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Shadow Poems

From Elsewhere, by Ciaran Carson, The Gallery Press, 192 pp, €11.50, ISBN: 978-1852356064

Ciaran Carson – prolific, compulsive, and protean in his interests and ambitions ‑ brings us a by-now annual collection. This time it’s ‘From Elsewhere’ – poems from the French of Jean Follain. But it’s not a straight collection of translations. Nothing is what it seems in a Carson book. Follain’s poems and the translations Carson makes of them offer him something of a “rabbit hole” to another world. In other words, he has reacted to his own translations with a response poem and created a strange wavering, living mirror of a poem. Carson admits that the doubling process was suggested by his earlier noirish and novelistic collection For All We Know – a kind of smoke and mirrors book, Chandleresque in its romance. Doubles, labyrinths, mazes and counterfeits – it’s the world of a myth-maker, a chronicler, and a trickster.

Carson calls the poems he’s based on his own translations “spins” or “takes”: translations of translations. He talks about how “humble, resonant and mysterious” Follain’s poems are in his introduction, and it can’t but help prompt one to think what Follain would have made of Carson translating the poems, and then unpacking the translation into a poem of his own when Follain, as Carson tells us, was so attached to his own native language that he “declared himself  unable to learn any other”. It’s another extra dimension to the playful ‑ and deadly serious ‑ enterprise: the poem behind the poem. These poems have something of a poker face about them. For one, we find in Carson’s notes that, for all Follain’s mistrust of the English language, he was an admirer of John Clare’s poetry and praises Clare’s transparency: “the near absence of metaphor in a poetry where all things are equal in the field of vision, words touching things directly”.

Such an apparent contradiction of declared interests must have delighted Carson when he discovered them. His own fascination with languages began with his upbringing in the Irish language, and his father’s immersion in Esperanto ‑ such a heady mix, together with the political divisions within Northern Ireland and how they inform(ed) the relationship between politics and language means that Follain’s world is a sympathetic and living arena for Carson’s interventions.

Take for example, the opening poem which addresses the very boundaries by which a life is circumscribed by a “home” language – while the character in “Shoelace Tied” has “no slack in his life / no trace of absence” “as he bends to tie his shoe-lace”, his shadow, the boy from “Out”, mirrored on the opposite page, in a parallel life, has walked to beyond the “end of the world … after his people”:

scoured the fields for miles around
crying his name
to the four winds
to no reply
at twilight they found him
where he’d last been seen
standing in the stable yard
unable to say anything
about where he had been
in that full circle he had walked
beyond ‘out’
having no words
for what he had seen
beyond those that were of home.

Carson avoids an act of impersonation ‑ what Nabokov described as one of the possible pitfalls of translation ‑ when: “Instead of dressing up like the real author, he dresses up the author as himself.” And while there is an interesting elision of the first person in both Follain, the translations and spin-offs, there is still the recognisable inflection of the Belfast poet’s voice – tender, dogged, whimsical, and wistful ‑ -together with a timeless, wilful yearning for something which seems at once ungraspable, and unattainable – with echoes here of Miłosz, and there of Borges.

Even though it may have been a chance discovery for Carson ‑ Carson has “fetched” the poems, as he describes the process, and his are “a shadowy counterpart to Follain’s” ‑ Carson knows of Follain’s admission that had he been born a year later than 1914 his poetry would not have been what it was: “a memorial to a lost world”. We could perhaps argue that were Carson not born in the era he was born in, his poetry would not be what it is: Follain’s “Ruin” becomes Carson’s “Riot”, his “Black Meat” becomes the other’s “The Hunt” – so that all things are equal by extension and an expansive space, an historic and imaginative hinterland, is created. For example the “fleeting kiss upon the lips” in Follain’s “Through the Fields” becomes “the mouth of gun” in Carson’s. And all the time there is gathering throughout the three-part collection the threat of violence; so much so that it becomes inescapable and all-pervasive – war may be a rumbling sound in the distance in the Follain translations, but in the Carson “spin offs” the echo is louder and more threatening even if it is as something recalled, even if it is something “from elsewhere” because it has been a defining and historic set of images Carson’s work has hardly ever been able to side-step or evade – cue the helicopters, guns, bombs, armoured cars, and rifles emerging in a dizzying mirage of historical invocation:

In the middle of the night
comes the clattering of the type-writer
spattering the page with words
the whole house shuddering
under the onslaught the Dresden milkmaid figurine
falls from the mantelpiece
and shatters on the hearth
the fox in the back yard
scatters the mop and bucket
and runs for cover
under the trembling
stars echoing
far off gunfire.
‑ “Covert”

It’s a world where even the act of writing, the effort of the imagination and inscription itself is likely to reflect the conflict without, as well as the conflict within: the borders between inner and outer are made permeable, in the same way that the temporal link which has been forged between Carson and Follain has been made and unmade.

There’s no doubting the technical mastery and the imaginative invention of Carson’s work. I found the introduction so illuminating, but brief, that I yearned for more from Carson the critic and essayist. It seems most of his output has gone into creative work, poetry and novels, but I can’t help imagine what his prose on poetry would be like – the “clattering”, “splattering”, and “shuddering” of the typewriter and what it might say: a corrective to something he once said when we discussed a memoir of common interest: Lies, lies, lies!

Paul Perry’s latest collection, published by Dedalus Press, is Gunpowder Valentine: New and Selected Poems.



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