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Sounding the Anthropocene in the Poetry of Ciaran Berry

Poétique de l’Anthropocène dans la poésie de Ciaran Berry
Eóin Flannery
p. 147-168


L’article porte sur ce que l’on peut considérer comme la « poétique anthropocène » du poète irlandais Ciaran Berry, représentée ici par une sélection de poèmes de ses deux premiers recueils : « For the Birds » et « Electrocuting an Elephant » parus dans The Sphere of Birds (2008), et « The Dead Zoo », « Darwin in the Galapagos » et « Polar Bear », tirés de The Dead Zoo (2013). Ils sont étudiés à l’aune du traitement poétique de ce que David Farrier appelle la « poétique anthropocène », caractérisée par son intérêt pour le « temps profond » de l’histoire, les histoires évolutionnaires, et l’extinction. Selon Farrier, une telle « poétique de l’Anthropocène peut nous aider à mieux apprécier ce que signifie vivre au sein du temps long ». Dans la veine de James Longenbach, une attention particulière est accordée à la politique et l’éthique de la forme poétique. L’analyse s’attache également à la nature des relations entre humain et non-humain telle que réfractées dans les modèles formels de la poésie.

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  • 1 James Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry, Chicago – London, University of Chicago Press, 2004, p. (...)
  • 2 David Farrier, Anthropocene Poetics: Deep Time, Sacrifice Zones, and Extinction, Minneapolis, Unive (...)

1In his robust, and nuanced, effort to essay the “resistance” to poetry, the late James Longenbach offers the following opening salvo: “[f]or centuries, poems have resisted themselves more strenuously than they have been resisted by the culture receiving them. Their language is the language of self-questioning”.1 For Longenbach, the internal aesthetic mechanics of the poem are at the heart of its resistant character; from syntax to lineation, encompassing rhythm and diction, poetry continually defies our appetite for closure and definition. There is, then, a self-alienating quality diagnosed, and adhered to, by Longenbach that militates against transparency and complacency, and that seems entirely appropriate in the context of our engagement with “anthropocene poetics” and the works of Irish poet, Ciaran Berry. The ensuing suite of analyses focuses on Berry’s first two collections, The Sphere of Birds (2008) and The Dead Zoo (2013). For the purposes of the argument, we address a selection of poems from each collection: “For the Birds” and “Electrocuting an Elephant” from The Sphere of Birds, while the following poems from The Dead Zoo will be analysed: “The Dead Zoo”, “Darwin in the Galapagos” and “Polar Bear”. Specifically, Berry’s works will be read in terms of their poetic engagement with what David Farrier terms “anthropocene poetics”, a poetics that meditates upon historical “deep time”, evolutionary histories, and extinction. Such a “poetics of the anthropocene”, in Farrier’s estimation, “can help us to appreciate in new ways what it means to live enfolded by deep time”.2 Furthermore, in considering Berry’s works in terms of an anthropocene poetics, and tallying with Longenbach, attention will be devoted to the politics and the ethics of poetic form. Thus, in addition to siting Berry’s work within the context of the Anthropocene, Scott Knickerbocker’s ecopoetical coinage of “[s]ensuous poesis” speaks to the shapes and sonics of the poems that make up our discussion. Such “poesis”, in Knickerbocker’s view,

  • 3 Scott Knickerbocker, Ecopoetics: The Language of Nature, the Nature of Language, Amherst, Universit (...)

[…] relies on the immediate impact on the sense of the aural effects, such as alliteration, cacophony, and onomatopoeia, and visual effects such as enjambment and stanza shape, even as words simultaneously invite the reflective consideration of the intellect.3

And with this latter perspective in mind our readings will also attend to the nature of human / non-human kinship relations as they are refracted through the formal patterns of the poetry.

2Reflecting on a visit paid to the Irish Museum of Natural History in the early 1990s, the American writer, Rebecca Solnit, concluded that the exhibits housed therein:

  • 4 Rebecca Solnit, A Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland, London, Verso, 1997, p. 23.

[…] constituted a sidelong tribute to imperialism, […] they were imperial souvenirs of imperial expeditions into the larger world. Or they could be read for traces of the history of science, from the museum’s own origins in an eighteenth-century scientific society in the days when science was a gentlemanly concern to the Victorian fetish for collecting and classifying the world – which, come to think of it, seems to have been a reflex of trying to put the Empire in order too.4

  • 5 Ciaran Berry, “Postcards from the Museum of Natural History”, in The Dead Zoo, Oldcastle, The Galle (...)

Solnit’s idiom underscores the classificatory dynamics of the imperial museum, a spatial microcosmic version of broader global acquisitions. As Solnit rightly maintains, the cultural and political cannot be disaggregated in analyses of the functions of the natural historical exhibitionary order. And the thematic and formal preoccupations of Berry’s second collection, The Dead Zoo, cohere significantly with Solnit’s concern for the schematising endeavours of ecological imperialism. While foregoing the nakedly political cast of Solnit’s work, The Dead Zoo’s associative and cumulative configurations, which are consistent with Berry’s earlier publication, The Sphere of Birds, remain acutely conscious, and performative, of the violent hierarchies of human and non-human relations. Darwin and natural history are reprised in this collection in “Darwin in the Galapagos” and in the poetic diptych, “Postcards from the Museum of Natural History”.5 As the title poem, “The Dead Zoo”, reveals, this is not a matter of curtly polemicising on the brute aesthetics of exhibiting the historically-accrued trophies of hunting expeditions. The latter would merely embody a form of hollowed-out moral relativism, lacking any meaningful sense of contemporary self-awareness. One of the most effective features of the poem is the transparency of linguistic and figurative self-consciousness on display. And this notion of the workings of the poetic language “displaying” or “exhibiting” a level of self-consciousness is a deliberate correlative of the thematised props of the exhibitionary order that populate such natural history museums.

  • 6 Ciaran Berry, “The Dead Zoo”, in The Dead Zoo, p. 17.
  • 7 Ciaran Berry, “Postcards from the Museum of Natural History”, p. 73.
  • 8 Ciaran Berry, “The Dead Zoo”, p. 17.
  • 9 Ibid.
  • 10 Timothy Morton, “An Object-Oriented Defense of Poetry”, New Literary History, vol. 43, no. 2, 2012, (...)

