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Electrocuting an Elephant
Like mourners, or men setting out early for a duel,
they follow these six tons, this hunk of flesh,
muddy and whorled, this elephant they tried once to hang
because she killed three men and survived
their carrots laced with cyanide. Coney Island, 1903,
and the handheld camera that gets all of this down
is a clock for seeing, as Barthes tells us it ought to be,
the image forever ticking over as three men,
in sepia and near-silhouette, step through a vacant lot,
follow the lead of the burly handler, who carries
a sleek whip, a coil of rope, as he leads his charge towards
the spot where they will set two of her feet
in copper shoes. Think of the boy, who sat in front of you
that year in school, led by the ear to the corner
of the classroom because he couldn’t spell vengeance
after three turns. Think of the bull, three summers old,
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—
one guard gripping the prisoner’s left arm and the three others,
who follow, unable to muster a single word
as they march down the main street of their village
towards the blue edge of the Caspian Sea,
where they will dispose of this son of Tolomai,
taking turns to open him with knives. What do they think
as they sulk after the condemned, this trinity,
who are not quite men yet despite their pristine uniforms,
or these others like extras from one of the first westerns
with their hats and mustaches, their say-nothing expressions
that barely make it beyond the ground sand of the lens
and onto this reel that unravels as I find myself
thinking again about that boy who, in Scoil Muire,
sat in the front row of those battered desks
with the defunct inkwells the dry hinges that opened
into a box to store your books? This time he’s reeling off
the names of birds. He makes a fist and hammers it
against his skull to bring forth robin redbreast, stonechat, crow,
while the rest of us raise our hands with what we think
are the right answers and hold our breaths trying not to laugh.
The truth is, I can’t remember his name, only the way
his clothes reeked of stale milk and hay, and how
his father once tied a frying pan between the legs of their mongrel
to discourage it from running after cars. I’d like
to whisper this story into the ear of the keeper
before the film goes any further, before they reach
the spot where a crowd waits, impatient,
shifting from foot to foot. 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 a tanner’s knife
and his own skin, another saint made patron
to those who wield the tools that worked his exit
from this world. And though it changes nothing,
I want to explain how, when the elephant falls, she falls
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.
Swell pummels rock, darkens sand, creeps upshore
to stir beach stones and periwinkle shells,
the bone-dry bladderwrack and sea lettuce
out of which swarms of flies rise, disturbed,
to hang their scrim above the waterline,
a low fog of wing, thorax, abdomen.
The give and take of waves, their push and drag,
symbol for all that is given and snatched away,
or so the old story goes, the fishwife's tale
in which we're born and die on the tide's turn,
shucked out into the world when water's high
against quayside, barge, and quarterdeck,
then loosed from this, the bodies current stilled
when the sea retreats, folds in upon itself,
leaving behind odd boots, smoothed shards of glass,
each new day’s array of carcasses:
an unwanted dog drowned in a black bin bag,
an eyeless pollack, a black-headed gull,
sometimes a fisherman, or a humpback whale.
All that’s pelagic, all that’s nautical,
must end up on this wind-battered shore,
hence all those sea fables and their metaphors,
all that blarney about Oisin and Bran,
the latter convinced by homesick Nechtan
to leave behind their island of women
and sail back to a mainland where everyone
they’d known had gone to ground, become the soil
they had once tilled and hoed. And so, come to the end
of his own voyage, returned centuries on,
and unaware of how he cheated death,
Nechtan extends a foot from the currach
and, on touching home turf, is turned to sand,
a small urn’s worth of ground down flesh and bone,
a splash of bright atoms the squall will catch
and disperse over beach, bog, glen, mountain,
minute fragments in the great beating down
to topsoil, humus, loam that is endless.
Almost bent double with his crooked spine
as he stood at the end of the gravel path
leaning hard on a hawthorn walking stick,
Mici Dubh Thimi used to enthrall me
with wild stories of his time over by—
which meant anywhere across the water,
anywhere that could be reached by boat,
hence the harsh Edinburgh or Glasgow
Mici and his brother had once sailed for
to carry hod or work shovel and pick,
but also, perhaps, where he thought it would end,
after that gravel path met the main road,
after the final waters showed their course
towards, let’s say, an outcrop of white rock,
the sea unkinked and sun-dappled below
an island full of whiskey and tobacco,
where he would settle with a Woodbine and a glass,
full, perhaps, of the same bliss as this cormorant
above my head that, lured by the shimmer
of rockfish, gathers its wings and plunges
like something dropped, reckless with instinct.
