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With Proust Down Memory Lane

Dick Edelstein

Liner Notes, by Ciaran Berry, Gallery Press, 88 pp, €11.95, ISBN: 978-1911337478

At first glance, the poems in this volume 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 – just the ticket when one is in the mood for a leisurely read. Such an impression might well be the first judgment of readers in the habit of leafing through an unfamiliar volume of poetry, looking for a flash of recognition, a point of entry that says we want to read this text.

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.

Although this volume has no formal textual divisions other than the individual poems, it is highly structured and articulated thematically through leitmotifs and major themes, and above all by means of an all-encompassing metaphorical device: the image of a record album – with all its appurtenances – that, through deliberate metaphor-mixing, sometimes becomes a compact disc or a mixtape. Sooner or later the perusing reader will be drawn towards a sequential reading of the book, embroiled in its running narrative that begins even before the first titled poem with the invocation that prefaces the volume:

Once more, the sprockets turn, engage the spools –
        I’ve pressed record so that you can press play.

In this jewel case, on this inlay card, for you:
     the song sequence of what I’ve tried to say.
Once more, the sprockets turn, engage the spools -
      I’ve pressed record so that you can press play.

The opening poem “Liner Notes” serves as both introduction and instruction manual:

Because this song’s made of the airwaves
a time machine you start to play the air
guitar of memory, making a country
so you can walk back into it, like a man
on rewind in a silent film, his whiskey tumbler
filling up as he rises from his stool
and steps backwards towards the avenue
where cars, cabs, trucks reverse away from him,
and the lights, for once turn amber to green;
where the two hands on his watch unravel time,
like a maiden aunt unpicking a whole evening’s worth
of knitting over the dropped stitch that means
she must go back before she goes on.
You raise the record from its sleeve again,
hold it grail-like into the wayward light,
to read the liner notes on a life you’ve lived
all wrong.

Readers accompanying the poet in this exercise in recall “make a country so [they] can go back into it”, a country made of memory, rich in custom and culture, in signs and symbols. Berry’s introduction resonates with Marcel Proust’s reminder that this country has a few interesting peculiarities that allow us to reconfigure the reality of which it is an unfaithful copy: “Memory, instead of being a duplicate, always present before one’s eyes, of the various events of one’s life, is rather a void from which at odd moments a chance resemblance enables one to resuscitate dead recollections.” In his novel In Search of Lost Time, he adds, “People claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But ... it is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years.”

In effect, like Arnold Swartznegger in Total Recall, we can go on vacation to a reality reconfigured to our own specifications – and Berry does precisely this. According to him, perhaps getting it right this time.

In “Foley”, Berry invokes the work of Foley artists who add sound effects to films and other media in order to explore the links between sounds and memory:

A horse was two cups tapped
                 against a tabletop. ..
                   Now the foley
                  of the past’s awake again and hard
           at his mimetic work.
              … white-face mime plunging
     a hand into the lucky bag
of time, he conjures, from a fistful
                   of cellophane, a scrim of rain
     insect wings from a scrap
of sticky tape, a pocket fan.

Towards the end of this nine-stanza poem, Berry again takes up the theme of the weight and quality of the past in relation to our present lives:

                                           The past
is bric-à-brac and hand-me-down,
                 a thrift-store suit, a vagrant troupe
       of clowns, one on the tuba,
one on the clarinet. The past
                     is kitsch and stand-up, an irate duck
             railing against the mute maker
who keeps setting him up. …

Like a number of other writers of the Irish diaspora, Berry chooses to publish his verse in his native land. His publisher, Gallery Press, has made a home for writers abroad such as Eamon Grennan and Sara Berkeley, the sort of connection that helps a small island nation catching the winds of globalised trade – and often trading in words and ideas – to punch above its weight in the world of letters as well as in other fields.

Berry’s poems reflect both his American experience and his Irish origins through references particular to one or the other. Perhaps the most ambitious poem in this volume is “Shopping in Whole Foods on a Snowy Evening”, a stylistic tour de force that refers to his family life in America and again and again to the American poet Robert Frost and his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.

The opening lines are contrived to nonchalantly link the poem (by means of the word “too”) to the musical leitmotif running through this collection:

If commerce, too, has its music, then it’s in kumquat, pine
            nut, Arctic char,
      it’s the squeaky front wheel of my little cart which
                seems to know the way
between the dry goods and the winter greens …

After some foreshadowing in both the title and the opening stanza, a snowy parking lot and the sound of a bell suddenly lead the poet to Frost’s poem and four of the best known quatrains in American poetry. Then succeeds a remarkable fugue as the mind of the poet careens from place to place and theme to theme, from shopping to depression, from Frost’s father to King Lear.

Frost managed to be ambiguous and controversial throughout his career and even after his death. A few critics are still taking pot-shots at his reputation on various grounds, most recently finding in his well-known poem “Mending Wall” a rationale for the nativist populism and wall-building zeal of Donald Trump and Yitzhak Rabin. Berry’s poem demonstrates by example rather than through analysis and argumentation his understanding of and admiration for this figure of American poetry. If we undertook to parse all of the explicit and merely suggestive references to Frost’s life and poetry contained therein, we could be at it for a good while.

But not all of Berry’s poems display this degree of complexity – that could be too much of a good thing. His more accessible poems afford sufficient relief and the collection provides ample context to allow readers an opportunity to become familiar with the poet’s style and acquire the motivation to undertake the quest of discovery that his most complex poems represent.

One of the final poems in this volume is entitled “Glossolalia”. This delightful word is appropriately suggestive of one of the poet’s characteristic techniques, used in his more complex poems such as “Stopping by Whole Foods on a Snowy Night”, involving fugue-like writing strategies that rely on fleeting associations, deliberate metaphor mixing and the quixotic processes of the brain to evoke slurries of meaning in ways that rational discourse and orderly rhetoric could never approach – impressive displays of the power of poetry. 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.

1/2/2019

Dick Edelstein's poems have appeared in anthologies in Spain and Ireland, most recently in Autonomy, published to support the Repeal the 8th campaign. He has contributed reviews and articles to journals and web sites in Ireland and the UK.

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