David Cooke on Ciaran Carson: The City Is a Map of the City

It was sad to hear of the recent death of Ciaran Carson, one of the finest poets of his generation. Those who have not yet  seen it  can read his obituary here in the Guardian. I take the opportunity also to reprint below a review I wrote in 2008 for Agenda on the publication of his Collected Poems.


Although poetry and politics have been inextricably entwined in Northern Ireland, the poets have often been guarded in the face of expectations that they should in some way be self-consciously ‘responding’ to a political situation. Seamus Heaney famously entitled a poem ‘Whatever You Say Say Nothing’ in response to ‘an English journalist in search of ‘views / on the Irish thing.’’ However, of all the major voices to have emerged from the province Ciaran Carson, recently dubbed ‘Belfast’s unofficial poet laureate’ by Hugh McFadden, is the one whose work has been most directly affected by the day to day experience of living with sectarian violence and military occupation. Published in 2008 to coincide with his sixtieth birthday, Carson’s Collected Poems includes virtually the entire contents of his eight previous collections.  Born in 1948 into an Irish speaking Catholic family in Belfast, Carson has spent all his life in the city, a fact which distinguishes his work from that of his fellow Catholics, Heaney or Muldoon, who both grew up in rural communities.

The New Estate, Carson’s first collection published in 1976, was a wonderfully achieved debut that showed that what he had in common with his elders, Heaney, Longley and Mahon, was his concern for craftsmanship, clarity, and cadence. As might be expected, there are in fact occasional echoes of their work.  ‘Linen’ for example is reminiscent of Longley:

From the photographs of bleach greens
Mill-hands stare across the snowy acres.
In a frieze white as marble
Their lives are ravelled and unravelled –

In ‘King’s Lynn’ one can also detect the influence of Heaney: ‘Estuaries silt up, / Lost in a choke of mud. / Fields mutate / to another branch of the sea.’ Nevertheless, Carson had already developed his own voice and a distinctive range of interests.  As a native speaker of Irish it is not surprising to find poems based on early Irish mythology such as ‘The Insular Celts’ or ‘St Ciaran’s Island’. There are also versions of early Irish or Welsh poetry.  An accomplished  musician himself, his fine ear for phrasing comes through in the opening lines of ‘O’Carolan’s Complaint’:

The great tunes
I never played are lost
To monied patronage, the lit rooms
In grey façades

Whisper, fall silent
At their harmony and grace. I think
Of all the girls I might have loved
Instead of music –

However, where Carson is at his most affecting is in those poems which deal with family life and the quiet pleasures of domesticity.  In ‘An Early Bed’ he finds himself redecorating the bedroom in which he used to sleep as a child and is reminded by an earlier layer of wallpaper of how he was once punished for raising his hand against his father: ‘A child who struck his father, / He once told me, died / Soon afterwards.’ In ‘Twine’ he describes the inside of his father’s postman sack: ‘I stuck my head inside / The canvas flap and breathed the gloom. // The smell of raffia and faded ink / Was like the smell of nothing.’ Carson’s ability to re-create the physical actuality of an object is something he shares with Heaney and has remained one of his trademarks.  In ‘To a Married Sister’ patches of damp have ‘the sluggish tints of an old map’.  Emptying boxes, he notices ‘the hairline net / Of cracks on worn enamel’ and notes how ‘A gold resin / Leaked from the slackened joints’ of cheap furniture.  The precision and detail of these poems is such that one might imagine the poet were living in a world as self-contained and calm as that of Vermeer. It is only in ‘Bomb Disposal’ that we get any sense of the violence on the streets outside and an indication of the direction Carson’s work will take:

Is it just like picking a lock
With the slow deliberation of a funeral,
Hesitating through a darkened nave
Until you find the answer? […]

The city is a map of the city,
Its forbidden areas changing daily.
I find myself in a crowded taxi
Making deviations from the known route,

The New Estate gave every indication that Carson was one to watch.  However, apart from The Lost Explorer, a modest pamphlet published by The Honest Ulsterman in 1978, a decade would pass before he brought out another collection.

The silence was eventually broken in 1987 by the publication of The Irish for No which was followed in 1990 by Belfast Confetti. Both collections were radically different from his earlier work and are breathtaking not only in their imaginative sweep but also in the brilliance of their technique.  Abandoning his traditional stanzas, Carson now favoured a much longer line which seemed to have something in common with the work of the American poet C.K. Williams. He may also have been influenced by some of the longer, loping lines of Irish ballads and the tradition of Gaelic singing known as sean-nós (‘the old-style’). In both collections the new line is put to two different uses.  The poems are either long freewheeling narratives or shorter more focussed pieces of nine lines grouped into two stanzas of five and four respectively. The latter have the appearance of block-built sonnets and seem particularly appropriate to Carson’s urban terrain.

