July 2008

Jason B. Jones

poetry

For All We Know by Ciaran Carson

You know how you know when someone's telling lies? They
get their story right every time, down to the last word.

Whereas when they tell the truth it's never the same twice. They
reformulate.

--Ciaran Carson, "The Shadow"

Ciaran Carson's For All We Know is so committed to this ideal of truth in reformulation that even something so monotonous as a watch can come to embody it. For although it can be heard "registering elapsed time with a dispassionate tick," the watch in question -- a prewar Omega -- looms too large in the speaker's memory for it to appear always in the same light. The watch stands out to the speaker in almost fetishistic relief, yet he can't even keep details about it straight in his mind. In the end, the watch's "dispassionate tick" converts into a "staggered repeat": A luminous detail in the speaker's memory, one that spurs more elaboration, more re-telling, more truth.

The watch belonged to a woman named Miranda, who also goes by Nina. She and Gabriel are lovers, and most of the poems in the collection seem to arise as he looks back at the history of their relationship. Nina and Gabriel meet in Ireland during the Troubles, and their story takes them to Paris, Berlin, and Dresden. Some of these details are slightly wobbly -- Nina is also the name of a perfume designer, and there are cloak-and-dagger poems of false identities, of betrayals and assignations, and, sometimes, the pair are cast into a world of fairy-tale. There seems to be an affair with a Mont Blanc salesman, although this, too, is enigmatic. Sometimes, traits of Gabriel and Nina seem to appear in other people, which raises questions about the status of all these memories.

There seem to be two different points about memory raised in For All We Know. The wobbly details seem to gesture less toward some postmodern skepticism about referene than to the way such substitutions convey, almost offhandedly, the tangible density of a relationship. Gabriel can't remember whether the secondhand blue pencil skirt was bought at Take Two, or Second Time Round, not because he doesn't care, but because the experience was repeated so frequently. The other kind of memory is almost opposite. It lodges in Gabriel's mind like a shard or kernel, or, perhaps, like the grit an oyster, provoking an infinite number of variations on itself each time the memory crops up again.

The final poem in the collection, "Zugzwang," captures this perspective eloquently. Zugzwang means "compulsion to move": it names the phenomenon, in a game, wherein one must move, although one would probably better off holding steady. (Zugzwang frequently arises in chess, a game alluded to in "The Shadow." ) What better word to capture the ambivalence of surviving a relationship? Carson writes:

as the words of the song when remembered each time around
remind us of other occasions at different times;

as the geographer traces the long fetch of the waves
from where they are born at sea to where they founder to shore

so I return to the question of those staggered repeats
as my memories of you recede into the future.

These final six lines, gathering as they do many of the collection's signature obsessions, delivers a powerful emotional charge. In particular, the last line's ability to capture the erasure and maddening persistence of memory is breathtaking.

Carson's a master of the sonnet -- for further evidence, see The Twelfth of Never -- and For All We Know is no different. The book is organized into two different sonnet sequences, each 35 poems long, in which each sonnet bears the same title as its counterpart. The poems with common titles bear a variety of relationships to one another. Sometimes, the second begins where the first left off, while others begin from the same line or word, and still others have more oblique connections. Each sonnet sequence has its own narrative arc, although sometimes the relationship within an individual pair of linked sonnets seems to take priority. Both versions of "Le Mot Juste," for example, start by slightly misremembering T.S. Eliot: First, "Still the interminable wrestle with words and meanings? / you said. I'd an idea you were quoting from something." And then in the second: "Still the interminable wrestle with words and meanings. Flaubert labouring for days over a single sentence." The first poem is evidently a specific memory, and so can close with a brief glimpse of happiness: "You reached suddenly across the table to put your mouth / to mine, murmuring what I took to be a fugue on my lips." In the second version, by contrast, loss has the upper hand: "Still the interminable struggle with words and meanings. / These words foundering now over a single sentence." These poems pivot on two of the collection's favorite words, fugue and founder, and the slight echo between them points up the ambivalence of memory, where even a happy memory can knock us momentarily out of time.

As For All We Know looks back over Gabriel and Nina's relationship, Carson frequently attends to difficulties of language. While it would be easy to read this as a tic of postmodernism, Carson seems interested in something else: The way, within families or couples, putatively common experiences can nevertheless be lived quite differently. This affliction plagues Carson himself: The book arose in part from a song his sister learned from a nun, and, in the acknowledgements, he notes that he actually "had misremembered the last line of the first verse." Gabriel and Nina frequently overhear conversations they can't understand, and there are numerous reflections on the challenges of growing up in bilingual homes, especially in the case of divorce. But the main problem is simply that words arise from different consciousnesses, even in a conversation between lovers:

The maitre d' was looking at us in a funny way
as if he caught the drift I sought between the lines you spoke.

For one word never came across as just itself, but you
would put it over as insinuating something else.

Then, slowly, slowly we would draw in on one another
until everything was implicated like wool spooled

from my yawning hands as you wound the yarn into a ball.
For how many seasons have we circled round each other

like this?

Many times, of course, couples stop this game of mutual implication, as one or both partners assumes that they know the other's mind well enough after a certain number of years. For All We Know is almost a testament to the joys of keeping that game alive, perhaps even after the death of a partner.

For All We Know is a terrific book -- smart, and funny, and warm. It invites (and rewards!) re-reading without being rebarbative about its intelligence or complexity. I can't think of a book I have enjoyed more thoroughly over the past two years.

For All We Know by Ciaran Carson
Wake Forest University Press
ISBN: 978-1-930630-38-3
100 pages