We Don't Know The Half of It part 2

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

As with the music, so with this collection of poetry. The fugue rewards close attention, but by definition it will not resolve. This applies to For All We Know and can have a disorientating effect on the reader. As these lines from ‘The Shadow’ (Part One) put it:

   You’ve told me this story more than once, more than once telling
   me something I never heard before until then, telling

   it so well I could almost believe I was there myself,
   for all that I was at the time so many miles away.

Take ‘Redoubt’ (Part One), for example. On first reading it appears as though Gabriel has met a Polish businessman in a hotel bar. Further into the collection, with the poem ‘To’ (Part One), it becomes apparent that the incident involved Nina. Here, Carson seems to have a laugh at the expense of his own procedures (‘Remember the fountain pen rep you met in wherever? / I said. Dresden, you said. I thought it was Berlin, I said. // I’d just come from there, you said…). As reader you are constantly wondering what you have missed, or just where you heard an incident or a line before, and this helps engender a peculiar empathy with characters, who themselves, it is made clear, ‘don’t know the half of it’. Readerly uncertainty regarding the narrative is reflected in the protagonist’s hesitations, retellings and rememberings. Ultimately, For All We Know is concerned with the processes of memory and forgetting.

Technically, Carson’s lines are as accomplished as ever. Sometimes the poems carry an understated humour, accentuated by ingenious use of very occasional rhyme, ‘Le Mot Juste’ (Part One) begins:

   Still the interminable wrestle with words and meanings?
   you said. I’d an idea you were quoting from something.

   But from what? Rather than answer, I put my pen aside
   and poured the miniature jug of milk into my coffee.

   You watched over it quizzically as it became au lait.
   Wouldn’t you rather talk about your day? I said at length.

As with all Carson’s work, we frequently come upon gorgeously lyrical lines. As in ‘The Assignation’ (Part One):

   I envisaged the violet air that presages snow,
   the dark campaniles of a city beginning to blur... 
   The statues were shrouded in Lenten violet, save one,
   a Virgin in a cope of voile so white as to be blue.

Many of the most lyrical sections seem to carry the shade of the collection’s other epigraph, an anonymous French song which prefaces the book. Carson translates part of this as ‘Night approaches and my village / Slumbers over there in silence / The bell rings, and its language / Announces the end of farewells.’ ‘Le Mot Juste’ (Part Two) has the ‘Snow falling interminably, irrevocably on / the little village in a song your mother used to sing.’ ‘Second Time Round’ (Part One) repeats the allusion: ‘La nuit s’approche, you said, and then I saw the parish church // below the Alps of those three words, and snow falling, a bell / tolling as their farewells dimmed into the gathering dusk.’

'For All We Know' by Ciaran CarsonAll the Alpine imagery might put Carson aficionados in mind of poems such as ‘Victor’ or ‘Z’ from Opera et Cetera (1996). This was another collection in which doubling and repetition proved intrinsic to the structure of the collection. The first section of the collection was titled after the letters of the alphabet, the third after radio operator’s code. So, we have ‘A’ later reflected in ‘Alpha’. Is it also where we first met Nina? In For All We Know’s ‘Fall’ (Part Two) we first get the character’s names: ‘I’m Miranda, you said, though some people call me Nina’. ‘S’, from the 1996 collection, has another Miranda, who, like Nina, has a few identities (‘You were prox- / Opera, the roles that you insinuated into..’.) and who was defined by her absence (‘I felt I was the silent s in aisle. And where were you, / Miranda? Hush.) Who can tell? In an end-note to For All We Know, Carson claims to have mis-remembered, and thus mis-translated, a line of the previously quoted French song. For a collection based on memory and recollection, the incident seems appropriate.

Carson’s brand of lyricism can glean the picaresque from untraditional quarters. He has always been a redoubtably urban poet. Take ‘Pas de Deux’ (Part One):

   as with the glow of our cigarettes we’d scrawl neon signs
   to each other on the dark, the words fading instantly

   as written, comprehended by the eye in retrospect
   as over us a helicopter drowned conversation.

The lines which follow on from the above immediately undermine the lyricism, with an abrupt shift of register which denies any notion of the personal as possible refuge from the political (‘That was the kind of spin that passed for dialogue back then, / one side revolving the other’s words for other meanings, /or sidestepping the issue, demanding actions instead.’) Within a few lines Carson adroitly changes tone again and the poem ends with this image of intimacy and guardedness:

   the second-hand pencil skirt on your side of the wardrobe,
   the second-hand tweed jacket brushing against it on mine.

After the publication of Carson’s landmark collections from the late 1980s, The Irish For No and Belfast Confetti, the critic Neil Corcoran wrote of his work: ‘There is a continuous large effort under way here, one that may well turn out to be among the most enduring artistic products of Northern Ireland since 1968’. Today both the importance, and essential coherence, of Carson’s multi-faceted work is still more apparent. No one else has caught the zeitgeist of the Belfast of recent decades in the way Carson has, nor have they so accurately portrayed the sense of the city as simultaneously surreal and commonplace. In ‘Fall’ (Part Two) the protagonists, after witnessing an explosion, retire to the pub:

   We were sequestered in The Crown after the explosion,
   illuminated by the emerald and ruby glass

   of its famed windows. You’d never seen anything like it,
   carved heraldic beasts gazing at you from the reredos... 

