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Reading the Metamorphoses on a Transatlantic Flight


In Ovid, where the birds are manifestations of our grief,
we watch the tyrant Tereus who has just supped on the flesh
of his own son, transformed by loss and desire for revenge
into a stiff-crested hoopoe with a pronged beak to replace his sword.

We watch Ino's distraught servant girls assume the shapes
of shearwaters as they follow their mistress over Juno's cliffs,
and poor Cycnus, his love forever undeclared, turned
to a swan as he laments the sudden death of Phaeton.

We watch, thinking past the allegory, knowing no heron
springs up from our empathy when we see, through
the windscreen, a car pushed to the side of the highway
where shattered glass shines like a recent shower of rain

and a state trooper stoops to lay down his orange flames
as the traffic slows and weaves its way round him.
Or at least that's what I've come to think up here,
winged with so many others in this approximate manner

somewhere between Saint Johns and the Blaskets, spine
of this book open across my knees, now, that our son's asleep,
now that Icarus has flapped his homemade wings,
begun to rise away from the earth, his father's terse warning.

How can we keep him from the harm this world can be,
our rose-cheeked boy, named for your uncle who drove a truck
through Queens, delivering cheesecakes and key lime pies
to the diners of Flushing and Kew Gardens?

Ginger head resting across your arm, he knows nothing
of how he's borne aloft on jet fuel and aluminum, his first flight
marked by the thin yellow line we track across the screen
as we bear him, like an offering, towards the place I still call home,

the roads corkscrewing into the mountains, a broken rosary
of tidy towns where, driving once, I saw a man stripped
to the waist, chained to a sign, on what must have been the morning
after his stag night. Body smeared with treacle and feathers,

skin red and dry, it was as if he were a sunburned boy
just fallen from the sky; aware suddenly of his own limits,
the lack of anything like ichor in his veins. And even in the body
of this plane we're grounded things, doing our best

to ignore the turbulence, channel surfing or pacing to pass
the time while the wine trembles in our plastic cups
and the seatbelt signs flash on and off and on.
It will be hours before we see dry land again, cats' eyes

on the runway leading us towards the gate, the baggage claim,
the sudden weight of sleeplessness and cups of strong coffee.
Meantime, the clouds are like something from a cartoon,
and the birds go on mocking what Ovid makes of them,

picking the eyes out of the dead as if they were baubles or beads,
the shrike driving its beak through the field mouse
at great speed, marsh hawks amok among the winter trees.
If they could they would laugh at Icarus as he falls

face first towards the waves that will take possession of his limbs,
they'd laugh at Scylla in that instant before she becomes
one of them, as she loses her grip on the keel of that Cretan ship
and, for a split second, is simply falling.


Ciaran Berry

The Dead Zoo
The Gallery Press


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