A pure thing, without doubt, without question,
as its beak breaks the water’s cold surface
the entire bird is swallowed up, consumed
by spume and backwash, slap and sway of brine.
The Bilqula ancients believed the soul
would quit the body like this, in a winged shape,
breaking from the nape of the neck, rising
into whatever sphere it would enter.
To others, it was a fine dust, essence
that could escape through the navel or nose,
the mouth, the feet, by way of a fresh cut,
a yawn, a sneeze. Or else it was a thumb-
sized manikin who sat on a plush throne
in the crown of the head, who resembled
in every aspect the form of his or her
carrier; who, when the body slept, was prone
to wander, dropping down through the ear;
who, when death came, would permanently leave,
begin that slow journey across the sea,
through blanket bog and field, or venturing down
that beaten track poor Orpheus followed
to plead for the return of his child bride,
her ankles still swollen from the snake bite.
I love these old stories, each conjecture
like a stone skimmed across the blue surface—
although (I know) stones sink, although
even the rough ones are worked smooth
and pushed against the dunes by the spring tides,
and, then in winter, carried to sea again
to be worked over, smoothed stone to pebble,
and pebble to this sand I step across
picking up scallop shells, a mermaid’s purse,
dragging this grief that’s endless and useless,
that resolves nothing and consoles nothing.
The light now giving way, a beam of white
from the lighthouse on a nearby island
scans the rough bay for any sign of life
and finds a trawler motoring towards the line
where the sky becomes sea and vice versa.
A reef bell cries among the orange bouys,
and now, reaching its height for the last time,
that cormorant tucks in its wings, and dives.
-from The Sphere of Birds
BIO: Ciaran Berry is an Irish poet who has spent the last decade living, writing, and teaching in the United States. His first full-length collection of poetry, The Sphere of Birds, was published in 2008 by Southern Illinois University Press in North America and by The Gallery Press in Ireland and the UK. His work has also been featured in The Best of Irish Poetry, Best American Poetry, Pushcart Prize XXXIII: Best of the Small Presses, and Best New Poets. In addition to leading workshops, Berry has in the past taught a range of classes in literature and expository writing. In the classroom, he encourages lively discussion and emphasizes the power of inductive reasoning, believing that all useful writing and thinking must, as Wendell Berry (no relation) suggests, be built “from the ground up."
INTERVIEW: An Interview with Ciaran Berry by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: “Electrocuting the Elephant” is a poem of seemingly endless possibilities, ranging vast distances from the basic narrative of the elephant’s extermination with a skillfulness that, as I read it over and over again, still surprises.
First, we have the cloaked address to the reader that asks us to remember “the boy, who sat in front of you / that year in school, led by the ear to the corner / of the classroom because he couldn’t spell vengeance…” Next, it’s the bull led to sacrifice. Then Bartholomew. The “say-nothing expressions” of the extras in “one of the first westerns.” And the boy hammering his fist against his head and his father who “once tied a frying pan between the legs of his mongrel / to discourage it from running after cars”— an image I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
How do you think you manage to cover so much ground in this poem without losing us?
Ciaran Berry: Well, first I’m very glad that the process of ground-covering has been successful, though I’m guessing your skills as reader have almost as much to do with that success as mine as writer. I think transitions and movements within a poem are mostly about timing though, about allowing each moment its moment before you step off anywhere else, and getting that process right, it seems to me, has a lot to do with listening to the heartbeat of your own poem as you make it and revise it.
AMK: How do these elements fit together so well...in a global sense…how do these various elements work so well together rather than against one another.
