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Taking Liberties

Ross Moore

From There To Here: Selected Poems and Translations, by Ciaran Carson, Gallery Press, 201 pp, €13.90, ISBN: 978-1911337492

This volume appears ten years after Ciaran Carson’s Collected Poems and it has been a busy interval for the author. In the decade since his Collected appeared, Carson has published four new poetry collections along with two novels, The Pen Friend and Exchange Place. This productivity provides one raison d’être for the appearance of Selected Poems; another may be the symmetry of the Collected Poems marking his sixtieth birthday and this Selected his seventieth: it’s a type of correspondence that sits easily with the mirror and shadow arrangements common to Carson’s poetry collections.

From There To Here emphasises the importance of translation to Carson. The volume opens and closes with Irish translations. Of the seven poems taken from First Language three are versions (from Ó Ríordáin, Rimbaud and Baudelaire) while two of those selected from Opera et Cetera are after the Romanian of Stefan Augustin Doinas. Carson’s volumes of translations, The Alexandrine Plan (with versions after Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Baudelaire) along with the two recent collections In the Light Of (verse translations of Rimbaud) and From Elsewhere (translations from and versions after Jean Follain), are well-represented.

In a contemporaneous review on the publication of Belfast Confetti (1989), Sean O’Brien wrote: “It might sound odd to say so, but it’s rare to find a book of poems whose subject-matter is in itself as interesting as this one’s.” It’s still an apt observation, some thirty-odd years on, and we can note the extent to which subject and form both play off and shape each other in Carson’s work. This results in poetry which radically evolves with each new collection, but despite this many of his major concerns and tropes have remained surprisingly constant. His reformulations take place on a deeper level than changing the topic at hand. As such, Carson’s interest in early Irish poetry (along with an interest in haiku and, probably, the work of early Derek Mahon) lend the poems of his first collection, The New Estate (1976), an unadorned lucidity. By the time of his second collection, The Irish For No (1987), the rambling, digressive attributes of Irish traditional music and song influenced both the narrative nature of the poems and the structure of the lines. Indeed traditional music, with its ethos of continual change within definite formal frameworks and repetitions, has frequently provided the terms for discussion of Carson’s poetry. The shaping of the lines of the poems of Belfast Confetti, poems which were often set in pubs, and which relayed fragmented conversations and Troubles-related lore, were influenced by the rhythms of bar-talk, or, as Carson attested, by the poetry of CK Williams.

Part of the sheer interest of Carson’s subject matter, in his collections of the late 1980s, came from his evocations of the lived texture of Belfast. Not explaining it as much as writing out of it (to paraphrase the poet). Often the immediacy of poems from The Irish For No and Belfast Confetti was achieved by dropping the reader into the midst of an ongoing narrative. More often than not the narratives are relayed as a story being told, a conversation being heard, or (crucially) a memory being dredged by a narrator confronted with its associations, their peculiarities and particularities triggering trails of remembrance. These poems are not lyric meditations on the conflict or the political situation. They are, however, necessarily and fascinatingly immersed in it.

“Cocktails”, collected here from 1987’s The Irish For No, is emblematic of some of these procedures. It opens in the middle of the action: “Bombing at about ninety miles an hour with the exhaust … / … skittering …” the protagonists “… hit … /    the ramp and sailed / Clean over the red-and-white guillotine of the checkpoint …”  Except, as the reader almost immediately realises, they are not in the middle of the action but in the middle of a story relaying the action (“So / The story went: we were in the Whip & Saddle bar of the / Europa.”) But the telling, the reader suspects, isn’t long after the event being mythologised in the pub may have occurred. This feeling of immediacy, as we read second-person speech from characters who may not (but likely may) know what they’re talking about, is one of the distinctive accomplishments of these collections.

As authentic as the dialogue is the black irony of the poem, the title “Cocktails” playing on the distance between its evocation of a fun night out and the reality of the conversation engaged in on these nights out (as they tell of “someone who was shot nine times and lived”). Notably, as darkly named cocktails are ordered and the characters enter “The realm of Jabberwocks and Angels’ Wings, Widows’ / Kisses, Corpse Revivers”, their own bleak stories are being mocked. In this, Carson’s poems capture the subtlest of mannerisms: they replicate not just the essence of the speech but incorporate the self-deprecating undertow of Belfast humour of the period (a characteristic all but absent today).