‘Dresden’, the opening poem of the Irish for No, is five pages long and is apparently about a man called Horse Boyle who joined the RAF in the Second World War, and who took part in the bombing of Dresden.  However, one is a long way into the poem before such facts emerge:

Horse Boyle was called Horse Boyle because of his brother Mule;
Though why Mule was called Mule is anybody’s guess. I stayed there

Or rather, I nearly stayed there once. But that’s another story…

The narrator then goes on to describe ‘the decrepit caravan’ where Boyle lived ‘Encroached upon by baroque pyramids of empty baked bean tins…’  However, as one thing leads to another he reminisces about old fashioned shop bells, the smells of tobacco, Ulster fries, and a mortar bomb attack which then reminds him of another character called Flynn. Over the course of a few lines we learn how this new individual got locked up by accident, but learned ‘The best of Irish’ in jail and how ‘He had thirteen words for a cow in heat’.  Jam packed with etymology, history and proverbial wisdom, the poem is also replete with grim humour and pathos.  Eventually we learn that Horse Boyle was a rear gunner and that ‘Of all the missions, Dresden broke his heart. It reminded him of china’ and ‘in particular a figure from his childhood, a milkmaid / Standing on the mantelpiece.’ It is clear that what is important here is not so much the tale as the way of telling it. A traditional storyteller like a musician must, to use the Gaelic term, have his own blas, his own unique accent or flavour.

In the shorter poems Carson charts in minute detail the sights, sounds and topography of his city’s divided streets. In ‘Belfast Confetti’ we see the riot squad moving in with their ‘Makrolon face-shields’ and ‘Walkie-talkies’ under the hail of missiles which give the poem its title.  We are also shown in ‘Bloody Hand’ how matter-of-fact attitudes to violence can become:

 Your man, says the Man, will walk into the bar like this – here his fingers
Mimic a pair of legs, one stiff at the knee – so you’ll know exactly
What to do. He sticks his finger to his head.

In these poems and in the prose pieces that accompany them in Belfast Confetti Carson’s project is not unlike that of the exiled James Joyce who also tried to evoke in encyclopaedic detail his own Dublin streets.  In ‘The Exiles’ Club’ Carson even describes a group of Belfast ex-pats in Australia who meet up for the same purpose: ‘After years they have reconstructed the whole of the Falls Road, and now / Are working on the backstreets: Lemon, Peel and Omar, Balaklava, Alma. // They just about keep up with the news of bombings and demolition…’

The Irish for No and Belfast Confetti are Carson’s analogue of Joyce’s Ulysses.  With his 1993 collection First Language his work undergoes a further sea change and takes him closer to the Joyce of Finnegans Wake, as language itself becomes a theme for much of the work. Carson’s ‘first language’ is of course Irish and in his dedicatory poem to his wife in that language he speaks directly of his own feelings in a way that he does not in English:

Your mouth pressed unexpectedly
Upon my mouth
And I was absorbed completely
In the deep twilight of your kiss.

(My translation.)

Yet when it comes to the poet’s ‘second language’ he lets the auditory imagination run wild:

English not being yet a language, I wrapped my lubber lips
xxxxaround my thumb.
Brain-deaf as an embryo, I was snuggled in my comfort-
xxxxblanket dumb.

Growling figures campaniled above me, and twanged their
xxxxcarillons of bronze
Sienna consonants embedded with the vowels alexandrite,
xxxxemerald and topaz.

From the poem’s echoes of Rimbaud’s sonnet ‘Voyelles’ it is clear that new influences are at play and elsewhere in the collection he includes a reworking of Baudelaire’s ‘Correspondances’, another of the sacred texts of the French Symbolists and after them the Surrealists, influences which go some way in explaining the outrageous risks Carson is now taking with language.  However, in a recent interview in the Guardian he gives a further clue as to what he may be trying to achieve, when he refers to one of his earliest memories of drifting off to sleep as a child and listening to the sound of horses in the street: ‘I would think ‘horse’ and the Irish ‘capall. And the sound of ‘capall’ to me was ‘horse’, whereas ‘horse’ sounded exotic and odd’.  Perhaps too, the Irish word more clearly evoked the clatter of a horse’s hooves, sounding as it does almost the same as the English word ‘cobble’.  What is beyond doubt is that throughout First Language the poet is driven by his pure delight in sounds.  Take, for example, ‘Grass’, another of his shaggy dog stories about some characters who may be paramilitaries and who have just ‘done a deal of blow’:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx…when in the general boggledybotch, the budgie
Unlatched himself from out the room, and what cheeped and Canterburied
Wasn’t Gospel – which hardly gave a fiddler’s, since the flats were on the bias
Or on the juice.

