A deadly sense of comedy
POETRY: On the Night Watchby Ciaran Carson, Gallery Press, 144pp, £20. Collected Poemsby Ciaran Carson, Gallery Press, 596pp, £30. Ciaran Carson:Critical Essays, Ed by Elmer Kennedy-Andrews, Four Courts Press, 288pp, £45.
A COLLECTED POEMS usually defines a moment when poets become less themselves and more of a mappable public commodity. In this way, Ciaran Carson’s Collecteddoes its job; it reminds us that Carson is a poet of sustained authority and resourcefulness, arguably the best writing in English to have emerged in the past 25 years. His new collection, On the Night Watch, however, does something better, as it reasserts his genius for reinvention, an ability to morph his way out of creative deadlock.
By Carson’s standards, his previous volume, For All We Know(2007), could not be considered a complete success. With the self-declared intention of writing a fugue in a book of two equal parts in which a pair of lovers reconstruct their relationship in sonnets or double sonnets using lines of 14 syllables in couplets, Carson’s poetry became something of a mechanical étude. Given the book was effectively a duet, there was disappointingly little or no differentiation between the lover’s voices, and so the variety of tones and shades necessary to the subtlety of the fugue never materialised.
On the Night Watchreturns to the fugue; much less ostentatiously, but far more successfully. The sonnet and couplet have been retained, but now Carson’s line has been radically cut back to the one- or two-word line that he employed so agilely in Breaking News(2003). This minimalisation of utterance obviously suggests disintegration, but the orchestration of this book in fact creates an entirely opposite sense of amplitude. In part, Carson does this by using run-on titles to make musical fluency out of the fracture between the title of the poem and the poem itself, but wholly achieved musicality is resonant in every detail of this fascinating book. In a conventional sense, there are no individual poems in the book. Instead, it is a book-poem, various and laconic at the same. As such, we are brought close to an abiding narrative in Carson’s work, where he expresses an instinct for the potential of poetic language to rebuild the rubble of Babel, something evident throughout the poems, translations and dream-work of his prose books. Carson is connecting us to our deepest grammar, directing readers to a common land of the imagined and the sung, where words have the authority of hard usage and the poet acts to remind us of sounds that we know we have heard before:
Let Us Go Then
through the trip
hand in hand
eyes for nothing
the traps pits
of wasted land
The Eliotic murmurings here are not academic exercises; rather, Carson writes through Eliot to prove the same poet’s assertion that “Art never improves”, and that all poems are reorderings of words you already know by heart. Whereas Carson’s music in earlier books is often confidently superficial, full of instant pyrotechnics, here he demands a deeper listening. As with Paul Celan, the exemplary fugue-poet, Carson is creating a paradoxical sense for us of reading blindfolded, of moving into darkness. These terse little texts promise immediacy but instead communicate that words never stop resounding, no matter how unadorned they may appear. Carson is fixated in this book more than ever on the survivability of language, of its mythic and metamorphic influence. The emotional reality that enlivens this is not the one of carnivalesquecelebration often attributed to his work in the past, however, but rather a Beckettian sense of a gradual weakening of the body while consciousness abides. Certainly, Carson is still playing games, but his sense of comedy has got much more deadly. In the same way that Edward Thomas, whose influence on the volume is acknowledged by Carson, perfected apprehensive pastorals in which landscapes are particularly beautiful because they make us feel that they are menaced, Carson’s graceful music-making is given acuteness and urgency in that he is describing how a life moves into enfeeblement, a routine of scans and tests. In the nocturnal groove of this book, Carson has never sounded so Miltonically mortal, and all he has as a curative is a frail key-note of resistance that resounds throughout the book, “eyebright”, the herb that clears vision.
On the Night Watchis an engrossing and courageous work, and it also typifies the dominant tendency in Carson’s career, which is a pleasing, sometimes confounding, combination of traditional and avant-garde impulses. The Collected Poemsdemonstrates this thoroughly, repackaging all the books that Carson published with Gallery Press up until For All We Know, apart from his books of translations. Indeed, one of the drawbacks of the Collectedis the separation it suggests between his original work and those translations, which earlier books such as Belfast Confetti(1989) and First Language(1993) entirely broke down, with their fusions of Rimbaud, Ovid, Basho and Buson with Carson’s own poems. Carson’s writing in those books is a thoroughly hybrid phenomenon, a domain of riotous and anarchic possibility. In First Languageand The Twelfth of Never(1998), Carson was ribald and apparently random, and it seemed that he was recklessly ludic, even more so in the trippiness of 1996’s Opera et Cetera, his imaginative excursion into the letters of the alphabet. All that riotousness, however, also suggested a political impulse. Carson’s formal breakthrough in not adopting an elegiac mode to write about the Troubles itself prefigured the political breakthrough into a new comic discursivity, a state of speech that has thrown up all sorts of comic combos, such as McGuinness and Paisley as smiling co-guarantors of stability.
CURIOUSLY ENOUGH, however, with the coming of the Pax Hibernica, Carson’s writing has become a much darker and conflicted phenomenon; in Breaking News(2003), his first book of “minimalist” poetry, he had become reticent and materialist to the point of being unbearably so. The work of eyewitness to the violence that he had performed so vibrantly in what still read as the astonishingly here-and-now poems of The Irish for Noand Belfast Confettihad become something much less vicarious and pleasurable. In Breaking News, there is a sense that practically nothing is recoverable from the ruins, and the book is overwhelmed by the shade of Dante, whose InfernoCarson had just finished translating. By comparison, Carson’s amazing poems from The Irish for No, for all that they are enmeshed with the horrors of quotidian violence in 1980s Belfast, seem impossibly energetic and enlivened.
Never having lived outside of Belfast for a significant period, arguably Carson is very much a poet of his province; however, he also voyages within an imaginative mundothat is transnational and fantastic. As such, he performs like a troubadour, rooted in Provence rather than the province; he is a genuine trobar, a finder and maker of word-music that is intermittently rough and tough as well as sublime. His volatility and hyper- productivity has meant that criticism has struggled to cope with the Carson phenomenon, a situation that the welcome publication of Elmer Kennedy-Andrews’s book of essays will hopefully address. With Carson’s sheer mobility of imagination and empassioned learning, it is a struggle for all of us to keep up, but it is a wildly pleasurable struggle.
Michael Hinds is Head of English and Co-Ordinator of the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies at the Mater Dei Institute, Drumcondra. He has just edited the first issue of POST: A Review of Poetry Studies, downloadable free at http://irishcentreforpoetrystudies.materdei.ie