3The poem opens with fourteen lines in which there is no discernible human presence other than the poetic speaker. This section of the poem is given over to observation of several of the museum’s exhibits, though one exhibit is spotlighted for more extensive attention, “this eel with a frog stuck in its throat”.6 Berry returns to this artefact and this image in a later poem, “Eel Swallowing Frog”, itself one part of the poetic diptych entitled, “Postcards from the Museum of Natural History”.7 But at the outset of “The Dead Zoo”, Berry lingers on the frozen posture of the half-swallowed frog stuck in the throat of the choked eel, with “their fused bodies white as a stoat in winter”.8 The closing similed image here is the first of several figurative gestures deployed to capture the stilled and aborted actions of this failed scene of predation. The “fusion”, of course, belies the predatory dynamics between the two dead creatures, but at another level the invocation of “fusion” is suggestive when we analyse the clustered figurations that ensue in this portion of the poem. In addition to the simile above, Berry refers to “the swimming-pool blue of the ethyl alcohol”, “the eel’s mouth opened like an eye-toothed snare”, which is “lost in the gulp that is its last supper”.9 The predation of the eel is well expressed in the second similed image here, while there are overtones of preservation and redemption respectively in the metaphors that envelope the simile. The false luxuriance of the metaphoric swimming pool preserves the mutuality of death here, yet the creatures are granted a renewed second incarnation as objects of anthropocentric fascination on foot of the eel’s “last supper”. But surely our attention must be demanded by the density of figuration in evidence here, a pattern that continues through the first half of the poem. Berry’s poems are acutely conscious of the boundaries of human knowledge of the non-human natural world, and they are attentive to the ways in which the same human knowledge has been ruthlessly acquired in waves of environmental degradation and species extinction. Consequently, Berry does not assume that there can be an easy “fusion” of language, knowledge and the physical externalities of non-human nature. In other words, “The Dead Zoo” deploys a battery of poetic figurations in its opening lines in order to underscore the poem’s profound concern for, and misgivings about, its own ability to do justice to the natural phenomena that populate its content. Yet, as Timothy Morton insists, “[t]o write poetry is to perform a nonviolent political act, to coexist with other beings […]. […] a poem forces us to acknowledge that we coexist with uncanny beings in a groundless yet vivid reality”.10 As we shall note across the poems under scrutiny here, Berry’s work connects without subjugating in his work, and the reader is alert to a consistent sense of ambivalence and to a pattern of poetic self-questioning.

  • 11 Timothy Clark, The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment, Cambridge, Cambridge U (...)

4Without collapsing Berry’s poetic interventions into transparent analogues of ecocritical theorisation, it still appears apt to suggest that there are resonances with arguments about the politics of language and environmental destruction. If we consider Timothy Clark’s summation of these issues where he argues that a “pervasive argument in ecocriticism is that language is a decisive human environment and that its currently dominant forms can rightly be called an environmental problem”, then the ambiguities registered in Berry’s poetry seem to display a similar set of anxieties.11 In this vein, “The Dead Zoo” does not merely signal its anxieties in the distancing frames of simile and metaphor. Once the poetic speaker enters the poem, recording their impressions of the arrayed exhibits through the first-person singular, they further, and repeatedly, accent a sense of displacement that cannot, and is not, resolved by the consoling correspondences of simile or metaphor. The speaker details:

  • 12 Ciaran Berry, “The Dead Zoo”, p. 17.

the crates
of whales suspended from the ceiling
like Calder mobiles in some art museum.
It’s as if I’ve stepped into a painting
or a funeral home where the bodies
have been drained and then embalmed,
dressed and redressed in their best clothes
so that they seem both at rest and ready
to rise again […].12

  • 13 Stacey Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self, Bloomington, Indiana Un (...)

In short order here we note, firstly, metaphor nestled against simile, which are then followed by a comparative sequence of spatial displacements, and the extract is cap-stoned by the uncertainty of the reference, “seem”, to the “embalmed” bodies. Efforts to relate, to explain and to represent here are suitably conditional and uncertain. This is a measure of the necessary anxiety that suffuses much ecopoetic representation, a self-reflexive leavening of any tendency to objectify or romanticise. As we have contended in our analysis of “The Dead Zoo”, there is an irresolution at the core of these linguistic and figurative assertions that is consistent with an ecocritical cognisance of language’s combined reductive complicity in the subjugation of, and innate inability to do justice to, the non-human world, even as the anthropocentrism of representation cannot be fully disentangled from the materiality of the non-human. A feature of Berry’s aesthetic, then, is that it is cognisant of the reality of “a material world that is never merely an external place but always the very substance of our selves and others”.13

  • 14 Christine Cusick, “‘Balanced between cliff and flowers’: The Enduring Earth Step in Moya Cannon’s ‘ (...)
  • 15 Ciaran Berry, “Darwin in the Galapagos”, in The Dead Zoo, p. 70.

5And the exhibitionary form of the “dead zoo” is one of the contemporary legatees of Charles Darwin’s voyages on the HMS Beagle between 1831 and 1836, on which Berry reflects in “Darwin in the Galapagos”. If the specimens arrayed in the “dead zoo” are bereft of vitality yet retain the capacity to elicit ethical considerations, then Darwin’s five-week sojourn on the Galapagos Islands from September 1835 is populated by an abundance of diversified non-human phenomena. Berry’s poem engages with “[t]he human animal’s desire to know”, which, as Christine Cusick avers, “is at best a way of engaging with the world, and at worst, a desire to control”.14 And while the poem initially inventories the plenitude with which Darwin was greeted, Berry shifts gear, and perspective, in order to query the motivations for and the accruals of anthropocentrism. At its core, the poem engages with the demythologisation of the natural world to which Darwin’s works were such major contributions – drawing on and intersecting with the labours and insights of Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Lyell, Thomas Malthus and others. As the temporal scale of the Earth’s proportions expand, so too do the complexity and diversity of its species populations, with the certainties of orthodox religious faith, for instance, rendered obsolete or tenuous under the glare of scientific advancements. The increasing ambivalence towards religious faith generated by Darwin’s discoveries is, then, signalled at the outset of “Darwin in the Galapagos”, “Eden, if he’d allow himself the word, / or at least a place where we seem to be / brought close to the first appearance / of new beings on this earth”.15 At first blush the invocation of an Edenic landscape gestures to Darwin’s lapsing religious faith, notwithstanding his theological studies at Cambridge University that immediately preceded his recruitment for the Beagle expedition by Robert Fitzroy. Darwin might well conceive of the unblemished topographies of the four islands in terms that recall the fecundity and purity detailed in the Book of Genesis, but, ultimately, the sketching of the paradisal climes of the Galapagos is nothing less than bleakly ironic. Berry’s poem opens with a return to the historical time-frames of Christianity, yet over its own duration gradually works its way to the resonance of its closing word, “scale” – a term that diminishes the anthropocentrism inherent to the initial impulses of the Beagle’s explorations.

  • 16 Ibid.
  • 17 David Farrier, Anthropocene Poetics…, p. 52.

6Almost halfway through the poem, Berry refers to “volcanic rock’s / cyclopean eye”, in a description of the lizards that are native to the locality.16 And the image consummately captures the aforementioned notion of scale, and it succeeds in this in two ways. First of all, the material solidity of the volcano’s, and the island’s, geological formations throw into relief the temporal scales towards which Darwin’s scientific endeavours are heading, despite his own misgivings about their broader social consequences. But of equal significance is the visual image in evidence here, the singular gazing eye that surveys the terrain registers as the presence of Darwin, but also as that of all anthropogenic incursions. The “cyclopean eye” is the pivotal metaphor around which “Darwin in the Galapagos” orbits, looking outwards at the multitudinous non-human ecologies that are then rendered as classified objects within anthropocentric epistemologies. This figuration is a marker of Berry’s “anthropocene poetics”, crafting a comparison in a gesture of connection, all the while unsettling the reader through its confirmation of inherent difference. The figurative gesture is of a piece with the classificatory impulses of the Darwinian expedition, but as it strives to give linguistic shape to the world, it inevitably fails, and this, too, is inherent to Farrier’s notion of “an anthropocene poetics”. In Farrier’s view such a poetics “is, in part, a matter of intersecting orders of difference – fast and slow, great and small, deep and shallow time interacting in and through human action to shape the world that also, in turn, shapes us”.17 But as we note across Berry’s works, there is a pervasive sense of self-consciousness at play about the ethics and the forms of such representational structures. So, while the poem leans on the “cyclopean eye” as its kernel metaphor, it is telling that the form of the metaphor works with the notion of “scale” – geological scale –, a notion that itself significantly relativises the historical significance of humanity and its representational codes. In tune with the poem’s registration of ambivalence with respect to Darwin’s contemporary religious orthodoxies, human scale is significantly shadowed by the proportions of non-human and geological temporal scales in Berry’s figurative economy.

