Lingering on the threshold
POETRY: COLIN GRAHAMreviews Until Before AfterBy Ciaran Carson Gallery Press, 121pp. €13.90 pbk, €20 hbk
IN RECENT YEARS Ciaran Carson has written books of poetry that are determinedly books rather than collections. Each has its own sound and rhythm, and each has an intricate coherence. Until Before Afterconsiders death and the loss of someone who is so central to life that time and meaning become almost incomprehensible when they are gone. It is a tender, sometimes melancholy book, and it is one of Carson’s most brilliant.
The poems in Until Before Afterappear simple and succinct. Carson continues the short-lined couplet form used in last year’s acclaimed On the Night Watch. He repeats, too, the overlapping syntax and lack of punctuation that characterised that book. But the poems in Until Before Afterare also part of a larger structure. They are grouped in threes on facing pages, and the book is in three sections, ‘Until’, ‘Before’ and ‘After’ – the word “until” appears in every poem in ‘Until’, “before” in every poem in ‘Before’, and “after” in each poem in ‘After’, drawing attention to the tripartite structure of the book, and suggesting that a greater pattern is at work.
The first poem in Until Before Aftertells us that it is “the same / old story / but not / as we know / it” and that we can find “the key on / the verge of / these words”. Like in some arcane numerological text, if we turn to the “verge of / these words”, or the final poem in the book (“I open the door”), we find the poet bringing the person whose illness he has kept vigil over “slowly oh / so slowly” “up the seventeen steps”. It is an image of a final homecoming, written in the beautifully halting language that Carson has mastered in his recent work. It is also a number game. The groups of three poems are arranged in larger groups of 17, which in turn make up each of the three sections of 51 poems.
The “seventeen steps”, then, refers not only to this difficult return to home in death but also to this book as an attempt to understand the dread of arriving at this “threshold”. We might go even further with the serious play on numbers and do our multiplication. Three sections of 51 poems means there are 153 poems in Until Before After. In mathematics, 153 is the 17th triangular number. That is, 153 can be arranged as an equilateral triangle with 17 of its numbers on each side. So Until Before Afterends with a climb of 17 steps to a summit. The number 153 also has a biblical resonance. In John’s Gospel, the resurrected Christ commands his disciples to cast their empty net to the right side of their boat (the word “cast” is repeatedly used in these poems, as is a plethora of ways of catching fish). The disciples bring up 153 fish, a much argued-over moment in theology when it seems that John (like Carson) uses the number to signify the full extent of the earthly world, as there were reputedly 153 known species of fish in New Testament times.
So Until Before Afterstrives for a meaningful structure, just as its poems search for a meaning beyond life and after death. A scattering of poems in the volume cite, sometimes verbatim, parts of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s journals, and it is as if they are envious of the replete confidence of Hopkins’s charged, religious language. Similarly, several poems seem to allude to Thomas Jones’s painting A Wall in Naples(1782), wishing to reach the elongated rectangle of blue sky, and freedom, at the top of Jones’s canvas. Carson contemplates time’s passing and time’s ending in the dropping of pebbles into water, the ringing of bells, the measurement of natural elements.
The deliberate hesitancy of these poems takes them again and again to the “threshold” of enlightenment, or the possibility of hearing something that language cannot say. Until Before Afternever crosses that threshold, but it reaches its own summit.
It is a book constructed with an intelligent complexity that leads to the purest of poetic simplicity. Even by Carson’s high standards, it is a wonderful achievement.
Colin Graham is co-editor of the Irish Review. He lectures in English at NUI Maynooth