wishes he could express his regret for mistreating the boy to the executioners before they carry out their duty, to warn them that they too will look back on their lives and wish they'd acted differently.  But, of course, this "changes nothing" (22), and the poem ends with the  "drop of the elephant in silence and a fit of steam... / prone, one eye opened that I wish I could close" (22).

What a brave statement: the poem written, the story told, and yet that accusatory eye still glaring.  This is probably what's most impressive about this collection.  Memory, myth, and history are so much more than source material.  Landscape has almost nothing to do with ornamentation.  And what's happened and what will happen go way beyond subject matter. 

It's the soul that concerns Berry and it's a marvel to watch him make use of the resources around him, looking inward while looking outward, and unflinching in his resolve to discover some version of the truth.  The Sphere of Birds is a meditation on that which makes us and on all the wonderfully gleaming and terrifying particulars of our individual lives.  It is a wonderful first book.  Deft and sure.  To the point and wildly imaginative.  Beautiful and bold.  And sad and true.



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Check out the review at Southern Indiana Review.com