Also collected from Belfast Confetti is “Hamlet”, a poem which will doubtless continue to be much anthologised. In just over three pages (admittedly in fifteen-seventeen-syllable lines) Carson ranges from etymologies of the Falls, urban lore, the Spanish Armada, the Troubles of the 1920s, to the contemporaneous conflict. The topics are myriad, but the connections apparently seamless. As the protagonist in “The Clock Bar” moves from listening to a story “The comrade on my left was telling” to pondering the year a building mentioned in the story was knocked down, these shifts in perception draw the reader into what the poem describes as “the beer-and-whiskey / Tang of now”. From there, we are carried through the narrative by seemingly effortless associations: a £10 note “drowns” in Guinness slops on the bar counter, leaving a stain around the insignia of the sinking of the Girona, leading the narrator to a contemplation of the salamander brooch from the wreck, which leads to the image of a bomb-disposal expert, in a suit of salamander cloth. As much as we follow the digressions of talk, we follow the digressions and associations of memory. “Hamlet” also demonstrates what often, slightly paradoxically, goes unmentioned in discussions of Carson’s technical inventiveness, the not infrequent instances where the sheer poetry of his language is displayed:

Like the spiral blossom of Andromeda: so suddenly are shrouds
and branches
Hung with street lights, celebrating all that’s lost, as fields are
By the Starry Plough. So we name the constellations, to put
a shape
On what was there; so, the storyteller picks his way between
the isolated stars.

Amongst such imagery, in the few lines quoted, a reader might still note the likely puns on the flag of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, or even, potentially, references to Henry Glassie’s folklore writings (and isn’t the Michael McLaverty novel, too, referenced in the lines above?) But none of this detracts from the opulence of the lines themselves. If any future anthologist were to decide to replace Carson’s “Hamlet” with another from the period, the main contender would probably be “Ambition”, also included here. Wonderfully, the slightly more atypical (and utterly evocative) “Snow” also features.

Retrospectively, First Language, from 1993, appears a pivotal collection in Carson’s oeuvre. “Pivotal”, in that it strikes a balance between Carson’s past procedures while tipping forward into new forms and methods that would inform his future output. So, the subject matter and long-lines of The Irish for No and Belfast Confetti remain but now they are joined with insistent and often outrageously inventive rhymes. Take “The Ballad of HMS Belfast” for example, which rhymes “White Ensign” with “were insane”, “Enterprise” with “prose”, and “unascertained” with “concertina’ed”. “Protholics”, maybe unsurprisingly, are paired with “alcoholic”. It also places an emphasis on translation and while “From the Welsh” is not included here, “The Albatross” (after Baudelaire) and “Drunk Boat”, (after Rimbaud), are. These led to the versions of Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Mallarmé in his 1998 collection The Alexandrine Plan. It also led to an extended exploration of the Alexandrine form in the collection The Twelfth of Never, which, published in the bicentennial year of the 1798 rebellion, merges the French form with French and Irish ideas of liberty and revolution, folksong and Napoleonic Wars (but this is to make things sound too neat, when the results are often hallucinogenic).

There is a logic, then, or at least a continuity, to the reinventions and renewed procedures between collections. However, this doesn’t detract from the initial surprise readers may have felt encountering formally crafted Alexandrines at this stage in Carson’s career. Carson was going against a more conventional path of poetic development, whereby a nervously formal poet loosens into a freer aesthetic (as in the trajectory of, say, Thom Gunn’s work). But Carson’s development took a more dialectical path, the restrained, well-crafted poetry of his first collection, The New Estate (1976), giving way, a decade later, to his characteristic digressive and long-lined collections The Irish For No and Belfast Confetti. Not only, then, had Carson already moved from carefully crafted verse into a more expansive, inclusive poetic, but the formally exact Alexandrines which appeared in 1998 were also the poems which saw his techniques carry their greatest risks. His explorations of the concept of liberty in The Twelfth of Never took their own liberties with temporal, conceptual and even, at times, grammatical sense. Typically, too, when Carson utilises form most stringently, it often facilitates outrageously off-the-wall rhymes. The relation between The Alexandrine Plan and The Twelfth of Never highlights the central importance of the idea of “translation” to Carson’s work. Translation is never a side project to this poet, as the manner in which his translations in the former collection fuelled the Alexandrine structured poems of the latter attests. Time and again “translation” proves to be central to the work, as exemplified by From Elsewhere (2014), where translations from the French poet Jean Follain are paired with poems that take the translations as their starting point. “Translations of the translations, in other words”, as Carson writes in the endnotes.

