Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Sphere of Birds Poems by Ciaran Berry

The Sphere of Birds
Poems by Ciaran Berry
Southern Illinois University Press
& Crab Orchard Review
Carbondale, Illinois
ISBN: 13: 978-0-8093-2838-3
75 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Splicing together images from the natural world with internalized passion and the personal re-recorded perceptions of life, Ciaran Berry creates poems with mythical power and winged beauty. He sings like a troubadour and shares the secrets of this bird-world like a twenty-first century Francis of Assisi. Only darker.   

Berry opens his collection with a sonnet, a meditation on a murdered crow. The crow hangs from a pole and serves to warn others of its kind against intrusion. It also seems to exhort the reader to tread carefully in this barbarous life. Even the vegetation has a taste for flesh. Here is the cautionary conclusion,

Things weather fast here, soon bird will be bone,
brittle and white, dead twig snapped underfoot
where the sky alters in seconds, shine to shower,
and harsher truths hit home after hour—
the sundew snagging flies, settling to eat,
a fat gull’s fractured keen that cuts through stone.

With deftness and seeming syntactic ease Berry conjures a powerful narrative in his poem Topography with Storm Petrels & Arctic Tern. He interweaves multiple stories, including a father’s job loss, an Audubon voyage, and a Van Gelderen sketch of an artic tern, which counterpoint and build in strength to a dread-inducing climax. Consider these lines where the poet examines a time of misery and change merging into an Audubon meditation,

it is the year my brother and I find a jackdaw
            with a broken wing, the year the fish farm
                          where our father works closes its doors. The tanks
in the hatchery are emptied of oysters,

            the mussel rafts are dragged ashore, and most
                           of what we know vanishes like the wallet
and keys the magician picks from our old man’s
               pockets as he assists with a trick at the circus,

                               choosing a card, checking a bowler hat for holes.
Although all we know will never be returned.
             Lying on his bunk, nothing left to empty
                            from his belly, Audubon stares through

An iced porthole at the almost black that runs
              beyond the eye and thinks of how his life
                           will be a journey from one fixed point to another
with only open water in between…

My favorite piece in this collection projects a three pronged narrative into a delicately balanced counterpoint. The intersection points of the stories carry the reader back and forth in poetic space like perfectly calibrated railroad switches. The poet introduces Philippe Petit, the French high-wire artist who walked between the twin towers of the World Trade Center early one morning in 1975. Add to that nervy portraiture the poet’s account of his own childhood carsickness in that same timeframe and a seemingly disparate consideration of Harte Crane’s suicide and something magical (read high art) happens. Early in the poem Berry sets up two of his thematic strands,

…They are no bigger than a swarm of flies
from where the wire walker hangs his eye, feels for the fulcrum
    in his balancing pole, and then, with a sharp intake of breath,

         takes his first step, trusts where he must go. All of this happens
thirty years ago, when I’m just four, a nervous middle child
  who takes sick on every car journey of more than five miles,
     retches and heaves until there’s nothing left but yellow bile.

My mother’s tried a series of folk-cures—a length of chain
    suspended from the rusted tow bar to spark all the static
         out of the car, a parsley necklace fixed around my throat,
where it serves as a sort of vegetable amulet, but nothing works.

A Beard of Bees, Berry’s rather strange poem about playing with nature, ends with a question that begs unwanted answers. The protagonist of the poem watches a beekeeper abscond with a hive’s queen and imprison her in a little cage which hangs beneath his chin. Predictably the bees fall upon him forming a beard. Barry’s attention moves smoothly between the performance and the audience as the poem advances into its penultimate stanza,

They dipped and landed on the keeper’s cheeks,

            settled into the beard he wore, mouth almost shut,
                         nostrils blocked with cotton wool. And it struck me
that all of this must be to do with death:
              the way the bees had scrieved across the air,

                            their see-through wings thrashing in unison;
the keeper’s need to feel against his flesh
               that knot of tangled muscle and barbed sting;
                             our need to watch, awestruck, like the rough crowd

at a hanging, as the moment crackled open,
               the field and the minutes suddenly rent,

Sketching a realm of dinosaur-eyes and symbolic Christs in his title poem, The Sphere of Birds, Berry meditates on the limitations of body and soul. The story line switches back and forth between the narrator’s brother and his favorite movie. Augury and omens rise from a Philadelphia neighborhood until local reality turns mythical. The poet closes his poem by lamenting the constraints of memory as well as a change in self,

In one of the last pictures he produced, a boy’s shaved skull—
            his own, I think, although it could be anyone’s—
bends forward in supplication and regret, floats huge

            above the charcoal pews and gothic arches of a church.
And though I set him back at the window, and fill
              his pallet and horsehair brush with watercolor blues

and greens, though I press rewind and watch the bird rise
               from shattering to fly backwards out of the reformed
pane, it’s not the same, it’s nothing I could ever want.

Rising in a flock, beyond miraculous, Berry’s poems soar with self-contained direction. Impressively, they dare the heavens.


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