7Yet more markers of ambivalence are divined as the poem “catalogues” a fraction of the natural plenitude encountered and exploited by Darwin and his “crewmen”. The “cyclopean eye” is preceded and succeeded by repeated demands to “Consider” a variety of the fauna; we are implored and / or invited to:

  • 18 Ciaran Berry, “Darwin in the Galapagos”, p. 70.

the mocking thrush. Consider the wren.
Consider the turtle – a small skiff surfacing
on the inlet where his crewmen wish
to swim […]
Consider the lizards that go in herds a-fishing […]
Consider, if you will,
the tortoise, how you can drink the water
from its slit bladder, or prepare oil
clear as water from its fat; […]18

The ambivalent suggestiveness of “consider”, a term that evokes consideration and thoughtfulness, as well as a term that can be reconciled with the observational methods of the natural scientist, sits comfortably with the self-reflexiveness demonstrated by the poem. Indeed, the tone of “consider” leans towards both that of empirical facticity and to empathic care, between an expression of affect and the accrual of knowledge. This anaphoric repetition, then, is operative as a demand or request for cross-species consideration as equal, precarious, valuable as well as ventriloquising the tone of the scientific observer enamoured of the non-human ecological specimens. But with each successive iteration of “consider”, we note a development – perhaps an evolution – in the nature of the statement. The first two instances are unadorned statements, completed grammatical sentences that direct the reader’s attention to the creature under “consideration”. This simplicity of expression and content concedes ground to more complex and, ultimately, anthropocentric contexts as the sequence of “consideration” proceeds. The allusion to the tortoise is curtly intruded upon by the activities of Darwin’s ship mates, while the poem cannot but harness the fame, and fate, of the Galapagos tortoise, which is subject to the dietary needs of the explorers.

8The spare observations of the opening “considerations”, then, are shadowed by the exploitative violence with which the fabled Galapagos tortoise is met. If the “cyclopean eye” is the signal metaphor of the poem, then the tortoise represents the corresponding metonymic presence; this latter figure of fragmentation is dismembered into its “useful” parts. The singular desiring and acquisitive gaze that is explicit in the poem lays claim to and devours all that falls within its purview. Yet, just as metaphor connects and underscores essential difference, metonymy stresses both fragmentation and linkage, and an effective ecopoetics requires a willingness to accept and live with innate differences. But part of the poem’s ethic is trained on speculating on what exactly was felt by Darwin in these circumstances. The “cyclopean eye” is a resonant metaphorical rendering of the “imperial gaze”, but Berry is unwilling to colour all who explored with the same motivations and attitudes. Surely, the poem asks, there is compassion, or stirrings of affective commonality aroused in the midst of this ecological plenitude; it cannot simply be the case that humanity was, and remains, guided by an undiluted acquisitive sensibility? And this is where we shift from the observational “consideration” to a more ecologically-attuned sense of affording thought and worth to non-human fauna and resources. And this is also why the poem navigates its way from the Biblical “scale” of its opening invocation of the Edenic to the individual “scale” of the historical natural scientist. The Edenic is part of a vocabulary and a worldview that unapologetically lays claim to the Earth, while Darwin’s insights and discoveries, though enlisted as a part of a thoroughly imperial “mission”, bear significant implications for the relative scalar proportions of humanity in planetary terms.

9The “cyclopean eye” works with the broader aural scheme of the poem, patterns of alliterative echoes that suggest the reductive and crass appetites that were, and remain, symptomatic of anthropocentric materialism. Savouring the rich diversity of the islands, we note the litany of plosives:

  • 19 Ibid. (emphasis added).

All the beetles
(twenty-five species) he’ll cup like gold
in his prospector’s palms
[…] while his gaze
goes greedy, […]19

  • 20 James Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry, p. 51.
  • 21 Ciaran Berry, “Darwin in the Galapagos”, p. 71.

If the tortoise bears the metonymic freight of the poem, then the “prospector’s palms” assume central synecdochic significance – from one perspective, then, we witness a contestation at the level of figurative fragmentation. Yet neither the kernel metaphor nor this chorus of sound patterns that channel the violence and indignity of such exercises hold sway over the central ethic of “Darwin in the Galapagos”. Because to do so would ultimately result in little more than a poetic polemic, a lyrical diatribe scored with easy targets and moral relativism. In other words, the poem is not content to adhere to the promise of finality that might seem to be suggested by its palate of figurations. Rather, the plethora of figurations are unmoored from the stability of connection and comparison, and are signals of multiplicity and diffraction; as Longenbach notes, in a different context, such poetry furnishes “a landscape of loss in a language of possibility”.20 Instead, Berry fashions a poem that takes self-reflexiveness as its form and as its content. Representation, knowledge and discovery are portrayed, along with those that pioneered in these areas, but the poem, in the end, poses a series of unanswered questions that introduce the complexities of affect and ambivalence – a strategy that confounds any easy sense of certainty and precludes ethical judgement. The poem ends with three questions, the first of which reminds us of Darwin’s crisis of conscience regarding his scientific discoveries and their implications for his religious faith: “[…] does our failed clergyman not / think God or glory?”.21 Again the question is aurally patterned in such a way that echoes the earlier soundscape, and while it remains firmly rooted within the priorities of the anthropocentric, it also contributes to the aforementioned ambivalence at the core of the poem. This first query is followed by two related questions:

  • 22 Ibid. (emphasis added).

Does his mind open
skywards that way at all? Even as
it burrows deeper into the minutiae: footprint
and feather, scat and seed and scale?22

As he pushes at the boundaries of canonical knowledge, Berry wonders, is Darwin immediately aware of the impacts, beyond the classificatory regimes of natural science? And while there is a superficial consistency to the alliterative arrangement of the poem, the relative significances of these extracted instances vary. Latterly, the intensity of alliterated consonants – indeed, sibilant notes – hinge on two words, “skywards” and “scale”. The former might have been a figurative suggestion of the heavenly and the divine heretofore for Darwin, but now it takes on entirely different meaning.

10The Darwinian demythologisation may have placed humanity within the protracted scales of evolutionary time, but from another vantage point, it also legitimised the re-centring of humanity in an increasingly secularised and hierarchical world. And this is why the final sibilant word of the poem is so telling; it references the “scale” of Darwin’s achievements, just as the term indexes the re-framing of planetary temporality on foot of these achievements, but it also resonates with contemporary arguments that insist on, and are diagnostic of, the planetary “scales” of devastating, and unequal, anthropogenic climate impacts. Yet, as we have seen there is an inalienable intimacy to the relations that exist across human and non-human species. And for Bruno Latour,

  • 23 Bruno Latour, “‘It’s development, stupid!’ Or: How to Modernize Modernization?”, 2007, online: http (...)

Science, technology, markets etc. have amplified, for at least two centuries, not only the scale at which humans and nonhumans are connecting with one another in larger and larger assemblies, but also the intimacy with which such connections are made.23

Darwin, capitalism, the “exhibitionary order” are all contributory fractions to the productive and destructive intimacies to which Latour alludes here, and that are interrogated across Berry’s poetry.

