The Dead Zoo, Ciaran Berry, The Gallery Press, 2013, 90pp, £10.50 (paperback)

Echo’s Grove: Collected Translations, Derek Mahon, The Gallery Press, 2013, 208pp, £12 (paperback)

The Spanish-Italian Border, Róisín Tierney, Arc Publications, 2014, 77pp, £8.99 (paperback)

Ciaran Berry’s second collection, The Dead Zoo, provides erudite poems that involve rather than bore or bamboozle their readers – a rare skill. The opening poem, ‘The Silent Reader’, describes St Ambrose’s deeply meditative reading. ‘Lowering himself / into himself’ (quote from St Augustine’s Confessions), the reader is drawn in through the extended metaphor of a peasant lowering a bucket ‘towards the dark’, with the measured momentum of the lines’ balance, repetition, and enjambment:

… just as there’s weight

and measure


to the gesture, just as there’s weight

and measure to the way the Bishop

scans the saint’s letters, the words

like water raised into daylight, where

the world of objects begin to disappear.

From here we move on to Berry’s own reading: ‘How strange the way / we become the objects that contain us’ and on to the collection’s overriding theme: ‘meeting the dead still living / on the living page’ where he will be taking us through facts and stories weird, warped or wondrous – circus freaks, medical ‘abnormalities’ to stuffed museum exhibits – all helpfully footnoted.

His poems on growing-up are subtle and artfully sustained with run-on lines and dazzling juxtapositions that read like free association but are often a carefully constructed collage. Section two offers intriguing titles: ‘At Nero’s Circus’, ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’, ‘The Irish Sheep Boy’ and ‘Stealing Einstein’s Brain’, until by section three we are left panting for breath at this natural historian’s sweetshop of a book. And these are observations you don’t want to miss. Museum exhibits are important for ‘the moment stilled and distilled, offered up / as parable, or prayer to whoever wanders / and wonders about here’ (‘The Dead Zoo’), while elsewhere he craves knowledge because ‘sometimes I’m just eyes / hovering above the dash, a foot caught in the space / between accelerate and brake’ (‘Connemara Donkeys’).

The collection contains some of Berry’s most deeply moving poems. ‘At Ballyconneelly’ combines meditations on the nature of Diaspora set against the mindsets of the village inhabitants seeing a mirage in 1908: ‘No one said mirage … That’s not the sort of people they were’. ‘The Connemara Donkeys’, influenced by Robert Frost’s ‘Out Out’, follows an imaginative leap from a boy’s horrific death to how his soul might depart as a ‘runaway teenager / who tiptoes down the backstairs’. The dramatic monologue ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ uses the voice of the authoress of the hymn to consider the now clichéd lines afresh: ‘of whatever shines briefly in the joy of its own being / before it wilts and wizens’. The poem concludes with a startling exploration of the self as ‘eavesdropper’ to the dead:

on what might be either the infant brother
we buried in a frock coat and a white box
whispering, hands cups around his shrivelled lips,
or just the wind about its business in the trees.

The final verse then expands to a eulogy of creation and faith: ‘an inkling of something more / than just the light and fire of this present tense.’ ‘Spooky Action at a Distance’ meanwhile describes a cousin’s death harrowingly (my cousin’s dying back into the nothing / she sprang from…. and I just don’t want to write / another elegy), and ‘A Mutiny’ offers a heartbreaking description of Dr. Alzheimer’s first formally diagnosed dementia patient August D.

Echo’s Grove, is an apt title for Derek Mahon’s showcasing of a lifetime of translations, or rather ‘adaptations’, in which Mahon provides a fine gateway in for those not familiar with the originals. He includes new poems along with selections from Words in Air (1998) (poems of Philippe Jaccottet), Adaptations (2006), Raw Material (2011) and Theatre (2013) (versions of Ancient Greek and French drama), expertly varying meter, enjambment versus end-stopped lines, whole or half rhymes and diction, subject to the needs of the poem. The result is a traditionalist’s ‘greatest hits’ from the canon of Pound and Eliot plus ancient and modern Irish voices and various contemporaries (mainly French). Sexual love dominates the collection alongside sharp pictographic pieces and memorable utterances on the human condition.

Working chronologically he opens with ‘Chorus from Antigone’ intelligently opting for tri-meter, end-stopped lines, assertive monosyllables and active verbs, to create a less archaic feel, than the jog-along four-beat ballad form:

Wonders are many and none
more wonderful than man
whose sail and plunging prow
cleave a windswept path.

