Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

"The Dead Zoo" by Ciaron Berry (The Gallery Press, 2013)

Poems from AGNI, Crazyhorse, Ploughshares, Poetry London, etc. Most are longer than a page, with few short lines. Here's stanza 1 (of 15) from the first poem, "The Silent Reader"

To Augustine, newly arrived in Rome,
      it must seem almost a miracle. Hunched
   over the letters of Saint Paul, the man
with the rough bowl cut, in the washed-
      out blue robe, is busy 'lowering himself
   into himself'.

The indent pattern is the same in the other verses, as is the line-length pattern (by line-length I don't mean measured by syllables or beats, but centimetres). I wonder how many other layouts he tried out before fortuitously stumbling upon that one. And after all that effort, is it any more effective than a prose layout? 4' 33", "Spooky Action at a Distance", and "A Mutiny" use the same stanza indentation pattern.

The hunched reader's compared to an empty bucket over a well (stanza 2), "the words like water raised into daylight, where the world of objects begins to disappear" (stanza 3), the reader losing himself in reading (stanza 4), "his pupils flitting over the characters the way a bee will lift its striped body from flower to flower" (stanza 5) in a way that's ordinary for him but not for Augustine (stanza 6). That's 36 lines summarized. I've missed out the description of the well-user and a list of worldly distractions. I've left in the observation that a bee's body is striped. I'm unsure what to make of the inverted word-world imagery - the idea that raising into daylight (rather than sinking down a well) causes the world of objects to disappear. I suppose that if water=words, then reading the words distracts the reader from the world, but the first stanza mentions "lowering himself".

The title poem, the next in book, includes prosaic passages like "On the second floor I stop before a polar bear brought back from the North Pole by explorers sent out to recover those fallen in the cause of science and their country, the captain's log describing the split codfish hung to dry in the rigging".

"At Ballyconneely" is about a mirage seen in 1908. At times it's like an article written in purple prose. What did the public think? Why didn't they sail out and investigate?

No one said mirage. No one said a reflection of the moon.
No one said Shangri-La. No one said Xanadu.
That's not the sort of people that they were.

And because those gnarled, barnacled rocks lurk
just below that broken stretch of coast
no one dared take a boat out there before dawn.

"Connemara Donkeys" is over 2 pages long without a stanza break. Bafflingly it's not quite ragged-right; some lines have room for another word or two.

"All Things Bright and Beautiful" has 4 numbered stanzas, each 16 lines long. It's "about" Frances Alexander devising the words of the hymn - first-person though the poem's pacing and tone are much like those of the other poems. Where do poems come from? The start of part 3 gives us answers

As I whisper 'all things wise and wonderful'
something extends itself beyond my metaphors.
Neither entirely of the earth nor of the ear, this force
that seems to animate the space between the word
like that force I saw once enter the features of Landseer
as amidst the chink of wine glasses, the idle banter,
he plucked a stick out of the open fire
to make a stag of charcoal leap across the wall,
raised hocks and hooves, head and branched antlers,
struck out of nothing, all of a sudden there

Here his style lets him compare two things each of which take a while to describe. "On the Jukebox of the Morning after and the Night Before" is another long "thoughtful" piece, this time provoked by a performer being told that they "could make it somewhere if you would only choose between singing and playing" (p.30). The first line isn't indented. After that, alternate pairs of lines are. Weird. "Jason and the Argonauts" (a poem I like because of its thorough fine-grain mix of myth, film and memory) likewise.

Then suddenly there's "Slow set", a 14-liner. I'm interested in the odd-man-out poems of a collection - they can be revealing. This one lists nostalgic items to do with first dates. Instead of butterflies in his stomach, there's a "stomach full of elephant hawk moths" - reviving a tired cliché? Or flogging a dead mare?

"Reading the Metamorphoses on a Transatlantic Flight" is a characteristic piece - 13 4-lined stanzas, the lines so nearly page-width. The first 2 stanzas are end-stopped, stanzas 2 and 3 beginning with "We watch". The other stanza and line breaks seems arbitrary to me. Were it prose I'd trace the switch of thought, mark the linked imagery - so here goes. It starts by listing some of Ovid's bird transformations. Then "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". I presume this is memory rather than observation. I don't know what provoked it. His son's asleep. The mention of son with birds perhaps explains why we're then told that "Icarus has flapped his homeward wings, begun to rise away from the earth, his father's terse warning". The son "knows nothing of how he's borne aloft on jet fuel and aluminum". They're going to the place that the father still calls home, 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". The connection with Icarus is pointed out to us. Then "Meantime, ... the birds go on mocking what Ovid makes of them ... If they could they would laugh at Icarus as he falls first 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". I used to write prose like this, giving myself license to import connecting imagery. Here's the start of a piece of mine called "Gold"

Silence is golden not, of course, because of its weight or immutability, but because it is so rare. Melted down, all the world's worked gold - the rings, medals, fillings and crowns - would barely fill a big house. But gold will never cluster together; it's too proud. The rich buy bullion that they never see, poor Indians invest their wealth in bangles that never leave them. Neither will silence ever be gathered in one place, however vast our cathedrals.

"At Nero's Circus" has stanzas where the first line isn't indented, the second is doubly indented, the third is singly indented. The pattern of indents that emerges is 0 2 1 0 2 1 0 2. The lines that are equally indented don't rhyme, nor do they have the same syllable or beat count. The pattern of the stanza's indents in "Elephants on the Back Strand" is 0 2 1 0 2 1 0 2 1. The plot/structure of the piece is rather a departure. It ends "I wish [the elephants] weren't the part I'm making up. I wish someone would rush to the orchard behind the house and cut our potter down.". "The Ether Drinkers" and "Snipers, Anthrax, Dead Raccoons" (of the two I prefer the latter) repeat the 0 2 1 indent pattern without stanza-breaks. "Japanese Ghost Ship" has stanzas with a 0 2 1 0 2 1 1 indent pattern.

"Razor Fade" includes an example of faster switches

What a strange garment to wear

is the flesh, that frayed raincoat the subway flasher puts on,
which will be opened to reveal what exactly - the wild floating
of astral projections where the soul, or something,

makes like a loosed balloon, or just the damp earth
that weighs down the empty shape enough to break the coffin
into kindling? Such questions bring us not only to religion,

but to the striped tent pitched at the edge of town,
where a sword slips clean as liquor into the parched throat
of the tattooed man

"Sideshow" is 4 articles about freaks. "The Hilton Sisters" is typical, using biographical information as a platform from which to deliver an insight. Towards the end of their careers the sisters, Siamese twins, stripped to conclude their jazz set - "and you know nothing yet about the word 'alone', and will go on knowing nothing until the great striptease that waits beyond this one, where whatever moves the body sheds its cheap dress, and one sister bears the empty heft of the other from room to room".

"Spooky Action at a Distance" deals with a popular topic (I wrote a poem called Action at a Distance). The poem's over 2 pages long, so there's room to explain the title, which is further explained amongst the 2 pages of notes in small print at the end of the book.

The "Polar Bear" section of "Postcards ..." ends with a flurry of small-unit phrases - maybe even a rhyming couplet -

your eyes
two baubles in an angler's tackle box. Outside
it's raining cats and rats, but nothing stirs in here,
in this Darwin's ark that never left the pier.

He doesn't use poetry's license to compress, though he does switch subjects abruptly - an acceptable device in prose as well as in poetry I'd have thought.

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