  • 24 For more on McClintock, see David Murphy, “Francis Leopold McClintock, the ‘Arctic Fox’”, History I (...)
  • 25 For another ecopoetical invocation of the polar bear, see Paula Meehan, “The Solace of Artemis”, in (...)
  • 26 Jonathan Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, London, Routledge, 19 (...)

11The renowned Arctic explorer, Francis Leopold McClintock, donated the polar bear exhibit to the Irish Museum of Natural History in 1852. Born in Dundalk in 1819, McClintock entered the British Navy at age 12, eventually retiring as a full admiral in 1884, having garnered a reputation as an innovative expert on polar expeditions, even advising on the British Antarctic expedition of 1902-1904.24 Though claimed from a corner of the planet remote from Darwin’s travels on the HMS Beagle, “Polar Bear” further engages with the accruals, and the ethics, of anthropocentrism, as well as interrogating the aforementioned “exhibitionary order”. Equally, neither Darwin’s profoundly influential interventions in natural history nor McClintock’s more discrete contribution to the field are confined to their respective historical contexts. Rather, Berry deploys both of these poems, and others in The Dead Zoo, to spotlight contemporary legacies and perpetuations of asymmetrical human and non-human relations. Just as the “cyclopean eye” and the Galapagos tortoise perform as the chief figurative phenomena of the previous poem, the polar bear here operates in metonymic fashion for the poetic speaker.25 The poems, then, alert the reader to the accommodation of difference through their armouries of figuration. And in Jonathan Culler’s view the latter includes “effects of language that exceed, deform, or deviate from the code”, yielding “opportunities for new turns”.26 The effects of sound, and suggestiveness, thus, harbour associative possibilities in poetic contexts that bring the human and the non-human into proximity.

  • 27 Ciaran Berry, “Polar Bear”, in The Dead Zoo, p. 72.
  • 28 Ibid.

12As we have noted elsewhere, Berry’s lyrics are attuned to, and challenge, the fact that museumisation consecrates hierarchies, and this is clarified in “Polar Bear”. The poem takes the form of a sonnet, a structure that speaks to the poise and stability of the representational systems that house the dead animal in verbal and physical forms. Not only does Berry avail of the fourteen-line form of the sonnet, but “Polar Bear” deploys a familiar closing rhyming couplet that conclusively crystallises the representational ethics of the poem. There is a stark violence to the poem’s opening, the first line is scored with spondaic verbs and nouns that ultimately capture the dead weight of the preyed-upon bear. The curt demise of the bear is expressed through the metrics of the line, which works with the insistence of the sibilant alliteratives: “Stilled, stopped, stuffed, the heft and hulk of you / that lives forever in the log of your killer”.27 If the opening line wears its poetic figurations quite openly, the second line further draws our attention to the relationship between human systems of representation and the non-human environment. The vital agency of the non-human creature that is brutally “[s]tilled, stopped, stuffed” in physical terms is later committed to the verbal codes of McClintock’s expeditionary records. Thus the once living animal is rendered static in death and, later, that death is refracted through the gaze of what Berry terms a “killer” rather than a “hunter”. The opening two lines are half of the first of three sentences across the poem, and this first sentence is completed by a description taken from the “killer’s” log “in which you slide across the ice on your backside / that split second before he settles, aims, and fires”.28 Despite the appearance of balance, with the four-line sentence bookended by a pairing of triads, it is, firstly, the reference to the “settled” poise of the “killer” that disrupts the symmetry, as “settles” breaks from the spondaic character of the other five phrases. But, still further, though each of the six words in the respective triads might be read as availing of sibilant alliteration, this is inverted in the latter triadic arrangement.

13Thus, from the outset, Berry transfuses the poem with a level of formal and technical ambivalence that is consistent with his other poetic interventions on human and non-human relations in the Anthropocene. But what is equally noticeable is that such ambivalence is matched with a desire for, indeed a manifestation of, dignity for the non-human. And this is most readily apparent in the mode of address of the poetic speaker, who continually refers to the polar bear in the second-person; on four occasions we read: “you […] your […] you […] your”. While the killer’s log might well render the stricken polar bear as an object, a curiosity destined for the exhibitionary circuit, “Polar Bear” refuses to partake of such a perspective. And, this is also where the key metonymic value of the polar bear comes to life, so to speak; the poem attempts to differentiate its ethics of representation from those of the “killer’s log” and though the bear’s reduction to artefact is detailed, the poem is self-conscious enough to be aware of its own participation in the codification of the non-human. But in harnessing the second-person, “Polar Bear” not only dignifies the museumised bear, it also compels the reader to view the animal in itself, and as metonym, in terms beyond an “othered” museum piece.

14Yet the poem does not, and cannot, shy away from the brute facts of the polar bear’s diminished physical stature, and the poem affords most space to this process in its longest second sentence:

  • 29 Ibid.

Here’s to your second heart of chicken wire
and to your false teeth, more like tusks or stalactites,
your bellyful of seal, and all the melted blubber
that lit the ship as they sailed back to the dead zoo
where you’re too kitsch to scare, a cartoon bear
among the still lives of pied falconet and anteater,
your nose the sluggish nose of a mongrel, your eyes
two baubles in angler’s tackle box.29

  • 30 Kathryn Kirkpatrick argues that “[p]olar bears have become part of a well-established visual discou (...)

The faint tribute of the sentence’s opening belies the catalogue of indignities endured by the animal’s carcass, as it becomes little more than a parodic iteration of its living grandeur. In this specific instance, the poem inventories the extent to, and the ways in, which the bear’s anatomical form was dismembered and utilised, a process that leads to its current reduced state in “the dead zoo”. In fact the polar bear is not simply a parody of itself; Berry’s construction conveys the sense that the creature is a diminished grotesque version of its living incarnation. As in the previous sentence, the poem insistently refers to the animal in the second-person – in this section six times, to add to the four in the previous section. Yet the effort to instil some dignity through this minimal but telling grammatical device struggles against the litany of invasive indignities that characterise the polar bear’s posthumous existence. Crucially here, the poem captures, and expresses, a sense of physical self-alienation, particularly in its allusions to the bear’s “second heart”, its “false teeth”, and the descriptions of its nose and its eyes. And, again, this is a key aspect of the polar bear’s metonymic currency in the poem; Berry furnishes an isolated example of dismemberment and of alienation but we fully appreciate that the polar bear is fractionally representative of the broader spectrum of the non-human.30 And the poem’s focus on the anthropocentric is plainly evident in the references to “kitsch”, the “cartoon bear”, “the still lives”, and the “angler’s tackle box”. These are not juxtaposed to the endurances of the polar bear, but are, of course, fully operative in the figurative patterning of this exhibit in the “dead zoo”. In aggregation they conclusively establish the specific fate of this once graceful and powerful creature, but they are also contributory to the poem’s engagement with anthropogenic incursions and impacts on the non-human ecologies, both historically and in the contemporary moment. The body that remains is “unnatural”, utterly devoid of the menace and the prowess that once stalked the Arctic climes through which McClintock and others travelled.

  • 31 Ciaran Berry, “Polar Bear”, p. 72.

