Knowing the Street Map by Foot: Ciaran Carson's Belfast Confetti
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New Hibernia Review 10.3 (2006) 68-86


Knowing the Street Map by Foot:
Ciaran Carson's Belfast Confetti
Temple Cone
United States Naval Academy

In the essay "Intelligence," which ends the middle section of his fourth book of poems, Belfast Confetti (1989), Ciaran Carson identifies the city of Belfast with the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham's "Panopticon," a model reform prison composed of individual cells equally visible from a central tower, which Bentham described in a 1791 work of the same name. Carson writes, "Keeping people out and keeping people in, we are prisoners or officers in Bentham's Panopticon, except sorting out who's who is a problem for the naïve user, and some compilers are inclined to choke on the mixed mode—panopticons within panopticons." 1 In Carson's Belfast, where English, UDA paramilitary, and Provisional IRA forces routinely conduct surveillance of the citizenry, checking identity, political connections, and personal history, such an equation proves alarmingly apt. The poems in Belfast Confetti are rife with instances of scrutiny and inspection, from roadblocks to security devices in pubs to the daily interrogations of ordinary conversation. But—unlike Bentham's model—the power relations of Carson's Belfast fluctuate. From neighborhood to neighborhood, one may observe or be observed, and negotiating these shifts of power becomes not only a political problem, but an existential and very literal one as well.

Because of Belfast's history of rapid expansion, and because of infrastructural damage resulting from terrorist acts, faithful maps of the city are difficult to construct and quickly become obsolete. "[E]verything is contingent and provisional" (BC 67), Carson writes in "Revised Version," an essay documenting the strange history of Belfast cartography, which features anachronistic maps, premature maps detailing structures and streets not yet built, and maps of places neither proposed nor extant. Navigating the literal as well as the discursive terrain of a city where violence can result from spatial, social, or political trespass makes accurate maps all the more necessary. Throughout Belfast Confetti, Carson [End Page 68] traces different aspects of Belfast's history, including its etymological origins, infrastructure, and material composition, as well as through his and his fictional characters' memories of the city. No one of these discursive "maps" asserts itself as preeminent. The resulting multiplicity reflects not only the city's ever-changing nature, but also the poet's prevailing wariness about committing to a single discourse, especially a political discourse. Belfast's shifting systems of power limit its inhabitants' responses: one may commit to a discourse and risk exposure to expressions of power; leave the city; or, as Carson's narrative persona does, attempt to manage multiple discursive maps simultaneously. Carson provides an important figure for this latter manner of operation in "Barfly" when he speaks of himself as "a hyphen, flitting here and there" (BC 8). This flitting motion characterizes the book's nervous tone, while the hyphen's function of joining together separate nouns in a new combination fits well with Carson's linking of varied discourses and narratives to illuminate the city's power dynamic and to slip in between its constituents.

But rather than removing the individual from the system, this hyphenation requires the subject's presence amidst the varied and conflicting discourses it navigates—a position demanding constant surveillance of the surveillance system itself, at the risk of betrayal or death. Carson manifests this circumspection formally and tonally throughout the book. Belfast Confetti is a formal bric-a-brac, composed of essays that resemble prose poems, translations of Japanese haiku, and the nine-line narrative "sonnet" Carson developed in The Irish for No (1987). Carson's ironic treatment of such familiar Irish themes as the emigrant's nostalgia suggests wariness about cultural stereotypes, while his deployment of puns and clichés applies such wariness to language itself. The book's multiple voices—some easily confused with Carson's own—resist consistent subjectivity, while also expressing their own caution about decisive action.

Fittingly, Carson articulates this cautiousness most fully in...