From brief lyrics that examine a mixtape or a plectrum to larger meditations on the connections between the life of Robert Frost and a trip to the supermarket in the snow, the poems in Ciaran Berry’s Liner Notes consider questions of what it means to grow up somewhere and grow away from somewhere. His voice is by turns celebratory, elegiac, inquisitive and quietly humorous, as he conjures a past that’s ‘bric-à-brac and hand-me-down’.
As these poems trace their way backwards towards a ‘phone box lit up at the corner / like a spaceship that will never take off’, we meet along the road everyone from Elvis to Dolly Parton and Dolly the Sheep.
In his hands, time and place shift shape and take on new form as, like the couple driving through upstate New York in one of the collection’s later poems, we find ourselves entering the town of Ovid.
‘At first glance, the poems in Liner Notes immediately appeal. It is something about the bright, attractive surface of the words and the light-hearted tone that seems to demand little of the reader . . . But the complex subtext emerges as references to iconic milestones draw readers down the pathways of memory. Since sensation and emotion are the glue that binds memory, the paths marked out through reference to landmarks of popular culture transport readers willy-nilly to the terrain of recollection and feeling – a roiling counterpoint to the tranquil surface, its bulk submerged like an iceberg.
. . . His ability to move mercurially between simplicity and complexity, between a soufflé-light surface and deeper levels redolent of the rich complexity of a figgy pudding, makes his verse amenable as well as substantial.’ — Dick Edelstein, Dublin Review of Books
Ciaran Berry’s third collection, Liner Notes (Gallery Press, 81pp, €11.95pb), couldn’t provide a clearer point of contrast. If [Michelle] O’Sullivan is in the lyrical/pastoral line of influence, Berry’s work embodies the unmistakeable neo-Augustanism that is the inheritance of the Muldoonian.
In Paul Muldoon’s Capercaillies the first letter of each line famously forms an acrostic that reads “Is This A New Yorker Poem Or What”, and there is a whiff of this about Berry’s work. The defining symptoms are present: a variety of capacious verse-forms, revved up to sustain extended riffs heavily freighted with puns and repurposed clichés; a reliance upon popular culture references so central that they tend to become structural elements in the poems; a restlessly speculative tone; and a certain emotional guardedness.
The titles of these poems tell us much about them: ‘John Peel Mixtape’ ‘Conventions of the Power Ballad’; ‘Statler and Waldorf’; ‘Columbo’; ‘My Mother Meets the Rolling Stones’.
Although it is a well-worn groove, Berry carries it off with panache, and there is real skill in his handling of lineation and phrasing. A poem to Dolly the sheep is composed of tight, disciplined couplets: “Maybe it’s the telemetry of our telomeres/that for the tropes of country music makes us pine, / how we begin and end between the theme park and the pen, / in a one-bedroom next to The Wishy Washy / or a glass case in an Edinburgh museum, / our ideas of beauty patterned on the town tramp / or the Finn Dorset in its platonic form. / Always the lamb for which we’ll lie down with the lion, /always that chicken and egg sort of thing”
If occasionally you wish these poems risked a little more, or raised their own emotional stakes more often, there is still much enjoyment to be had from their unquestionable brio.
— Caitriona O’Reilly, The Irish Times
Year Published: 2018
ISBN PBK: 978 1 91133 747 8
ISBN HBK: 978 1 91133 748 5
Cover: ‘Rehearsal’ by Martin Gale