We Don’t Know The Half Of It

Ciaran Carson's poetry reaches a new high with For All We Know, writes Ross Moore

Ciaran Carson’s landmark collection, Belfast Confetti (1989), opened with the poem ‘Loaf’. His recent collection of poetry, For All We Know, opens with ‘Second Time Round’. This time around we seem to have come a long way from the McWatters’ pan loaf of the earlier collection:

   Ce n’est pas comme le pain de Paris. There’s no stretch in it,
   you said. It was our anniversary, whether first or last.

   It’s the matter of the texture. Elasticity.
   The crust should crackle when you break the baton

But then, many of Carson’s collections challenge his reader’s expectations in both formal and thematic terms, while remaining remarkably consistent in their preoccupations. By his previous collection, Breaking News (2003), Carson had moved from his earlier long-lined poetry to a pared-back style incorporating lines of often only two or three syllables, which facilitated his evocation of post-ceasefire Belfast, replicating its atmosphere of fragility and tension.

To note that the new collection is ostensibly a love-story between a French woman Nina and the Northern Irish Gabriel, set in 1970s Belfast but spanning Berlin, Dresden, Paris and Versailles, is as surprising as any of Carson’s periodic shifts in poetic procedure. 

'For All We Know' by Ciaran CarsonA precedent may be found in the fact that Carson’s only collected love poem (which appeared in First Language in 1993) was written in Irish but titled in French: ‘La Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi’.

For All We Know relates Gabriel and Nina’s story (though we only learn their names late in the collection) through Gabriel’s recollections. Thus, we pick through fragmented conversations, incidents and repeated details. While the reader struggles to build up the story of this relationship it is apparent that the relationship itself is only a small cog in a bigger wheel. 

The protagonists are frequently apart as their story plays out across a Europe of espionage and paranoia, while scenes shift between Belfast, Dresden and Berlin. The film noir-ish motifs include: ‘a line of solitary footprints leading to a porch’, train journeys when ‘The Wall was not that long / down’, an ‘aunt who had died for the Résistance’ and numerous unknown rendezvous (‘though I could not remember whose decision it had been / to meet as designated strangers on a bare platform’).

At times the reader feels like a puzzle-woman:

   As the negotiators end by drawing up a form
   of words which can be claimed by both sides as a victory;

   as on a factory floor in the former East Berlin
   the puzzle women puzzle together the shredded files;

   as the door handle is sprinkled with fingerprint powder
   to trace the guilty hand among so many innocent

   (‘Zugzwang’ Part One) 

Certain scenes become the focus for multiple poems, while between poems the same incidents recur, although viewed from different angles. Identical lines crop up throughout the collection but carry different connotations. Motifs appear and re-appear, sometimes in passing, frequently as the focal point of an individual poem. They all carry their own portent: Mont Blanc pens, Omega watches, L’Air du Temps perfume. 

This repetition and doubling is facilitated by the formal construction of the collection. The 70 poems are divided into two parts, with Part Two repeating the titles of Part One and arranging them in the same order. Each of the poems are in sonnet form, sometimes occurring as double sonnets and once as a triple sonnet; lines are paired into (predominately) unrhymed couplets. Each line is 14 syllables long with seven stresses. (After his earlier explorations with the alexandrine line, Carson is here experimenting with the ‘fourteener’). These numerical and formal pairings and repetitions facilitate and reflect the pairings and repetitions of the conversations and situations throughout the collection.

Such intricate formal ordering throws the reader an implicit challenge as to how the collection should be read. Unusually for a book of poems, it seems important that they should be read straight through, allowing the wealth of detail to accumulate. However, by the time you reach Part Two you inevitably start reading the poems in pairs, checking back to note if Part Two’s ‘On the Contrary’ proves contrary with that of Part One. It repays close reading as the accumulated details, their subtle repetition and connections quickly prove absorbing.

This collection has been referred to as a verse novel, something it is not, and we might do better to fall back on the blurb’s description of For All We Know as a ‘novelistic book’. The collection’s final couplet (‘so I return to the question of those staggered repeats / as my memories of you recede into the future’) forms the basis for the book’s procedures. The novelistic strategies employed makes the collection as a whole unusually compelling, while the narrative (the story of Nina and Gabriel), rather than being indicative of a coherent plot to be resolved, provides instead a poetic structure for the collection itself.

Such strategies are reflected by the collection’s epigraph and the frequent references to the musical form of fugue. Carson quotes Glenn Gould:

Fugue must perform its frequently stealthy work with continuously shifting melodic fragments that remain, in the ‘tune’ sense, perpetually unfinished. 

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