- "I Am This That and the Other":In Memory of Ciaran Carson
Most poets are not innovators. After a book or two, they settle on a path of style and content that simultaneously cements their arrival and suggests what the rest of their writing output may look like. This isn't necessary a bad thing, especially if one agrees that poets resemble philosophers, who are known to mull over the same idea for decades on end. Ciaran Carson, who died on October 6, 2019, just shy of his seventy-first birthday, was less a poet-philosopher than a poet-explorer. His variegated peregrinations in the realms of language and place and memory, which he documented in more than two dozen volumes of poetry and prose, testify to his unsatiated appetite for storytelling and for getting to the heart of things.
Many readers are struck, when first encountering Carson's work, by his ability to combine, in poems such as "Dresden," chattiness with moral and ethical gravitas. Though he started out the way poets often do, by writing quiet lyrics—in Seamus Heaney's vein, as many a critic observed—he's seemed to have quickly realized that all narratives, all the stories we're fed and feed to others, are not linear or neat, especially those that were meant to be told again and again. No poem illustrates this in-betweenness of the story's arc and its supposed moral pulse better than "Belfast Confetti," which begins:
Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining exclamation marks,Nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys. A fount of broken type. And the explosionItself—an asterisk on the map. This hyphenated line, a burst of rapid fire …I was trying to complete a sentence in my head, but it kept stuttering.All the alleyways and side-streets blocked with stops and colons.
This quasi-sonnet, considered, for better or worse, to be Carson's most celebrated poem, is a masterpiece of concision. Yet its reach is both global and timeless. Thrown into the poem unfolding in medias res, we are engulfed by the riot. At a loss for words, the speaker reaches into his writerly tool kit and begins to construe a world by fits and starts while drawing on symbolic uses of orthography and calligraphy. The title may refer to actual projectiles tossed during a riot, but it's our inability to comprehend our surroundings that's really on trial. No wonder, then, that, like a man accused of committing a crime who's [End Page 138] been certain of his innocence up to this point, the speaker begins to question his complicity in his own undoing:
I know this labyrinth so well—Balaclava, Raglan, Inkerman, Odessa Street—Why can't I escape? Every move is punctuated. Crimea Street. Dead end again.A Saracen, Kremlin-2 mesh. Makrolon face-shields. Walkie-talkies. What isMy name? Where am I coming from? Where am I going? A fusillade of question-marks.
The man caught in the riot is part of the problem, isn't it? He is of the place going up in flames, yet his sense of himself is thrown into disarray. The final line, which depicts the speaker coming upon a checkpoint manned by British soldiers who proceed to question him, speaks volumes about the tragedy of the Troubles. If the sane ones among the residents of Belfast can no longer tell heads or tails of what's going on and how the violence has affected the very core of their being, then the way forward appears that much more elusive.
Carson's real-life stutter may have been allegorized in the poem quoted above, but it did not impede his drive to articulate his relationship with his native city, which he loved and studied closely. In Belfast Confetti (1989), which arrived two years after the groundbreaking The Irish for No, the city is presented as a palimpsest of, among other things, memories and symbols. A cross between Walter Benjamin's flaneur and an earnest cartographer, the speaker of these poems and prose sections revels in chance encounters and discoveries, suggesting that circumstances of one's...