CB: First, I think the elements of any poem have to work in the ear, and sonic sense is a different sort of sense from the sense of what we might perhaps lazily think of as logic or narrative logic or narrative sense. It’s true of any poem that I write that I’m listening to it first and trying to figure out whether where it seems to be telling me to go makes narrative sense second. Usually though there is some sort of intuitive, maybe even unconscious, or more likely half-conscious order, I think, trying to reveal itself in a poem. With this one, I think that ordering is around small and large acts of cruelty. Electrocuting an elephant, flaying a missionary who has stamped on someone else’s belief system, or pulling a boy by the ear across a classroom may not be equally weighted in their callousness as acts, but they certainly seem to argue for a fairly common human capacity for callousness, and, perhaps even more disturbing, a human interest in extreme cruelty as spectacle.
AMK: Do you mind discussing how you arrived at these wildly different and yet interpolating movements in the poem? Are these images largely imagined or autobiographical? Are the characters people you know, people you made up? Etc, etc…
CB: They’re all real as far as I can make out or say. The story of the elephant is true, as is the story of Bartholomew. Both are relatively verifiable and I put a lot of stock into being as historically accurate as well as imaginatively accurate in my work. I’m not comfortable with rearranging facts unless it’s totally necessary, though obviously I realize that a lot of what we call history is interpretive rather than factual, and of course the lives of saints are probably as much myth as history. The people too are real, though I do often arrange and cluster things to get at something that seems more telling and that takes the poem, or a moment in the poem, away from being someone else’s straight biography. I’m from a small town, or really two small towns, in the west of Ireland, which makes this seem both necessary and the only fair way to use the rich material those places and their people have given me.
AMK: Another aspect that I think really works well in the poem are the small imaginative (or, perhaps, imaginatively revealed) details, such as the “ground sand of the lens,” the “carrots laced with cyanide,” the “clock for seeing,” “this son of Tolomai,” and “after those four boys have done their dirty work / and turned into something older than they were before…” to name a few.
Such moments like these excite the reader in a way that I feel is (for the most part) only possible in poetry— at times transforming the perhaps ordinary or mundane, (i.e. the video and video camera from a recording/recorder of history into something much more elemental and precious to the human experience), and, at other times reminding us of how things actually exist in the world, such as the various methods of execution and the “ground sand of the lens.” In one way, this keeps the reader moving from line to line, but this also operates on a much deeper level, translating an unspoken, internal aspect of the speaker’s experience…a lot like music in a film or the color pallet of a painting.
How much of this is something you think you do consciously? How much of it is simply part of the poetic mind at work?
CB: I’m suspicious of the moments in the writing of a poem when I think I know what I’m doing and much more sure of those moments where I’ve been flailing around in the dark for a good long while, again just listening, and suddenly something that only makes half-sense the first time it’s said into the silence of the room begins to make fuller sense as it’s committed to the page, and even fuller sense when it’s read in light of what has already been said and listened to. This is the hard thing about revision, I suppose, that conscious part of the writing process has to have more say when you go back and dig at a poem’s flaws, and yet the magic of the poem, the sense of something beyond you walking into the room and onto the page, can really only happen when those more conscious impulses are kept in check. Or at least that’s how it works for me; the poems, when they’re working, are always a step ahead of me.
AMK: Are such moments, to your mind, simply elements of style or elements essential to poetry in general?
CB: No, I think those moments are poetry. We are translators of the unspoken, whether we want to be or not. I think it’s just that the nature of the ‘unspoken’ we chose to translate differs from poet to poet. If we think about Gerard Manley Hopkins or Dylan Thomas, with all that music, and those tightly managed heavily stressed lines, and their shared level of metaphysical concern, this makes total sense. But I think it also makes sense with a poet like William Carlos Williams, who seems to be on the opposite end of the musical and metaphysical spectrum. Obviously he was more interested in the concrete, in the quotidian, but I still believe that he had to translate the quotidian in order to illuminate it for us, in order to find poems in it or make poems out of it.
AMK: Is this…errr…act of “translation” one of the more unique aspects of poetry?
CB: I don’t know that it’s unique to poetry or unique to art, or if it goes beyond that into the sciences, criticism, philosophy, religion, etc. I do think people come to poetry, either as writers or readers, out of a need to make sense or see sense being made. Certainly, that’s what I’m trying to do, though initially – and, let’s face it, selfishly -- for myself, when I sit down to write. Obviously, though, “sense” means a very different thing in poetry to what it might mean in a novel or a more academic text.
