An Irish poet walks the wire.
A Contrary review by Grace Wells

When Ciaran Berry writes of wire-walker Philippe Petit, “his walk is pure dream work, a sort of being/and, at the same time, not being within the confines of his/skinny frame,” there’s a suspicion Berry is actually describing himself. In this stunning debut collection, Berry charts a duality of experience, documenting the rigours of ‘being’ in a place “where the sky alters in seconds, shine to shower/and harsher truths hit home hour after hour”, whilst simultaneously coexisting in a realm of “not-being”: the ‘Sphere of Birds’ of his title. 

Earth-bound Berry strives to make sense of a world where hatred and desire look alike, where his early yearning to know about “the grave, about the afterlife, and how the world could be so cruel” begets a preoccupation with the cycle where boys “soon become their fathers so their fathers/could be earth”. Berry “stares deep into the mysteries/of the flesh” discovering that even the smallest earthly cruelties can offer “another way for me to learn about the beginning, the end, the in between”. In this sharp landscape fragility dominates and muted violence informs: in ‘For the Birds’ Berry observes the winged creatures that so interest him descend upon the corpse of a hare,

					all neck and beak and skirl
		as they uncoil the intestines turn by turn,
		divide the liver from lung, pick out the heart,
		squabble over the kidneys, hauling away whatever
		they can use, they rise through marram grass,
		through shifts of sand, and disappear, leaving me here
		to understand a little more what the dead mean 
		to the living

Though the world described is harsh and banal and cruel, it is never relentlessly so. Berry defies entropy, channelling his vision of things into truly satisfying poems. His unique voice, fearlessly expressed through long poems conceived in long lines, moreover reveals a singular and delightful way of thinking. He’s occupied by “history’s long corridor” and influenced by art and nature, and all these elements flit into his poems on gravity-defying wing. Just as a bird trapped in a library might seek sanctuary by lighting on a shelf, only to wing on across shelves and subject matter to a second perch, and on to a seemingly disconnected third, within the one poem Berry glides randomly from topic to topic, illuminating invisibles that connect them all. In ‘For the Birds’ he moves from the dead hare devoured by birds, to Eakin’s ‘The Gross Clinic’, to St Stephen’s Day rituals, to Keats mourning the death of his brother. It is Berry’s generous ability to engage that allows us follow these aerobatics with ease. His love of information, ideas and culture, his ability to swoop from one theme to a seemingly unconnected other, marries with his passion for words to birth a new archetype of expression. 

With an audacity reminiscent of Faulkner, Berry changes subject mid-sentence, mid-line, almost mid-air, and it is this constant inability to be linguistically earthed, combined with Berry’s desire for a place “between heaves of gale” “where it is possible to glean something about balance, about grace”, which gives life to ‘The Sphere of Birds’ that the collection ultimately elucidates. Berry’s ‘Sphere’ manifests as an ethereal, avian domain, which migrates above, below and through, his earth-bound lines. Here the “all-seeing gull” roams with a cry that can “cut through stone”, and the instincts and mysteries of birdlife exist to cast shadow and light. This is Berry’s homeland, where his dislike of confined spaces combines with his desire for a breeze that’s “loose and swift” where he can “change tack, go with the wind”. He articulates a love of things “carried the way myth or truth is carried/on the breeze, or beneath the wings of birds”. You come to understand the urge for swarm, flight, migration and homing are his own. Ultimately Berry paints a realm that defies “all the bones in his body”, a place we can hold our “own against the catch and drag of air”, at peace with the instinct that “keeps us facing forward”. 

Nevertheless these are not easy, soothing poems. It can be difficult to reach the airy graces above the drug addicts and graves, to bridge the realms the poet articulates; we’re left with the kind of fearful awe electric storms engender, knowing Berry has stood between two tensions, earthed something of their drama to create poems that strike like lightening.

Grace Wells is an English poet living in Ireland. She is a regular contributor to Contrary. Read more of her work here...>

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The Sphere of Birds

Ciaran Berry

2008, Gallery Books

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