It was the circumbendibus of everything that got us locked
And scuttered, the Anno Domini of what had happened yonks before
Our time and that is why we languish now in Anguagela Jail, while he
Is on the loose.

In Bagpipe Music language is not only stripped of meaning but even assumes the rhythm of a jig: ‘He came lilting down the brae with a blackthorn stick the thick of a shotgun / In his fist, going, blah dithery dump a doodle scattery idle fortunoodle. ’ It is also no coincidence that this is the first of Carson’s collections where he uses rhyme to a significant degree. In any language the existence of rhyme is of course quite fortuitous, but this is grist to Carson’s mill, as in ‘58’ where the poem is driven along by a series of triple near rhymes:

They’d rehearsed the usual Heinz variety of condoms, clocks, fertilizer,
xxxxand electrical flex,
Plus a Joker’s device which, someone claimed had devolved
xxxffrom one of the Fifties Batman serial flicks –
Which proves there’s nothing new sub specie aeternitatis,
xxxxor it’s part of the general Heraclitean flux.

Moreover, the ‘rhymes’ are deployed in such a way as to mimic the sing song rhythms of a grammar school kid rattling out Latin declensions: ‘flex/flicks/flux’,  ‘caff/kiff/cuff’ etc, echoing the effect of  ‘hic/haec/hoc’, or the pattern that a student hears when  learning the irregular verbs in Carson’s ‘second language’:  ‘sing/sang/ sung’, ‘drink/drank/drunk’.

In ‘The Ark of the Covenant’ he writes four variants of the same poem, as if he were a jazz musician using the chord changes of one melody to create a new one, which is then used as the basis for a further improvisation. This technique is used again in ‘The Ballad of HMS Belfast’.  Having already produced a ‘version’ of Rimbaud’s ‘Le Bateau ivre’, Carson then writes his own poem inspired by it, in which he brings together the Irish ballad and le Symbolisme to create an aisling or dream poem:

On the first day of April, Belfast disengaged her moorings, and
xxxxsailed away
From old Belfast. Sealed orders held our destination,
xxxxsomewhere in the Briny Say.

Our crew of Jacks was aromatic with tobacco-twist and
Reekings from the night before. Both Cathestants and

In the course of its twenty five stanzas the reader is taken on a rollicking journey through hallucinatory seascapes, that dérèglement de tous les sens advocated by Rimbaud, until ironically the protagonist, an archetypal Irish patriot, awakes with a bump: ‘bound in iron chains… on board the prison ship Belfast’.

In 1996 Carson followed First Language with Opera Et Cetera, the title of which almost suggests that its contents may be slightly redundant after the copiousness and the inspired pyrotechnics of its predecessor. Indeed, Carson has hinted as much himself: ‘the whole enterprise of Opus Et Cetera was partly willed and mechanical, partly arbitrary and given.’ It’s as if after the symphonic sweep of First Language he then decided to rework similar material in a book of études. The collection consists of three sequences. There are two based upon the letters of the alphabet in its standard form and then again in its phonetic or ‘military’ version. These are separated by a shorter sequence of eleven poems which are inspired by Latin tags. Apart from the opening poem, all the remaining pieces are written in five long-lined rhyming couplets. Unfortunately, a certain monotony soon sets in as the poems demonstrate the steady application of the journeyman rather than the brilliance of le voyant. The poem ‘A’ gives an indication of Carson’s procedures as the shape of the letter A evokes the image of a Stealth bomber:

Invisible to radar, Stealth glided through their retina of sweep
xxxxand dot.
No bleep appeared to register its Alpha wing. The watchers were asleep,
xxxxor not.

An Ampoule-bomb lay ampere wired-up in it, waiting for its
xxxxprimal sec-
Ond, like its embryonic A becoming Be. It wanted flash and Instamatic.

Rhythmically controlled and coherent, the first couplet bodes well, but already in the second there is an overload which results in a clumpy rhythm and the ungainly pseudo-rhyme. In ‘H’ prisoners in the H-Block are up in arms about issues relating to sausage rolls. Having determined at the outset to cast his poem in rhymed couplets, Carson then seems to be struggling against them with the prose rhythm of:

The prisoners complained. We cannot reproduce his actual
xxxxwords here, since their spokesman is alleged
To be a sub-commander of a movement deemed to be illegal.