15Yet, that time period is not inconsequential to our own time, indeed beyond our own time. The travel, trade and terror that marked European expansion around the globe during the life-times of Darwin and McClintock were part of a broader economy of industrialisation and development that are contributory to the Anthropocene. And in focusing on two “historical” figures in these poems, Berry is not simply museumising them in their turn. Rather, both Darwin and McClintock, with their contemporaries, were living through the earlier stages of planetary climate change, and, therefore, their lives and exploits cannot be read in mutual exclusion from our own. And the resolution of “Polar Bear” strikes this very note in both its specific content and in its aforementioned formal balance: “Outside / it’s raining frogs and rats, but nothing stirs in here, / in this Darwin’s ark that never left the pier”.31 The reference to the external environment of the Natural History Museum abruptly sites us in modern-day Dublin, as the poem’s focus moves from the panorama of taxidermy to the inclement, and defamiliarising, description of the weather. The poem’s primary attention is devoted to the historical demise of the polar bear and to the eternal present of its installation in the museum, but this invocation of the weather imports the dynamism of a living present, and future, into “Polar Bear”. Indeed, by gesturing to the Biblical Noah’s ark, the poem’s final line explicitly calls to mind the notion of climate catastrophe, as well as forging a link between Darwin and the contemporary. Yet, it is also worth attending to the significance of the final rhymed pairing with which the poem closes. Superficially, the harsh alliterated “r” ties the couplet to the equivalent sounds in the poem’s title and its subject, but the words themselves are clearly spatial in their significance. The “here” of the second last line refers to the visited space of the Natural History Museum, while the “pier” that ends the poem is entirely imagined and metaphorical. But both are suggestive, and confirmatory, of the stasis to which the polar bear, and the other arrayed exhibits, are confined in the dead time of the “dead zoo”. The twinned negatives of “nothing” and “never” redouble this feeling of inertia, a feeling that, in the end, is reduced to bathos in the guise of the idle ark that fails to perform its basic function. There is, then, an emptiness to “this Darwin’s ark”, a space that seems to epitomise the reach of humanity but does little more than exhibit hollowed-out iterations of the non-human. The “dead zoo” is problematic precisely because it performs the asymmetry and the violence that have long characterised humanity’s interactions with, and views of, the “othered” non-human.

  • 32 For a discussion of these poems, see Eóin Flannery, “‘When Species Meet’: Scale and Form in the Poe (...)

16Though the catalytic action of “For the Birds” boundaries the sea, the poem bears little resemblance or exhibits little interest in the latter. Rather, the poetic speaker is taken with the carcass of a hare, randomly encountered here and, subsequently, meditated upon in a lengthy associative, but also connective, poem comprising twenty-five tercet stanzas. “For the Birds” is not just connective within its own limits, however, but addresses other poems in the collection, The Sphere of Birds. “Cold Pastoral” and “Orchid” resonate here, specifically in the aural mechanics of the poem, as Berry crafts metrical and assonant echoes across the poems, each of which details encounters between the human and the non-human.32 The associative nature of “For the Birds” manifests, then, in its deployment of the ekphrastic, in recollections of intimate family histories, and in the formal relationship between its poetic lines and the energies of the poem’s often protracted sentences. Thus, there is a formal fecundity to the poem that enables Berry to establish lines of connection between people in different locations and times, and across species borders.

17If the polar bear now resident in the Irish Museum of Natural History was prey to an identifiable individual, the hare carcass encountered at the outset of “For the Birds” has presumably been set upon by a non-human predator, though this is never established and the animal is now just carrion on the sand dunes. At first, then, we are left with nothing more than a documentary outline of the carcass:

Something has pried open the body of this hare,
unpicked a seam from between the stilled hind legs
to the middle of the slackened, grey belly.

  • 33 Ciaran Berry, “For the Birds”, in The Sphere of Birds, Oldcastle, The Gallery Press, 2008, p. 17.

Now the two sides of the wound part slowly,
like a mouth widening as it comes on the right word.33

  • 34 The anatomical dismembering of the hare in Berry’s poem and its reduction to carrion belies the rol (...)
  • 35 Ciaran Berry, “The Parsley Necklace”, in The Sphere of Birds, p. 32-33.

There is a surgical precision suggested here in the violence inflicted upon the anatomy of the hare, a violence no doubt underwritten by carnivorous desire, a concern to which the poem, and our analysis, returns in due course.34 This is the brute nature of survival and it is not sentimentalised or burnished in any way here by Berry, but it is gradually intruded upon by humanity. The unvarnished portrait of the hare’s wounded carcass gives way, then, to the similed entry of the human in poetic form and content; Berry invokes language through the use of figurative language. In this instance, the poem attends to oral expression, and the embodied performance of speech is figuratively linked to the ravaged body of the slain hare. This reprises Berry’s interest in the exertions of the human body, as witnessed in “The Parsley Necklace”,35 but in “For the Birds”, Berry is more concerned with the porosities and commonalities that exist across species. And the significance of both the early placement of the simile in the poem and its alignment of human verbal expression with predatory violence cannot be underestimated given similar patterns in other works in The Sphere of Birds. The simile is legible as a thematic keynote, and it is a self-conscious index of this poem’s, and Berry’s, concern with linguistic representation, human violence and the non-human. However, it needs to be stressed that such features of Berry’s works are never outright and simplistic disavowals of anthropocentric cultural assertions or exercises.

18Poetic figuration blends into ekphrasis in a further meditation on the ethics and politics of verbal and visual representation. The first tercet focuses exclusively on the hare’s carcass, unblemished by any human presence, and it is grammatically self-contained. But once the poem reaches the second tercet, the poem’s lines and tercets no longer define the limits of its sentences, as they cascade in their respective ambivalent associations between humanity and non-humanity. Breaking from the rigour of the opening tercet’s singular attentiveness to the deceased hare, “For the Birds” performs cross-species connection in its shape and its associative contents. In this respect, it is worth returning to the second tercet, and moving on to the third, fourth and fifth:

Now the two sides of the wound part slowly,
like a mouth widening as it comes on the right word,
or that neat tear in the half-obscured lower thigh

at the centre of the theatre in Eakins’ The Gross Clinic
where, as I remember it, the owl-eyed surgeon
seems so unmoved by the thick, scarlet globules

that glisten like cheap lipstick on his thumb
and the anguish a mother buries in her dress sleeve
as he explains precisely how he will poke

  • 36 Ciaran Berry, “For the Birds”, p. 17.

a scalpel into tendon, muscle, bone, to remove
the latest clot of gangrene from the left leg of her son
who might, if all goes well, last out the year.36

  • 37 Thomas Eakins, American realist painter and sculptor (1844-1916). Eakins later painted the more san (...)

The gaping, or expressive, wound on the hare’s carcass is initially figured in terms of a performative speech act, but is then succeeded by a more considered comparison with a human body portrayed in Thomas Eakins’s 1875 painting, The Gross Clinic.37 In short order, then, there is a triangulation of representational codes, with the oral and the visual enlisted here in the printed poetic form. Yet, the accumulated presences of such anthropocentric forms does not mean that the poem asserts any sense of species hierarchy, given that Berry, characteristically, leavens his lines with ambivalence. The poetic speaker recalls the Eakins’s painting but does so inconclusively, while the surgeon at the centre of the portrait describes his technical approach as akin to “poking”, which “might” aid the prospects of recovery of his patient. These are subtle hints at the diminution of outright control, a sense that is thrown further into relief with Berry’s hackneyed use of simile, “like cheap lipstick”. This latter figure self-consciously lowers the tone of the poem, deliberately registering as a “failure” of linguistic expression; it is not “the right word” alluded to in the second tercet. But there is also an imagistic symmetry evident in terms of the human patient and the encountered animal; significant weight is given to physical suffering, fragmentation and death, though neither is collapsed into the other with facile analogies. These intersections are not only addressed in the poem’s attention to the sufferer, but Eakins’s surgeon is metaphorised as a pitiless predator, with the spondaic “owl-eyed”. Though his apparent capacity for emotionless surgical intervention is not the sole registration of human affect. The patient’s mother furnishes the poem with an appropriately anguished affective response, as Eakins captures the surgical violation of bodily integrity in a space of asymmetrical emotional conditions – yet another note of ambivalence in the poem.