   By now the gaslight had flickered on in dim pearly globes
   and I was about to tell you about my mother’s War

   when there was a general hush for the News coming on,
   all eyes swivelling to watch it again in slow motion.

While capturing such specifics, For All We Know internationalises Belfast, its Troubles and resolutions, by situating it within a wider European framework. In this sense Carson carries on the project of Breaking News (2003) where he explored the city in relation to the wider context of global conflict. For All We Know extends this process. Here, the specifics of the conflict are rendered through a personalised story that stretches across Europe. The anecdotes frequently involve eastern Europe before the Wall came down, or a Paris redolent of the Résistance. Often the allusions can be very subtle. For example, Carson uses the word ‘happenstance’ more than once throughout the collection (‘By happenstance she led me to the woodcutter’s cottage’ / ‘By happenstance we’ll go into a little palace there,’). In itself this gestures towards eastern Europe, recalling the poem ‘Séance’ written by the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska in the early 1990s (which used the device of a personified ‘Happenstance’).

Risking error, I’ll assume that Nina is involved in some form of European espionage and that Gabriel is not to be taken as a direct protagonist in the Northern Irish conflict. By this reading, the suggestion may be that Nina’s numerous rendezvous, circumspect speech and uncertain identity, reflects (or reflected), to some extent, aspects of quotidian Northern Irish existence. Some poems lean towards such a comparison. ‘On the Contrary’ (Part One) begins:

   It’s because we were brought up to lead double lives, you said.
   You were lying next to me, both of us verging on sleep.

   We always had to withhold ourselves from the other side,
   guarding our tongues lest we answer to their outspoken laws.

But mainly such comparisons are achieved through the structure of the collection, as poems switch between Belfast and other European locations. Frequently, the tropes also function metaphorically, exploring relationships or the nature of travel. As with ‘Treaty’ (Part One), for example:

   Remember those radiating pathways of Versailles where
   you confessed yourself happy to be known to none but me?

   Whereas here the insignia are all too familiar
   and country roads are walked in circumspection to music

   in order to encompass the other’s territory … 

Or ‘Redoubt’ (Part Two):

   Your eyes dropped. Still he said nothing. When I looked up,
     he’d gone.
   I went to pack and check out. I never saw him again.

   I looked at you. I wonder what became of him, you said,
   looking into my eyes as once you might have done with him.

Carson’s poems have always paid great attention to the spoken word, whether taking their cue from the devices of story-telling or replicating the patterns of speech. This collection is no exception. Its structure gives space for some great dialogue, musings on dialogue, and in particular on bilingualism, a long-standing preoccupation of the writer. Carson has always had a great ear for local speech, as evident in ‘The Anniversary’ (Part One): ‘… Well, he said, this make was recommended to me / by a guy who knows watches. It’s the last word in watches.’) Throughout, speech is handled deftly. In ‘From Your Notebook’ (Part Two) he captures Nina’s petulance, as expressed through her second language, perfectly, utilising the repetition of a simple, but precisely measured, phrase:

   I’m using the dressing table as a dummy keyboard
   as I write. One of his more simple fugues, if you must know.

Three couplets on: 

   If you must know, I’m not writing this with a Mont Blanc pen.
   I refused it when the agent took it from his pocket.

   He must have thought I was willing enough to begin with.
   The telephone rings and I let it ring and ring and ring.

Not only is the phrase ‘if you must know’ pitched perfectly to capture Nina’s tone of annoyance, but both the mood and the repetition are picked up by the detail of the phone ringing out at the end.

Carson explores and laughs at his themes simultaneously. ‘The Shadow’ (Part Two) is a tricky poem whose theme is a tricky novel (Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game). Carson gently mocks his protagonists, and the whole project, but he can’t resist the bad, inevitable, pun:

   I kept wondering where you were and what you were thinking.
   As did I of you, you don’t know the half of it, you said.

   Isn’t that the trouble? That I don’t know the half of it?
   Sometimes I wonder if we speak the same language, I said.

The breadth and range of Carson’s poetry is extraordinary, on all sorts of levels. New collections frequently herald new explorations of form; his poems draw on a range of cultural forms, and touch all manner of subjects. Here, some of the collection’s most powerful poems, such as ‘Never Never’ (Part One), draw on European fairytale (but have a turn of phrase more reminiscent of his collection First Language than of the ballad-inspired The Twelfth of Never). 

Given this range, it seems incredible that, for all the deviations, Carson is now producing virtuoso poems that circle the territory of The Irish For No or Belfast Confetti. And yet they are completely of the moment. ‘Peace’ (Part One) ends on a brutal, haunting image:

   And all the unanswered questions of those dark days come back
   to haunt us, the disabled guns that still managed to kill,

   the witnesses that became ghosts in the blink of an eye.
   Whom can we prosecute when no one is left fit to speak?

   I read in this morning’s paper, you said, of a stables
   in England which had been set on fire. An eyewitness spoke

   of horses whinnying, of hooves battering on the doors,
   doors padlocked and bolted against all possible escape.

‘Through’ (Part One), contemplates the ‘rubble’ of the previous decades and ends with a striking couplet which finds the protagonist remembering the ‘Graveside by graveside’ of funerals where:

   I shake hands with men I have not shaken hands with for years,
   trying to make out their faces through what they have become.

As with all of Carson’s poetry, this collection is essential. No one else is doing anything like it.

Click here to buy For All We Know by Ciaran Carson on Amazon.co.uk.