However, there are marvellous touches as he plays with the ideas of shibboleths and territory:

Well, give an inch and someone takes an effing mile. Every
xxxxthing is in the ways
You say them. Like, the prison that we call Long Kesh is to
xxxxthe Powers-that-Be The Maze.

Ultimately, though, the poems are written to a formula and too often seem merely to serve as a vehicle for Carson’s erudition, so that poetry is reduced to the status of a crossword puzzle. One either ‘gets’ the references, jokes, whatever, or one doesn’t, but is not always convinced that it really matters.

In 1998, only two years after the appearance of Opera Et Cetera, Carson brought out two new volumes. The first, The Alexandrine Plan, is a collection of 34 sonnets freely adapted from Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. This was followed soon after by The Twelfth of Never, a collection of 77 original sonnets written in alexandrines, the standard line of French verse. Thus, the collection has a formal unity, but unlike Opus Et Cetera it also has a thematic unity as Carson deconstructs the idea of history in general, but Irish history in particular, creating his own mythology of a ‘Never Never Land’:

There is a green hill far away, without a city wall,
Where cows have longer horns than any that we know;
Where daylight hours behold a moon of indigo,
And fairly cobblers operate without an awl.

This is a world of fairy tales and riddling ballads. It is also a world of paradoxes ‘Ruled by Zeno’s eternal tortoises and hares / Where everything is metaphor and simile.’ In ‘The Rising of the Moon’, the title of which is borrowed from a ballad referring to the 1798 rebellion in County Wexford, we find ourselves in a more specifically Irish context:

As down by the glenside I met an old colleen,
She stung me with the gaze of her nettle green eyes,
She urged me to go out and revolutionize
Hibernia, and not to fear the Guillotine.

The protagonist then finds himself amongst the downtrodden ‘People of No Property’, Carson’s ironic twist on ‘No Popery’, the rallying call of the Protestant ascendancy. Over the page ‘The Rising of the Moon’ is followed by ‘The Rising Sun’, a poem in which he transports us to ‘ smoky Tokyo’, a strange parallel universe where the yen ‘had been going down / All day against the buoyant Hibernian Pound’.  In ‘The Groves of Blarney’, another poem which shares its title with a traditional Irish song, it is not entirely clear whether Carson is sending up the blarney or is himself milking it:

’Tis there you’ll find the woods of shamrock and shillelagh
And the pratie gardens full of Easter snow;
You’ll hear the blackbird sing a gay risorgimento,
And see Venus rising at the dawning of the day.

Unfortunately, for all its high jinks The Twelfth of Never is, like Opus Et Cetera, a disappointing collection. After a while the folksy rhythms become monotonous and much of the imagery is repetitious.  While Carson’s use of the alexandrine may be ambitious it is not entirely successful.  French is a very different, more lightly stressed language than English, and Carson’s attempt to adopt its prosody to English leads frequently to rhythms that are tired and flat, reminding one of Alexander Pope’s famous description of the alexandrine ‘That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.’

In little more than a decade between the years 1987-1998 Carson produced five substantial collections, three of which placed him in the front rank of contemporary poets. It would be another five years before his next collection appeared. When in 2003 he published Breaking News it marked another watershed and saw Carson abandoning his long lines for a Creeleyesque brevity.  In an explanatory note to the collection he also acknowledges his indebtedness to the Anglo-Irish journalist William Henry Russell, whom he cites as being ‘generally regarded as the father of the art of war correspondence’ and who made his name by his dispatches from the Crimean War.  In Breaking News there is not a trace of that highly wrought allusiveness which for so long had been Carson’s signature as he aims now for the immediacy and the visual impact of reportage. The poems mark not only a return to the Belfast of the Troubles, but also turn their gaze to that earlier conflict in the Crimea, whose key battles are memorialized in many of the city’s street names. There is also a long poem on the Indian Mutiny and, symptomatic of the new primacy he gives to the visual as opposed to the auditory, there are poems on paintings by the artists Goya, Géricault, and Hopper.