Next he introduces Propertius’s feisty Cynthia of ‘Sextus and Cynthia’. And though here the diction gets just a little too contemporary – ‘Strip. Or I rip your clothes / to get you in the nip.’ (‘A Night with Cynthia’) – in general these poems are great fun as Cynthia either catches Sextus out when he ‘had some girls in for a quiet orgy’ (‘The Quiet Orgy’) – note the hilarious oxymoron – or appears as an accusing ghost: ‘You who were nowhere near me when I died – / stricken with grief, sez you. Cheat! Lying sod!’ (‘Cynthia’s Ghost’) His Ovid offers poignant and concise poems on the story of Galatea, Echo and ‘Ariadne on Naxos’ (‘Above the cold beach and the pounding waves / Theseus your wretched Ariadne grieves’), before Juvenal’s meditations on human priorities: ‘So which philosopher would we rather know …. / – the one who, staring from his portico, / laughs, or the one who weeps?’ (‘Human Wishes’).

Mahon groups pictographic poems in languages as disparate as Occitan, Chinese or Irish. We have Li Po’s wonderful visualization of carousing – ‘When I sing my shadow bobs in the Yellow River, / when I dance the moonbeams in the water waver.’ (‘A Kettle of Wine’) – alongside this hauntingly stark Irish poem:

Just audible over the waves
a blackbird among the leaves
whistling to bleak
lough from its whin beak.

(‘The Bangor Blackbird’ anon: Old Irish 9th Century)

There is an eclectic mix of Italian, Russian, Irish and Spanish poetry, and some stunning translations from the French tradition including, from Gerard Du Nerval’s ‘Gethsemane 3’ these utterances from the mouth of Christ:

‘Is this your presence in me, father? Have
you power to live and cheat the grave?
Or will you yield before one final heave

‘of the anathemised night angel? I
am alone here with my fear and misery,
and if I die everything must die!’

Róisín Tierney’s The Spanish-Italian Border is a quirky mix, covering her varied life, including years teaching in Valladolid and Granada. She does not set out to be difficult or subtle but rather is focused on entertainment combined with a healthy mix of authentic emotion. By the final poems on death, ageing, mental illness and suicide the laughter of the earlier poems has died, leaving us with some harrowing accounts of later life.

The concrete detail of the bullock heading for slaughter in the opening poem prepares us for the abrasive tone of many of her poems of childhood: ‘sullen thumps on the wooden floor / and his curly forehead, innocently marked, / rises to meet its ghostly wreathe (‘Chosen’). In a mix of brutish affection and vulnerability she describes dysfunctional family life, and a grandfather’s encounter with a colluding young child: ‘“Lie down and give them a suck,” the old man said…/ “You give them a suck, you old bastard,” the eight year old replied /and they both burst out laughing.’ (‘The Sacred and Profane’). When Great Uncle Mick strikes his father for bullying a homeless farmhand in ‘Trajectory’ the violence takes on cosmic proportions: ‘…as for home, why I’ll take it where I find it, / just as a cloud might hit or miss the moon, /yet continue her trajectory through the sky.’

Many poems attempt to explore our fundamental animal nature. Amusingly in ‘Liminal’ she notes the moment when ‘general monkey chatter became more meaningful’, and monkeys first danced, smoked or learned a chat-up line. There is a thematic overlap with Ciaran Berry’s work here, though Tierney milks her work for laughs. Like Berry she is drawn to museums and strange stories such as the ‘Bathyspere’, a contraption for deep sea exploration, or the newly discovered fossil, the ‘Archaeopteryx.’

In ‘Gone’, she considers an (old) Star Trek-style master race that is conflict-free yet also deprived of human emotion, ‘with ears the size of the mind of God / and unimaginably vast intelligence’, reacting thus to The Lark Ascending:

their own hearts, if they have them, will soften and open,
and though they may not know what a metaphor is –
their vast intelligences being strictly literal –
they will, I feel sure of it, weep for joy.

If joy must literally be wept for, then these literal aliens will indeed do that. She offers us life warts and all with its brutalities, but laid on lightly – hiding serious concerns behind humour.

Indeed, she has some very funny dramatic monologues. In ‘Oouff!’ a circus horse seduces a Shetland pony, while Joseph talking about Mary in ‘The Pact’, says simply: ‘Then one day I heard her talking to the sky, / and knew I’d lost her’. The mood darkens with the final more sombre poems on death, suicide and ageing. If life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’, Tierney seems to suggest that our humanity lies in the fact that we recognize and record it.

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