The publication of Ciaran Carson’s much anticipated Collected Poems establishes him—for those who still need convincing—as a major poet both within and outside the borders of his native Northern Ireland. The book, which includes eight collections written over the past thirty years, is unlike many volumes of collected poems, which pay homage to the poet’s best years. Carson’s Collected is, by contrast, more overture than coda. Not content to rest on past successes and revisit old forms, Carson offers risky innovations with each new collection, allowing for new readings not only of Northern Ireland but of the poetic line itself.
Carson is less well known to American audiences than his fellow Northern Irish poets Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon, but his renderings of memory, desire, and grief are no less accomplished. Throughout Collected, Carson confidently steers clear of the clichés of violence and eschews the “poet of witness” label as he offers his own testimony of life in Belfast during the worst years of the Troubles.
Carson made his first innovative leap early in his career. His debut collection, The New Estate, is an accomplished exploration of Irish themes, but the influence of other Northern Irish poets, particularly Seamus Heaney, weighs heavily. It was not until his second collection, The Irish for No, that Carson put his own weight behind the long-line form that would eventually dominate his verse. Early triumphs such as “Dresden,” “Belfast Confetti” and “Campaign” have not lost their chilling impact twenty-three years later. In “Dresden,” Carson offered a new way of approaching the horror of the Troubles; through a rambling speaker’s interlocking anecdotes about Ireland and Germany, he created an authentic voice whose careful omissions articulated the toll of violence upon victims and perpetrators:
Of all the missions, Dresden broke his heart. It reminded him of china.
As he remembered it, long afterwards, he could hear, or almost hear
Between the rapid desultory thunderclaps, a thousand tinkling echoes—
All across the map of Dresden, store-rooms full of china shivered, teetered
And collapsed, an avalanche of porcelain, slushing and cascading: cherubs,
Shepherdesses, figurines of Hope and Peace and Victory, delicate bone fragments.
Critics have rightly noted that Carson’s encircling lines—influenced by the Irish reel—destabilize narrative structure and resist our attempts to understand violence. There is no understanding, Carson seems to say; there is only suffering. This message is clear in “Campaign,” which employs a brutal documentary style used seldomly by Northern Irish poets:
They took him to a waste-ground somewhere near the Horseshoe Bend, and told
What he was. They shot him nine times.
A dark umbilicus of smoke was rising from a heap of burning tyres.
The bad smell he smelt was the smell of himself. Broken glass and knotted
The knuckles of a face in a nylon stocking. I used to see him in the Gladstone Bar,
Drawing pints for strangers, his almost perfect fingers flecked with scum.
Carson continued to write in long lines throughout the late eighties and early nineties, while rhyme played an increasingly important role in 1994’s First Language. “Second Language” and “Ballad of HMS Belfast,” two of the most memorable poems from that collection, are written in lengthy couplets with fanciful, Muldoonish rhymes (“camomile/campanile,” “unascertained/concertina’ed,” “Antipodes/aunties,” “incommunicado/Mikado,” “lumière/la mer,” etc.). In the late nineties Carson turned his attention to the sonnet, adapting versions of Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Mallarmé in 1998’s The Alexandrine Plan; that same year he published The Twelfth of Never, a series of sonnets that deconstructed pernicious symbols of Irish nationalism. These poems, such as “Tib’s Eve,” display an unapologetic political edge:
This is the land of the green rose and the lion lily,
Ruled by Zeno’s eternal tortoises and hares,
Where everything is metaphor and simile:
Somnambulists, we stumble through this paradise
From time to time, like words repeated in our prayers,
Or storytellers who convince themselves that truths are lies.
In the next decade, Carson experimented with another new form; 2003’s Breaking News used imagistic short lines influenced by haiku. The poems all lead back to motifs of war, but there are new gestures toward hopefulness that reflect a changing political landscape in Northern Ireland. This collection’s “Campaign,” with its emphasis on renewal, strikes quite a different note from Carson’s earlier poem of the same title:
the horse fell
plucked the eyes
from a socket
Carson changed tacks yet again in 2008 with For All We Know, the last collection in Collected. Here he attempts to write a fugue, just as James Joyce did in the “Sirens” chapter of Ulysses. He uses a mirroring technique in which the first poem in Part One has the same title as the first poem in Part Two, and so on (perhaps a nod to Paul Muldoon’s memorable form in “Incantata”). Though the title is the same, the poems—either single or double sonnets—are told from different perspectives to illustrate one of the guiding principles of the collection: “The lie is memorized, the truth is remembered.” Thus the speaker’s memories of his lost lover Nina move in different directions, none of them more “true” than another. Call it elegy, noir, or a cubist love story—For All We Know pushes the boundaries of the poetic genre, and is Carson’s most ambitious work to date. It is a fitting end to a volume of extraordinary work which, like the fugue in “Zugzwang,” “must reiterate its melodic fragments / in continuously unfinished tapestries of sound.”