In ‘Belfast’, his wonderfully astringent opening poem, it’s as if Carson is rediscovering the uncluttered directness of his first collection:


beyond the yellow
shipyard cranes

a blackbird whistles
in a whin bush


beside the motorway
a black taxi

rusts in a field
of blue thistles

Informed by Carson’s love of early Irish poetry and the Japanese haiku, this piece manages to encapsulate a thousand years of Irish history from its iconic image of the blackbird to the notorious associations of the Belfast black taxi.  ‘The Gladstone Bar circa 1954’ is another poem that would not have been out of place in The New Estate: ‘two men are / unloading beer // you can smell / the hops and yeast // the smouldering / heap of dung // just dropped by / one / of the great / blinkered drayhorses’.  After his seemingly exhaustive coverage of Belfast’s streets in earlier collections one might imagine that it would be difficult for Carson to write much more about them, but like a good photo-journalist his eye misses nothing, not even a damaged shop sign in ‘News’: ‘alarms / shrill // lights / flash // as dust / clears // above / the paper // shop // The Belfast Telegraph / sign reads // fast // rap.

Moving from Belfast to the  Crimea, ‘War’ is  a grisly footnote to Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of The Light Brigade’: ‘Sergeant Talbot / had his head // swept off // by a // round-shot // yet for half / a furlong // more // the body kept / the saddle // horse and rider / charging on // regardless’; whilst in ‘Campaign’ it is hard to imagine how anyone could capture more successfully in less than twenty words the futility of war and nature’s indifference to it:

the horse fell

a crow
plucked the eyes

time passed

from a socket

a butterfly

Finally, The Collected Poems is brought to a close by Carson’s 2008 collection For All We Know. A technical tour de force and perhaps the most formally perfect work of poetry that Carson has produced, its anatomy of love and separation is moving to a degree which transcends its virtuosity. The book is divided into two sequences of 35 poems. The title of each poem in the first half is repeated in the same order in the second. Each poem is written in unrhymed couplets of 14, 21, or 42 lines and each line has 14 syllables.  Miraculously, there is no sense of strain as through this maze of sinuous and burnished lines Carson evokes a love affair between an Irishman, Gabriel and a Frenchwoman, Nina.  Moving beyond the narrative techniques first developed in The Irish for No, the story expands to the length of a short novel and has to be pieced together from hints and shifting memories which are reminiscent of the uncertainties of the nouveau roman, most particularly that lyrical obsessiveness one finds in the novels of  Marguerite Duras.

Moreover, like Duras in Moderato Cantabile, and as so often before in Carson’s work, the book is partly inspired by music. In an epigraph to the collection he quotes Glenn Gould’s ‘So you Want to write a fugue?’: ‘Fugue must perform its frequently stealthy work with continuously shifting melodic fragments that remain in the ‘tune sense’ perpetually unfinished’. Carson also emphasises the elegiac nature of his tale by prefacing it with a scrap of French song: ‘Night approaches and my village / slumbers over there in silence / The bell rings and its language / Announces the end of farewells.’ (Carson’s translation.)

From the outset it is not only the reader but the protagonists themselves who are dogged by uncertainty as they try to make sense of a relationship that is complicated by linguistic and cultural differences:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx‘I was grappling
with your language over the wreck of the dining table.

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? Was it because you came from there and I came from here?

One senses, too, in ‘On the Contrary’ that although the relationship is haunted by the lovers’ separate pasts, it may also offer them a means of escape:

It’s because we were brought up to lead double lives, you said.
You were lying next to me, both of us verging on sleep.

We always had to withhold ourselves from the other side,
guarding our tongues lest we answer to their outspoken laws.

And so we lost ourselves in the dark forest of language
believing in nothing which might not be governed by touch

or taste, the apple bursting indescribably with juice
against the roof of the mouth, or the clean cold smell of skin.

Gradually, as the narrative ranges across Paris, Belfast, Dresden and Berlin it takes on the atmosphere of a roman noir, evoking memories of the Cold War and further back to the Nazi occupation of France.  In ‘Shadow’ there is a meeting with a former Stasi agent who explains the difference between truth and lies: ‘You know how you know when someone’s telling lies? … They / get their story right every time… // Whereas when they tell the truth it’s never the same twice… // …they sometimes ask themselves if it happened at all.’  In ‘Je Reviens’ we learn that the  affaire ends in tragedy and see then in ‘Zugzwang’ how Gabriel must struggle endlessly to make sense of it all:

For All we Know is a fitting and triumphant conclusion to Carson’s Collected Poems. Characterised by its consummate artistry, it shows him again breaking new ground, whilst at the same time it resonates with echoes of earlier work such as the image of the patchwork quilt, which first appeared in his pamphlet The Lost Explorer.  A poet who is constantly driven by his need to reinvent himself, there seems to be little he can’t do with language. The iconic poet of Belfast throughout the darkest period of its recent history, he is now, by virtue of his technical brilliance and the depth and range of his emotional impact, one of the most accomplished poets writing in English today.

David Cooke is the editor of The High Window. His most recent collection is Reel to Reel (Dempsey and Windle. 2019).




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