AMK: “Over By” is a poem that displays a really intense focus. And while it does move around in its environment, the speaker has an interestingly singular movement from landscape to myth and, finally, to the self.
I oftentimes want to write poems like this and run into the problem that there are many readers out there who may never have heard of characters like Nachtan and Orpheus. The result is a poem that strays a bit too far into the myth and probably gets a little uninteresting as a result. Kind of more like a history lesson than a work of art.
Did you mind discussing the various problems you encountered writing this poem and how you dealt with them?
CB: “Over By” was a poem I wrote a few years before graduate school and then just put aside as I wasn’t happy with the way I was inhabiting the poem. I wrote it in a tiny apartment in Astoria, Queens, and nowhere near the beach in Donegal where the poem actually takes place, though that particular beach is one of those places that I spent so many afternoons that it feels very much like it’s part of my inner landscape now. In its first incarnation, it was, as you say, one of those cases where the factual elements of the poem, and the crafting of those, the explaining, seemed to be pushing everything else aside, and I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say or where I wanted to stand in relation to all that myth and the swell of those image-heavy lines.
I came back to it by accident when I was working on completing my MFA thesis at NYU. It was raining and I just started to write the poem out again, this time in ten line stanzas with a more regularized line length. The breakthrough I remember was in the second to last stanza from “I love these old stories,” which was entirely new and which seemed to be the first full suggestion of where the speaker wanted to stand, what they wanted to say in response to all that was being evoked. I also moved out some other parts of the poem that seemed to have become extraneous.
Mostly though, again, it was sitting in a room for a very long time listening to it and stopping when it stopped that got me there. This, and the process of keeping things, letting them have their own time, not hurrying them. It was the same with the title poem in my book, which again came out of a much shorter failed piece from years earlier. I find waiting on poems very difficult but terribly necessary.
AMK: I’m also impressed how you managed to write a poem that exists in this parallel universe of the mythic and non but without ever straying from today’s language. Did you ever find yourself straying into a more mythic sort of diction as you composed this poem? Did you ever consider using it more than you have here?
CB: Yes, probably, and I’m still not sure the poem doesn’t get a little too lofty at times in its diction, which, coupled with a line that gets pretty iambic at times, can be dangerous, though here the danger seemed necessary to get the sea moving through the poem, and it really moves loudly in the part of the world this particular poem comes from. I suppose the test for me always though is whether a poem can be believably said. If I start to sound lofty when I say the thing aloud, if I cease to sound like myself, then I know I’ve probably crossed a line. I’m not sure I’ll ever write a poem that gives itself quite as much license as this one does again, or at least not the same sort of license in terms of diction and rhythm working as high up the register as this, but who knows; I said about a year ago that I probably wouldn’t ever write another sonnet and now I find myself fiddling with sonnet-like poems.
AMK: I’m struck by the word choices in the poem. They remind me of reading Davis McCombs’s poems about tobacco farming and caving. Or Bridget Pegeen Kelly’s choices in her book “The Orchard.”
Word choices can have a number of effects. They create a more imagistic experience than would exist without them. They also induce a more vibrant encounter with language, pushing beyond the language we read in most fiction or hear on the street.
But, beyond that (I’m sort of stealing this from Rodney Jones), word choice is an element that has the ability to not only create an image of whatever the speaker is looking at but to create an image out of the language itself...or, perhaps, of the speaker in such a way that the typical character sketch simple can’t touch. The best example I can think of that Rodney uses is Larry Levis’ “The Two Trees,” which opens
My name in latin is light to carry & victorious.
I’d read late in the library, then
walk out past the stacks, rows, aisles
of books, where the memoirs of battles slowly gave way
to case histories of molestation & abuse.
The black widows looked out onto the black lawn.
I can’t tell you how tempted I am to just site the whole darned poem, but this little sound bite reveals not only a speaker but an image of the speaker as a result of the use of certain I words, syntactical ,structures, etc, etc… I think “Over By” works in a similar way…we don’t get a whole lot of information about the speaker but the way he/she speaks is enough.
Would you agree with this reading?