The short poems of Breaking News (2003) brought another formal reinvigoration: while some of these poems shared the imagist ethos of William Carlos Williams, the manner in which they emphasised and utilised blank space within the structure of the poem anticipated more the sustained pared-back language and syntactical experiments of Carson’s later collections, On The Night Watch (2009) and Until Before After (2010). “Breath”, for example, in its entirety reads:

watching / helicopter // gone // there’s a / clear blue // space // above / my head // I feel // rinsed // clean // you know / that quiet // when the / washing-machine // stops / shuddering

The collection is represented well in From There to Here by poems that never fail to describe “that quiet” of post-ceasefire, late 1990s Belfast in its tenser moments and locations. His re-imaginings of procedures allows Carson’s poetry to remain absolutely true to the graduations of changing circumstances in front of him. This fidelity is gained through a real engagement of form and content.

Carson’s 2008 collection, For All We Know, is focused on Troubles-era Belfast but through the lens of a relationship between French and Northern Irish protagonists, all the while panning a Europe of espionage and paranoia. The film noir motifs and novelistic tone of the collection make it a lot of fun, but with a highly intricate formal construction that is shadowed in miniature by the careful selection that features in From There To Here. For a collection where the accumulated pairings, details and echoes make for absorbing reading, it is notable how well the poems selected here stand as successful individual entities. The selection also maintains a flavour of the original volume’s larger project. In these poems where “we became our own shadowy police watching us”, the “double lives” of the North of Ireland and Europe during the Cold War mirror and intermingle. As Breaking News aligned Belfast with a context of global conflict, For All We Know similarly situates Carson’s city in a pan-European world of espionage and surveillance. Belfast still, but not as we know it. The sustained dialogue between the two protagonists, Nina and Gabriel, is unique in Carson’s work and it is often as funny as it is fascinating.

On the Night Watch (2009) and Until before After (2010) are highly organised collections, wherein the individual poems consist of language pared back to such a degree that both syntax and space are emphasised. Carson explores the convoluted progress of time during the fraught period of his wife’s illness. The arrangement of each of these collections is highly technical: Until Before After has groups of three poems organised in three larger groups of seventeen, together forming three sections of fifty-one poems. The mathematical precision of the arrangement of the collection, allied to the sparsity of the language, can appear daunting. Given this, the selection included in From There To Here may entice readers to appreciate anew the sheer clarity and beauty of many of these poems. Poems such as “I open the door” (Until Before After) which relates a homecoming after illness: “… / so slowly I bring / you heavy // step by step up / the seventeen // steps of that / flight once trodden // so swiftly as / year over year // to our room / full of light”.

Carson’s later collections increasingly rely on the accumulations and mirrorings which their structures encourage. Much of the power of For All We Know lay in its reverberations, the allusions that flickered between poems, and this is all the more true of these later collections where “eyebright” recurs consistently and “the rain beats / on the rain”. In “Watch” from On the Night Watch, the surveillance helicopter, common to Carson’s earliest collections, performs a kind of vigil:

a beam / of intermittent / light flits / across // the window night / after night //
touching / your face //
through / the helicopter //
noise I can / still hear //
the tick / of the clock

And just a few pages back in the current volume is the poem “On the Contrary” from For All We Know. The placing attests to the care taken in the selection for this collection, as well as to Carson’s formal felicity. The scene is similar:

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 …

as the searchlight trawls across the bedroom window you turn
towards me speechlessly and we look into each other’s eyes.

The situations are interchangeable, the components almost identical, but formally and tonally the poems are worlds apart.

While the publication of Collected Poems in 2008 gave pause to consider the remarkable breadth and poetic range of Carson’s achievement thus far, it also emphasises his remarkable productivity, witnessed by the fact that, ten years on, it is already short four collections. In the more confined room of the current volume of selected poems, the range his poetry travels is brought even more clearly to light, along with the manner in which so much of Carson’s work reflects and gestures back even as it reinvents. So, from the collection In the Light Of, his version of Rimbaud’s “Fleurs” is not only entitled “Snow”, reflecting the MacNeice poem which Carson referenced in his own poem of the same name, but it also brings the two together, ending on “great crowds of white roses rising in crescendo”, which elicits MacNeice’s “snow and the huge roses”, which occur, to quote Carson’s “Snow”, “in another era”. In From Elsewhere, the beautiful Follain translation “October Thoughts” becomes “Throwback”, which looks back – ironically, but also tenderly – across the page at its progenitor and whose last line both concludes the poem perfectly and, on first encounter, makes the reader catch their breath:

Children throwing stones
and bottles over the brick wall
topped with broken bottles
ruby amber green
need not know who
drank the wine
all those years ago
nor what lies on the other side
except that it throws back.



Ross Moore completed his PhD at N.U.I., Galway.  He writes occasional articles and reviews on contemporary literature. He lives in Belfast.



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