Collected Poems of Ciaran Carson
In 1987, the opening lines of "Dresden," the first poem in a book called The Irish for No, explosively announced the style for which Ciaran Carson is best known:
Horse Boyle was called Horse Boyle because of his brother Mule;
Though why Mule was called Mule is anybody's guess.
Here are many of the poet's characteristic turns: anecdote, cliché, the tracing of etymologies (here, the origin of a nickname) that vanish into uncertainty. Their thematic purpose, the exploration of memory and history, becomes clear as the passage continues ("I stayed there once, / Or rather, I nearly stayed there once. But that's another story"), and the poem's vista broadens into an emblematic situation: a conversation in a junk-yard between the poet and a traumatized veteran of the allied bombing of Dresden, who nonetheless speaks blithely about old friends who smuggled explosives into Northern Ireland. Sustaining, and sustained by, all of this is Carson's distinctive long line: stretching out to the margin and beyond, gathering and swirling detritus in its tidal sweep and undertow.
A more complete expression of this style came two years later, in the book Belfast Confetti. Taking its title from a poem in the preceding volume, this book closely identifies the long line with urban geography. Interspersed with prose passages reflecting on place, place-names, and the mutability of each, these poems center on the experience of living in a city disrupted by violence, in which ordinary movement is impossible due to unexpected "ramps, barricades, diversions, Peace Lines," and where even the maps contain deliberate lacunae, since "the shape of the jails cannot be shown for security reasons." At various moments, photographs, or the imagined overhead perspective of a police helicopter are proposed as alternative, more comprehensive viewpoints. Yet, as the prose passage "Question Time" suggests, even these require interpretation, thus throwing the problem back to its origins: scholarship, debate, storytelling; in a word, language.
Language and origins are Carson's abiding concerns, and one of the advantages of this Collected Poems is its delineation of his work's consistent thematic arc, thus providing a backdrop for his several abrupt and dramatic changes of style. For Carson, of course, these problems are not abstract, but emerge out of his particular experience growing up and living in Belfast, where he still makes his home. Born in 1948, Carson was raised in an environment unique even by the standards of his limited Catholic enclave: thanks to their parents' efforts, he and his siblings spent their first few years speaking only Irish. The ironic distance this implies from his second language, English, the language of the street and of officialdom, partially explains the elaborate playfulness of some of his recent styles. And yet, even before language became his work's central theme, one may detect the aftereffects of the gap it opened between his childhood and adult worlds. Inevitably, this gap also takes on historical and political dimensions.
The earliest writing reprinted in this volume, from The New Estate and Other Poems (1976, 1988), is intensely preoccupied with the problem of origins, beginning with national history and the lives of famous precursors ("The Insular Celts," "St. Ciaran's Island," "O'Carolan's Complaint"), and continuing through autobiography, in such poems as "An Early Bed," "Twine," and others. In some poems, foreshadowing his work's subsequent development, this search is externalized into investigations of everyday phenomena, as when the poem "Linen" reveals the "tangled cordage" of a loom before.
Light will fall on linen simply, as it would
On glass, or silverware, or water.
At their most successful, these poems make a virtue of understatement, employing simple formal structures (typically unrhymed, three-to-five beat lines arranged in regular stanzas) and straightforward statement that acts as a foil for moments of quiet boldness. Such moments can hinge on a single word, like the unexpected verb at the end of "Dunne," when a child turns his eyes "To the stars that brushed against the windowpane." Other poems remain limited, unmemorable, earnest in theme yet lacking a distinctive voice.