19In the second protracted sentence, Berry sketches out further details on Eakins’s painting, noting that:

Two assistants hold the patient down, while
a third and fourth, with their crude tools, keep open
the incision and stare deep into the mysteries

of the flesh, as eager for their time with the body
as the petrels, kittiwakes, black-headed gulls
that tend the hare’s remains up here in the near-

heaven of the dunes, all neck and beak and skirl
as they uncoil the intestines turn by turn,
divide liver from lung, pick out the heart,

  • 38 Ciaran Berry, “For the Birds”, p. 17.

squabble over the kidneys.38

Berry’s penchant for triplets is front and centre here, just as it appeared in the earlier first sentence above – “tendon, muscle, bone” – as the poem rhetorically underscores the clamorous and visceral unpicking of the carcass. Most obviously, the lines strike a link between the physical exertions of the surgical assistants and the ways in which the birds hungrily dismember the carrion on the dunes. The violence of the former is not equated entirely with predation, however, given that the patient’s suffering is potentially curative, but is certainly reasoned as contributory to deeper understanding of internal human anatomy. Violence, then, is inherent to survival across species, but is also informative of anthropocentric epistemes. But there are also intimations here that sacrifice and suffering are shared across species; for instance, the devoured hare gives and prolongs life for the birds of prey. And this latter point is alighted upon later in the poem; indeed, it is the primary closing sentiment. Death is pervasive across “For the Birds”, Berry relates the death of the Christian martyr, Saint Stephen, mythically attributed to the song of the wren. The annual Irish tradition of punishing the wren for this martyred death on 26 December is recalled in relation to Berry’s family history, though this too is shadowed by trauma and tragic death.

20Later, the deaths of the Keats brothers, John and Tom, re-introduce terminal illness and disease, together with the ominous appearance of blood. If the poem opened enlisting orality and visual art, it draws to a close by touching upon its own artistic genealogy, while also emphasising the material mutualities of human and non-human species. At first, we read of John Keats’s killing of “blue tits”, an act that sits comfortably with the earlier avian predation, but this outward exercise of violence then concedes ground to introspection on human mortality:

  • 39 Ibid., p. 19.

[…] he felt
sure that the same blackness that had claimed poor Tom
was sprouting in his lungs and would blossom;39

Anxiety and intuition dominate here rather than conclusive medical diagnosis, and the allusion to John Keats’s imminent illness partakes of the ambivalence seen elsewhere in the form of the life-affirming idiom chosen to suggest the presence of fatal tubercular disease. And Keats’s illness and death from tuberculosis speaks to the essential “openness” of the human body, underlining the fact that our somatic integrity is not impenetrable but is entirely porous and permeable. In fact, the expressive orality of the “widening mouth”, gestured to at the beginning of the poem, is the same orifice through which bacterial spores enter the body and by which explicit symptoms of tuberculosis manifest. But as seen already, one form of death and decay enables other forms of life to prosper, or to “blossom”. And these notions of viral and cellular traffic within and across species and organisms are attributed to Keats in the latter stages of his life. Keats feels sure:

  • 40 Ibid.

that his remains would mean no more than a dropped
apple to the worms the graveyard birds would yank out
of the earth and swallow whole, that he and each
of us would end up as coiled muscle in the wings
of house sparrows, a dull throb in the robin’s fragile
heart, dissonance in the hoarse throat of a thrush.40

  • 41 Deborah Bird Rose, “Multispecies Knots of Ethical Time”, Environmental Philosophy, vol. 9, no. 1, 2 (...)

We note the triplet here again, though these familiar birds are removed from the predatory varieties crowding the remains of the hare. Yet, their differences are inconsequential, the means by which they are nourished might not tally but metabolisation is common to all of the species – human and non-human – that are corralled in the poem. Keats’s bodily “remains” too are vastly different from the carcass with which “For the Birds” opens, but there is commonality in their ultimate fates. Anxiety over mortality marks Keats’s life and his poetic works, yet both live vibrantly into the future. If the body’s organic porosity occasions his premature death, the poem resolves that this same diseased body can, and will, energise other life-forms as it decays and dissolves into cellular matter. We are, as Deborah Bird Rose emphasises, and, as Keats’s imagines, “dense knots of embodied time”, co-created and interdependent even as our species differences are retained across deep time.41 “For the Birds” ends with an accommodation of the human and the non-human, the remains of the human persist in the living specimens that feed off the raw earth. Yet, as the poem has repeatedly maintained, these relations are not without complication or difficulty, and this explains both the “dullness” and the “dissonance” of the final two lines. Tellingly, Berry deploys the alliterated words to evoke unease, or that key idea again, ambivalence, within the bodies of these birds, but specifically in relation to the aural effects of their physical functioning and capacities. The so-called “dissonant” notes of the thrush, then, speak back to the poem itself and its concern with the possibilities and the ethics of representation.

21In January 1903 an allegedly rogue elephant named “Topsy” was killed by electrocution on Coney Island, New York. The elephant had, apparently, exhausted the patience of its fairground owners to the point that this was their third attempt at disposing of the animal, and on this occasion the elephant was exposed to 6,000 volts of electricity while two of its feet were fastened to copper plates. Berry composes the poem having watched extant footage of this killing, and “Electrocuting an Elephant” centres on cruelty, sacrifice and punishment. Once more, we see a visual prompt catalysing Berry’s poetic meditations on violence, faith, personal memory, and redemption. Indeed, the poem engages with different forms of visual representation, as a surviving relic of early cinema records the demise of an animal via technological innovation, while later we are directed to the craft of high Renaissance painting. Despite the disparity in form and content, both visual media pair creative ingenuity with cruel and punishing violence.