CB: Wow. Well it’s lovely to be in the same paragraph as Larry Levis, it really is, as well as Davis McCombs and Bridget Pegeen Kelly, who I admire greatly. It’s funny that Levis particularly comes to mind though, because I think it was from him that I learned the art of inhabiting and then leaving a poem – when to step in fully as speaker, when to get out of the way of the story or image and let it speak for itself. He does this so well so often, and his timing is always absolutely perfect and completely unpredictable. So, yes, maybe the poem does attempt to work in a similar way to how someone like Levis might work, though far less successfully of skillfully. Oddly, as I said earlier, it was finding the moment and the way the speaker ought to come into the poem most forcefully that started to yoke everything together in the case of “Over By.” This and I suppose the fact that it’s so grounded in a particular stretch of landscape that’s so loaded for me, made that sort of staying out of the way, or at least not getting too much in the way, after being too far out of the way, possible. It also probably created the circumstances in which I couldn’t really speak in any other way; the way of describing and the finding of the language in which that description had to take place probably came down to being true to the place itself as much as anything else.
AMK: How did you find all of these words? I know, this seems like a dumb question, but it’s pretty amazing the range of vocabulary displayed here and, yet, it’s a vocabulary that I’m not unfamiliar with.
Should we have the image in our heads of a poet bent over his desk flipping through pages of Roget’s thesaurus, or is this the sort of language you’re simply at ease and comfortable with?
CB: I think, for me at least, diction arises out of rhythm, and it was the rhythm that came first to me with this poem. So the diction kind of found me rather than me finding it. I don’t typically use this sort of language in everyday conversation but it seemed absolutely necessary to this place, this time, this ocean, that moment, and it was all with me and had been from quite an early life. I can honestly say I’ve never looked at a thesaurus while writing a poem; a dictionary I’ll pick up quite often because I often find words coming into my poems from very far away, or very far back in my brain, where I’m not a hundred percent sure of their denotations and have to check. Oddly, when this happens the word is usually exactly the right one, though if you’d asked me to tell you what it meant a few minutes prior to its entering the line I wouldn’t have been able to.
AMK: Is word choice one of the ways that you display your love of words, language, geography, home?
CB: I’ve never really thought about this, though what you suggest is very probably true -- I do love all those things, though I think there’d be a danger in me trying to consciously convey a love of any of those things. The Northern Irish poet Michael Longley says that all poems are love poems, which I think is true, but then I also think that love is the vaguest and most abused word in the language in that it covers such a multitude. Anyone’s relationship to words, language, geography and home is going to be quite a torn and complex thing, and maybe the torture of those particular loves is necessary to poetry – if that makes any sort of sense at all. As a maker, I’m more interested in faithfulness to the small details of the poem, getting the image as accurate as possible, getting the line to sing in the right key, getting the syntax to carry the rhythm properly. I try to stay dumb before the bigger loves or notions the poem is trying to get across; I really think they need to just come through while I keep my finger on the pulse.
AMK: Finally, I’m wondering about the shape of this poem. In your book, The Sphere of Birds, you like to move around on the page, oftentimes composing poems with a fixed pattern of indentation within stanzas.
What do you think that does for a poem that hugging the left margin doesn’t?
CB: To me, it makes the poem more fluid and flighty (which I mean positively here) in some way. There’s something very static about the left margin that indentation seems to upend. The poems read slower when they hug the left margin, at least mine do, and I was looking for ways to break away from it. There’s something too about the shape of the poem on the page that’s important to me, and those poems with the indented lines look more like themselves when I open the book than they would if they were all dropping parallel to the book’s spine. The indentations suggest an attempt to push away, to leap, to lift off, which I think the poems are usually attempting. I think also the simultaneity of narratives and images the poems tend to explore, their back and forth, which arises out of a sense of displacement, is mirrored in the shape of those stanzas, their unmooring from the dock of the left margin. Again, though, this wasn’t something I planned. The form of the poems seemed right, looked right, felt right, even sounded right, when it was arrived at, but it wasn’t arrived at by a direct or predetermined route. I had to find my way there fumbling through the drafts.
AMK: Thank you.
CB: Thanks for the questions; it’s been a real thought-provoking pleasure.