We have already seen Carson's decisive next move, toward thematic and formal expansiveness. This expansive style is carried over, in a slightly different mode, into his work of the 1990s, beginning with 1994's First Language. Preserving the long line, most of the poems in this collection add rhyme (interpreted with wide, Muldoonian latitude), typically in couplets. Translations, from Rimbaud, Baudelaire, the Irish-language poet Seán Ó Ríordáin, and Ovid play a major role in this work. Ovid, in particular, becomes the poet's mouthpiece, as three passages from the Metamorphoses are reinterpreted as caustic satire on Northern Ireland's history of sectarian violence. A more pervasive and implicit mode of commentary is the use of language itself, the poems posing their own semantic playfulness against the linguistic manipulations of the "Powers-that-Be." A similar project underlies 1996's more recondite and humorous Opera Et Cetera, a stylistic sequel that introduces new formal constraints (sequences based on the alphabet and radio alphabet -- "Alpha," "Bravo," "Charlie," … "Zulu" -- plus a shorter series inspired by familiar Latin quotations), as well as 1998's The Twelfth of Never, a satirical fantasia in 77 sonnets based on the French alexandrine meter, incorporating ballad-motifs, history, politics, and supposedly drug-addled reverie. Impossible to summarize briefly, these three works offer instantaneous enjoyment, yet, befitting their underlying seriousness, gratification indefinitely delayed.
Carson's two most recent books (discounting the forthcoming On the Night Watch, not included in this collection) are Breaking News (2003) and For All We Know (2008). These two works set off in new, and separate, directions. For All We Know, a meditation on love and memory, has recently been reviewed for Bookslut by Jason B. Jones. Of the two, Breaking News is far more unusual: it contains Carson's most radical stylistic about-face since his turn to long lines in The Irish for No. This time, the movement is in the opposite direction, towards an extreme, fragmentary minimalism. In many ways, the poems in this volume are most directly in dialogue with Carson's two collections from the 1980s, The Irish for No and Belfast Confetti. This is clearly signaled in the second poem in the book, "Home," which depicts the poet returning to Belfast from the airport. As he drives down the mountain and looks out at the city, his viewpoint is momentarily fused (in part through grammatical ambiguity) with that of a hovering helicopter, the seemingly "objective" perspective wished for in Belfast Confetti:
from the ridge
of the plateau
my eye zooms
into the city
I see everything
Breathtaking as this moment is, it is also, from the perspective of Carson's previous collections, subtly ironic. For if the totality is, in this instant, "seen," it is not elaborated on. Although the poet does not exactly say so, one suspects (guided in part by that "at last") that the explorations of the previous Belfast books were necessary for such a vision to be achieved, for the individual landmarks to stand out clearly in their relations with one another. In any event, the prevailing impulse in Breaking News is not towards comprehensiveness, but towards the recovery of individual details out of chaos. Although generally revealed through the style, subject-matter, and form of the poems themselves, this direction is also articulated programmatically in "Exile," in which the poet depicts himself walking through the streets of Belfast:
Reflecting that "all lie / in ruins," he defines his own limited role:
as I can do
from oblivion [.]
These street names, familiar from Carson's earlier volumes, have a deeper history: they are landmarks from the British imperial wars of the 19th century, primarily the Crimean War (1853-1856). Not only does this war play an important role in British cultural memory (one of the poems in Carson's book recounts a gruesome episode from the famous "Charge of the Light Brigade"), but, because of the British army's large number of Irish soldiers, it figures in that nation's history as well. To bring the events of this past era into view, Carson focuses his attention through the eyes of William Howard Russell (1820-1907), an Irish-born English journalist, identified in a note as "the father of the art of war correspondence." Knowing Carson, we may assume that "correspondence" here carries a double meaning and that his own work offers a new variation on this "art." Oscillating between 20th century Belfast and the fringes of 19th century spheres of influence, these poems explore the disorientation of those at the center of conflict, a constant despite changing technology and terrain.
At nearly 600 pages, this Collected Poems provides the best introduction to one of Ireland's most interesting contemporary writers. By revealing his persistent recuperation and reworking of motifs from across his career so far, it may also make experienced readers see his work in a new light. Perfection is mainly the goal of miniature; the majority of these poems have other goals and other strengths. In his consistently experimental writing, Carson's investigations of his medium and of the world become a single task.
Collected Poems of Ciaran Carson
Wake Forest University Press