22The opening of the poem is figurative but then becomes decidedly factual and purely descriptive. But the most illuminating access points to appreciating “Electrocuting an Elephant” are, in fact, its final six lines, over which Berry discloses the limits of verbal and visual representations when confronted with the plangency of the elephant’s death scene. He admits:

And though it changes nothing
I want to explain how, when the elephant falls, she falls

  • 42 Ciaran Berry, “Electrocuting an Elephant”, in The Sphere of Birds, p. 31.

like a cropped elm. First the shudder, then the toppling
as the surge ripples through each nerve and vein,
and she drops in silence and a fit of steam to lie there
prone, one eye opened that I wish I could close.42

To an extent, language and gesture here are futile for Berry, re-telling the detailed process of the elephant’s electrocution does not undo the already completed act, and neither can he reach beyond the immediacy of his physical present to alter the appearance of the slumped carcass. The open eye is devoid of life, but the visual trope implies the persistence of the asymmetrical exhibitionary economy in which the elephant was previously ensnared. Though, the blank gaze of the lifeless eye might also be deciphered as discomfiting, and implicating, the physically, and historically, displaced viewer of its undignified death. The eye retains the capacity to hint at vitality, and provokes a discernible affective response, becoming a dialogic gaze that elevates the elephant beyond objectification. The poem speaks back to the degradation of the elephant’s spectacular death, and, as mentioned, to the exhibitionary circuit to which it was confined over the duration of its life. In this way, “Electrocuting an Elephant” can be aligned with “The Dead Zoo”, “Darwin in the Galapagos” and “Polar Bear”, as all four of these poems spotlight the hierarchies and the ambivalences of human and non-human relations. With these concluding lines, Berry equates the violence of the beast’s killing with the felling of a tree. As thousands of volts charge through the elephant’s body, it slowly gives way and is drawn into constellation with another form of human intrusion on the non-human. Berry’s use of simile and metaphor compete with the overriding sense of powerlessness otherwise expressed here, as if he acknowledges, and accepts, where the agency of the poetic begins and ends. In fact, the poem must resolve with a performance of the limits of the anthropocentric given that humanity has been stained with such bloodshed right across the body of the poem.

23Similes bookend the poem, we have noted in the final example above, but “Electrocuting an Elephant” opens with an unambiguously ominous tone set by a pairing of figurations:

Like mourners, or men setting out for a duel,
they follow these six tons, this hunk of flesh,
muddy and whorled, this elephant they tried once to hang
because she’d killed three men and survived

  • 43 Ibid., p. 29.

their carrots laced with cyanide.43

Far removed from the milieu of popular entertainment to which it had been harnessed, the elephant’s demise is a radically different form of performance. So, while a house-trained form of subjugated proximity, and intimacy, is tolerated within the sphere of the fairground, anything more assertive is met with fatal consequences. The spectacular nature of the elephant’s eventual death eclipses the serial attempts to dispose of the creature once its temperamental unpredictability outstripped its financial use-value. And this latter point crystallises one of the key concerns of the poem, namely, the violence that attaches itself to, or becomes inherent to, various belief systems and cultural practices. Topsy the elephant is one example of the commercial exploitation of the non-human, which, once again, makes “Electrocuting an Elephant” continuous with the other works under scrutiny here. But Berry develops this argument, engaging with matters of faith and ideological orthodoxy, as the poem reaches out to consider formal education, myth and orthodox religion before returning, at the end, to the prone animal on film.

24The elephant is one of three sacrificial victims detailed by Berry, in quick succession we read:

[…] Think of the bull, three summers old,

  • 44 Ibid.

pulled by the horns towards the place of sacrifice
so that bees might rise up out of its pooled blood.
And this too must be the way they took Bartholomew
after he made the king’s brother deny his gods –44

While the elephant had become a commercial liability, these examples drawn from myth and religious history are rooted in the necessary violence of alternative patterns of belief. The former, again, gestures to the ways in which the non-human are routinely drawn into the orbit of human cultural systems, only to meet with the violence that is so frequently endemic to those systems. But the attention to Saint Bartholomew is most directly relevant to the electrocution of the elephant. One of the twelve apostles, Bartholomew was flayed alive and beheaded in Armenia, having converted the monarch to Christianity, thereby becoming one of the first Christian martyrs. And Berry hints at a degree of redemption for Saint Bartholomew in the saint’s startling appearance on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, in which he appears holding a book in one hand, while his flayed skin droops from the other hand. Recalling the narrative of Saint Bartholomew’s execution, Berry reveals:

[…] I’d like to tell him how,

After those four boys have done their dirty work
And turned into something older than they were before,
Bartholomew becomes that figure above the altar
In the Sistine Chapel who holds up the tanner’s knife

  • 45 Ibid., p. 30.

And his own skin, […]45

The visceral violence to which he was subjected during the course of his missionary labours is monumentalised, and memorialised, but, of course, never undone, by his placement in this hallowed pantheon. The suffering reputedly endured by Saint Bartholomew speaks to the myriad extremities of human faiths – be they religious, economic, political, or moral. For Berry, this leaves little room for contingency but rather justifies, and demands, physical, epistemic and psychological violences.

  • 46 Ibid., p. 29.
  • 47 David Farrier, Anthropocene Poetics…, p. 52.

25But the triumph of Michelangelo’s aesthetic tribute to Christianity is twinned here with linguistic failure. The poetic speaker cannot relay the details of the painting, nor his personal memory of school boy cruelty, to the archivist who attends to the vintage cinematic reels. Just as he cannot describe the death “fall” of the elephant, this slightly earlier example is another among the several representational or linguistic “failures” that punctuate the poem. As we have explained above, these are necessary in the face of the historical hubris, sacrifice and exploitation that inform, and perpetuate, the violent hierarchies of the Anthropocene. They are fractions of the connected disharmony that characterises many of Berry’s poems across both The Sphere of Birds and The Dead Zoo, a point that is conclusively expressed in “Electrocuting an Elephant” by the poem’s recurring dependence on the number three. Topsy the elephant “killed three men”; its executioners are “three men”; and the elephant was eventually killed at the third attempt. Berry details the recollection of a childhood contemporary in school who “couldn’t spell ‘vengeance’ / after three turns”; the aforementioned bull was “three summers old”; and Saint Bartholomew is murdered by a “trinity” of killers.46 These are additional to the three sacrificial bodies of the elephant, the bull and Bartholomew. The number three is most often associated with the Holy Trinity of Christianity, suggesting unity of belief and of purpose, but this significance goes beyond Christianity. The number three is also linked to harmony, abundance, balance, wisdom and creativity when one considers astrology or numerology. While “Electrocuting an Elephant” strives to achieve a measure of balance and harmony across species, there is little doubt that the poem finds such virtues ultimately evasive. The “failures” noted above are part of the imbalance, and disharmony, baked into the structure of the poem, just as they are animating thematics of its content. In this way, Berry engages with what Farrier dubs “the deeply relational composition of capitalist world-forms that present the world as homogenous, simplified, and autonomous”.47 The poem’s ambivalence is, then, a measure of its distance from any investment or faith in the reductive relationality critiqued by Farrier in his analysis of anthropocene poetics.

  • 48 Kelly Sullivan, Justin Dolan Stover, “Introduction: Ireland and the Environment in Crisis”, Éire-Ir (...)

26“Comprehending the age of the Anthropocene requires rethinking scale, time, and the future”, according to Kelly Sullivan and Justin Dolan Stover, a contention that is difficult to contradict and that is amply evident in the formal and thematic properties of Berry’s poetry. The former continue, suggesting that grasping the scale and the implications of the Anthropocene is a labour that is “psychologically and intellectually almost impossible for human individuals”48. The key word here is “almost”, which leavens an otherwise fatalistic conclusion with a necessary ethical qualification; without “almost” the authors succumb to a morally indefensible complacency. And Berry’s poetics are resident in that space of the “almost”, in which differences and distances are confronted, but never irredeemably alienating, in terms of geography, history and species. Berry has produced a body of poetry that is marked by association, self-consciousness, balance, physicality and the metaphysical, as well as being deeply personal, raising questions about the nature of humanity, our cultural expressions, legacies, relationships with each other and with non-humanity. Though violence, exploitation and myriad forms of cultural and ecological ruination score the historical relations between humanity and non-humanity, Berry’s works do not entirely abjure the anthropogenic. Certainly, there are questions raised about the limits, and consequences, of cultural representation, scientific taxonomies and economic doxa, but there is always an ethical refrain that insists upon a historically-grounded, and future-bound, mutuality across species. For Donna J. Haraway, the prevailing climate emergency is a period

  • 49 Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham, Duke University (...)

