Highly ver­bal po­etry and a painterly, colour-daz­zled eye

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - MARTINA EVANS


Ciaran Car­son’s ret­ro­spec­tive starts with Colm Cille re­cited, a de­light­ful trans­la­tion from the mid­dle Ir­ish. Light and sturdy as a cor­a­cle, the poem spurts up from the heart of Car­son’s oeu­vre, “slen­der-beaked, my pen jets forth/a stream of beetle-coloured ink”.

“Ink” is a key word for Car­son, a metaphor for his highly ver­bal po­etry and his painterly, colour-daz­zled eye. Its stain is ev­ery­where, from its ol­fac­tory pres­ence in the kan­ga­roo pouch of his fa­ther’s post­bag to his ink-soz­zled mem­oir The Star Fac­tory. Like Ham­let (the star of tremen­dous maze-like Belfast noir poem of that ti­tle in Belfast Con­fetti) Car­son is fa­ther-haunted. Un­like Ham­let, the haunt­ing is pos­i­tive. Car­son’s bilin­gual fa­ther, Liam, filled the conches of Car­son’s ears with sto­ries, song and two lan­guages, along with a cine­matic vi­sion en­hanced by tramp­ing the Dedalus labyrinth of an ever-chang­ing Belfast on his post­man’s round. This ti­tle closely echoes the ti­tle of his fa­ther’s mem­oir, Seo, Siúd, agus Siúd Eile, which Car­son trans­lates as, “Here, There, and There again ... Trans­la­tion seems im­plicit in the ti­tle, not least in the sense of mov­ing a thing from one place to an­other.” Fur­ther on, Car­son de­scribes him­self as his fa­ther’s “macasamhla … mean­ing copy or type” and “type” brings us back to ink again – one brush with Car­son’s lu­dic po­etry and you find your­self waltz­ing with the dic­tionary and en­joy­ing it.

Trans­la­tion is cre­ation too – it is not just a mat­ter of copy­ing, although Car­son is no stranger to that monk­ish task ei­ther, hav­ing hand-tran­scribed the en­tire North­ern Ire­land Civil Ser­vice Code Book as a young clerk. Ev­ery word has sev­eral mean­ings in Car­son’s world, ev­ery read­ing comes up with some­thing dif­fer­ent as he si­mul­ta­ne­ously bur­rows down and flies over his na­tive city, a shin­ing ex­am­ple of Calvino’s light­ness, quick­ness and mul­ti­plic­ity. His work em­bod­ies the dinnsean­chas, which is also trans­la­tion; trans­la­tion of each place into a story that keeps chang­ing.

Borges – surely an­other god­fa­ther to Car­son – fa­mously said that good read­ers are rarer than good writ­ers but Car­son is a tremen­dously vis­ual reader too, a con­jurer of aerial views and maps. Look­ing over the pages of this se­lec­tion, one sees the ex­tra­or­di­nary range of his ar­chi­tec­ton­ics since his first pub­li­ca­tion in 1976. From the long line, some­times at­trib­uted to the in­flu­ence of CK Wil­liams, through son­nets, haiku-like triplets, to the short cou­plets that in­voke Wil­liam Car­los Wil­liams, es­pe­cially his rain-washed wheel­bar­row in Breath when the he­li­copter leaves “a clear blue/ space/ above my head/ I feel / rinsed/ clean.”

There are con­ver­sa­tions be­tween poems and con­ver­sa­tions with other po­ets – also a form of trans­la­tion – the ob­vi­ous homage to MacNe­ice in Snow or the barest hint of MacNe­ice when “cur­tains flut­tered” in the The Ir­ish for No, where Keats is ex­plicit. Later Keats is im­plicit, in the poppy-in­duced trances of The Twelfth of Never. Some­times Car­son haunts other po­ets as in Cock­tails –“…when some­one or­dered an­other drink and we en­tered/The realm of Jab­ber­wocks and An­gels’ Wings, Wi­d­ows’ Kisses, Corpse Re­vivers” – when the world is in­deed var­i­ous, sug­gest­ing that Car­son might have in­spired Mul­doon’s abecedar­ian poem, The Birth. The alphabet, of course, is an­other or­gan­is­ing prin­ci­ple in Car­son’s po­etry, bring­ing us back to type and ink again.

Keep­ing time

Form is re­lated to time, as in keep­ing time, which comes from the breath. Breath and breath­ing is a strong pres­ence in many Car­son poems, along with those fright­en­ing sym­bols of mor­tal­ity: clocks, watches and bombs. Time and space con­verge in Belfast Con­fetti, writ­ten when ex­plo­sions were com­mon­place, “And if time is a road, then you’re checked again and again/By a mo­bile check­point. One soldier holds a gun to your head/ An­other soldier/Asks you ques­tions, and an­other checks the in­for­ma­tion/ on the head com­puter.” And time is still deadly in Night Watch, writ­ten dur­ing his wife’s ill­ness, “we are what we re­mem­ber /of each other more than that/the in­cre­ments by which time/ gains on us/& then re­tracts/into a dark­ness that we never /knew till now”.

The fi­nal poem is an­other trans­la­tion of the em­blem­atic The Black­bird of Belfast Lough, whose ghost whis­tles through many Car­son poems, “The lit­tle bird/that whis­tled shrill/ from the nib of/ its yel­low bill…” “Nib” refers to ink again but it is a singing nib, re­mind­ing us that Car­son, like “Mag­is­ter Ludi” in The Shadow, “… is skilled in many dis­ci­plines./ With a lu­mi­nous gold sty­lus he writes a hi­ero­glyph/ on the dark, and so ini­ti­ates a con­stel­la­tion/ from which blos­som count­less oth­ers.”

It is im­pos­si­ble to do jus­tice to breadth and depth of Car­son’s work (which in­cludes fab­u­lous trans­la­tions of The Táin and In­ferno and vol­umes of won­der­ful prose) but this fine com­pre­hen­sive vol­ume is no or­di­nary se­lec­tion. The re­arrange­ment or “there to here” of his poems – which have al­ways spo­ken to each other – calls out clearer and sharper than ever, an in­ter­ac­tive trea­sure chest from one of our great­est liv­ing po­ets.

Martina Evans is a poet and nov­el­ist. Her lat­est book of poems is pub­lished by Car­canet

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Ciaran Car­son: ‘my pen jets forth/a stream of beetle-coloured ink’

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