[…] of multispecies, including human, urgency: of great mass death and extinction; of onrushing disasters, whose unpredictable specificities are foolishly taken as unknowability itself; of refusing to know and to cultivate the capacity of response-ability; of refusing to be present in and to onrushing catastrophe in time.49

In exposing ourselves to the soundscapes, the metrics, and the messages of Berry’s anthropocene poetics we can, in Haraway’s idiom, “cultivate the capacity of response-ability”.

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1 James Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry, Chicago – London, University of Chicago Press, 2004, p. xi.

2 David Farrier, Anthropocene Poetics: Deep Time, Sacrifice Zones, and Extinction, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2019, p. 7.

3 Scott Knickerbocker, Ecopoetics: The Language of Nature, the Nature of Language, Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, p. 17.

4 Rebecca Solnit, A Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland, London, Verso, 1997, p. 23.

5 Ciaran Berry, “Postcards from the Museum of Natural History”, in The Dead Zoo, Oldcastle, The Gallery Press, 2013, p. 72-73.

6 Ciaran Berry, “The Dead Zoo”, in The Dead Zoo, p. 17.

7 Ciaran Berry, “Postcards from the Museum of Natural History”, p. 73.

8 Ciaran Berry, “The Dead Zoo”, p. 17.

9 Ibid.

10 Timothy Morton, “An Object-Oriented Defense of Poetry”, New Literary History, vol. 43, no. 2, 2012, p. 222.

11 Timothy Clark, The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 46.

12 Ciaran Berry, “The Dead Zoo”, p. 17.

13 Stacey Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2010, p. 21.

14 Christine Cusick, “‘Balanced between cliff and flowers’: The Enduring Earth Step in Moya Cannon’s ‘Word Pools’”, in Contemporary Irish Poetry and the Climate Crisis, Andrew J. Auge, Eugene O’Brien (eds.), New York, Routledge, 2022, p. 55.

15 Ciaran Berry, “Darwin in the Galapagos”, in The Dead Zoo, p. 70.

16 Ibid.

17 David Farrier, Anthropocene Poetics…, p. 52.

18 Ciaran Berry, “Darwin in the Galapagos”, p. 70.

19 Ibid. (emphasis added).

20 James Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry, p. 51.

21 Ciaran Berry, “Darwin in the Galapagos”, p. 71.

22 Ibid. (emphasis added).

23 Bruno Latour, “‘It’s development, stupid!’ Or: How to Modernize Modernization?”, 2007, online:

24 For more on McClintock, see David Murphy, “Francis Leopold McClintock, the ‘Arctic Fox’”, History Ireland, vol. 14, no. 3, May / June 2006, online:

25 For another ecopoetical invocation of the polar bear, see Paula Meehan, “The Solace of Artemis”, in Imaginary Bonnets with Real Bees in Them, Dublin, University College Dublin Press, 2016, p. 30.

26 Jonathan Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, London, Routledge, 1981, p. 233.

27 Ciaran Berry, “Polar Bear”, in The Dead Zoo, p. 72.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid.

30 Kathryn Kirkpatrick argues that “[p]olar bears have become part of a well-established visual discourse in which they at once signify catastrophic climate change and have become part of its collateral damage” (Kathryn Kirkpatrick, “Animals and Climate Change in Irish Poetry”, in A History of Irish Literature and the Environment, Malcolm Sen (ed.), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2022, p. 290).

31 Ciaran Berry, “Polar Bear”, p. 72.

32 For a discussion of these poems, see Eóin Flannery, “‘When Species Meet’: Scale and Form in the Poetry of Ciaran Berry and Moya Cannon”, in Contemporary Irish Poetry and the Climate Crisis, p. 144-161.

33 Ciaran Berry, “For the Birds”, in The Sphere of Birds, Oldcastle, The Gallery Press, 2008, p. 17.

34 The anatomical dismembering of the hare in Berry’s poem and its reduction to carrion belies the role of hares in the long history of Irish folklore and mythology, in which the animal was portrayed as otherworldly and capable of shapeshifting.

35 Ciaran Berry, “The Parsley Necklace”, in The Sphere of Birds, p. 32-33.

36 Ciaran Berry, “For the Birds”, p. 17.

37 Thomas Eakins, American realist painter and sculptor (1844-1916). Eakins later painted the more sanitary The Agnew Clinic in 1889.

38 Ciaran Berry, “For the Birds”, p. 17.

39 Ibid., p. 19.

40 Ibid.

41 Deborah Bird Rose, “Multispecies Knots of Ethical Time”, Environmental Philosophy, vol. 9, no. 1, 2012, special issue, Temporal Environments: Rethinking Time and Ecology, p. 131.

42 Ciaran Berry, “Electrocuting an Elephant”, in The Sphere of Birds, p. 31.

43 Ibid., p. 29.

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid., p. 30.

46 Ibid., p. 29.

47 David Farrier, Anthropocene Poetics…, p. 52.

48 Kelly Sullivan, Justin Dolan Stover, “Introduction: Ireland and the Environment in Crisis”, Éire-Ireland, vol. 55, no. 3-4, 2020, special issue, Ireland and the Environment, p. 8.

49 Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham, Duke University Press, 2016, p. 35.

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Eóin Flannery, « Sounding the Anthropocene in the Poetry of Ciaran Berry »Études irlandaises, 49-1 | 2024, 147-168.

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Eóin Flannery

Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick

Eóin Flannery est maître de conférences en littérature britannique au département de langue et littérature anglaises du Mary Immaculate College de l’université de Limerick. En 2022, il était professeur invité en études irlandaises à l’Université Concordia à Montréal, au titre de la bourse Peter O’Brien. Il est l’auteur de plus de soixante articles et chapitres, et de cinq livres dont les plus récents sont Form, Affect and Debt in Post-Celtic Tiger Fiction (Londres, Bloomsbury Academic, 2022) et Ireland and Ecocriticism : Literature, History, and Environmental Justice (New York – Londres, Routledge, 2016). Il a dirigé des numéros thématiques de revues telles que Journal of Ecocriticism, Postcolonial Text et Irish Studies Review. Ses projets de recherche en cours incluent une étude de la carrière et de l’œuvre de Eugene McCabe, un livre intitulé Sounding the Contemporary in Irish Poetry, et un ouvrage dirigé avec Eugene O’Brien sur la poésie animale irlandaise.

Eóin Flannery is associate professor of English literature in the Department of English Language and Literature at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick. He was the Peter O’Brien Visiting Scholar in Canadian Irish Studies at Concordia University, Montréal in 2022. He has published over sixty scholarly articles and book chapters, and he is the author of five books, the latest being Form, Affect and Debt in Post-Celtic Tiger Fiction (London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2022) and Ireland and Ecocriticism: Literature, History, and Environmental Justice (New York – London, Routledge, 2016). He has edited special themed issues of journals such as Journal of Ecocriticism, Postcolonial Text and Irish Studies Review. His current research projects include a study of the career and work of Eugene McCabe, a book entitled Sounding the Contemporary in Irish Poetry, and, with Eugene O’Brien, a co-edited volume on Irish animal poetics.

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