Antenna – Brief Poems by Ciaran Carson

Ciaran Carson (October 9th, 1948 – October 6th, 2019) was born on the Lower Falls Road in Belfast into an Irish-speaking family. His father, William, was a postman and an Irish language enthusiast from whom he inherited his love of Irish, and of traditional music and storytelling. His mother, Mary, also an inspiration for his poems, worked in the linen mills. He spent his early years in Andersontown where he attended Slate Street School and, later, St. Gall’s Primary School. After attending St Mary’s Christian Brothers grammar school in Belfast, he studied English at Queen’s University where Seamus Heaney was one of his tutors and where poets Medbh McGuckian and Paul Muldoon were fellow students. After graduation, he worked as the traditional arts officer of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland from 1975 to 1998 with responsibility for traditional Irish music and literature. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he travelled all over Ireland, playing the flute and the tin whistle in public venues, often accompanied by his future wife, Deirdre Shannon – herself a gifted fiddle-player. In 1998 he was appointed a Professor of English at Queen’s University and in 2003 was appointed director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at the university. 

He was the author of fourteen poetry collections and six prose books including Last Night’s Fun (1996), a book about traditional music where each chapter bears the title of a beloved song; The Star Factory, (1998) a memoir of Belfast which The Chicago Tribune called “a positive, loving, even celebratory evocation, the work of a man determined to live an ordinary urban life, and to clear in it a place for the imagination”; Shamrock Tea, (2001) a novel longlisted for the Booker Prize which, as The Guardian reviwer put it “claims to be a novel but might equally be filed under History, Philosophy, Art, or Myth and Religion”; Fishing for AmberA Long Story, (2000) which weaves, in an elaborate manner, Irish fairy tales, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the history of the Dutch golden age into the form of a magical alphabet; a novel The Pen Friend (2009) and a literary thriller set in Paris and Belfast, Exchange Place (2012).  His translation of Dante’s Inferno (2002) was awarded the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize and in 2003 he was made an honorary member of the Irish Translators’ and Interpreters’ Association. He also translated Rimbaud into alexandrine lines in his collection In the Light Of  (2012) and the lesser-known French writer, Jean Follain, in From Elsewhere (2014) where he accompanied each translation with his own individual response. Unsurprisingly, given his Irish-language background, he also translated the Irish classic The Táin (2007) and Brian Merriman’s classic The Midnight Court (2005).

Ciaran Carson lived in Belfast his whole life. He died of lung cancer on 6 October 2019 at the age of 70, days before the publication of his last collection, Still Life.

 

THE POETRY OF CIARAN CARSON

Although it has long been superceded by better-known and better-celebrated collections, Ciaran Carson’s first book The New Estate (1976) was, to my mind, a remarkable debut and this first edition with its intriguing woodcuts holds a special place in my collection. A poem like The Bomb Disposal where “The city is a map of the city” prefigures themes that were to be developed, explored and extended throughout subsequent volumes: and a poem like Soot is still, decades on, a memorable and intricate poem. That fascination with maps, a constant throughout his career, is further indulged in his second collection, The Irish for No (1987) where a central section recreates the map of Belfast – the collapsing city – in words. Obliterated streets, bombed-out hotels and demolished facades are recalled and reconstructed in verse. A vibrant and decaying city is celebrated in an explosion of proper nouns. There is a new and frightening maturity at play here as evident in a poem like Campaign. Yet it is in the longer poems, in a style that owes much to the influence of the American poet, C. K. Williams, that Carson was to find his own mature voice. The subsequent collection, Belfast Confetti (1989) which, intriguingly, does not contain that evocative poem Belfast Confetti , further develops the long poem, the nine line poem, the prose poem and, interspersed throughout, a selection of translations of Japanese haiku (see below.) It also begins with a poem about maps, about Belfast, about street names, about directions, about history and, in typical Carson fashion, elides and aligns all together.

Breaking News (2003) is fascinating for the manner in which Carson manages to develop a fragmentary style to convey his typical concerns. That brief and fragmentary style is less successful, to my mind, in later volumes. On the Night Watch (2009) consists of over one hundred and twenty slimmed down, pared down, sonnets dealing with a siege of sickness. It is ingenious but somewhat repetitive. Ever more ingenious, if also repetitive, is the subsequent collection Until Before After (2010) which is about his wife’s hospital stay for a serious illness. The book is divided into three sections (until, before, after) and each poem in each section includes the relevant preposition from the title of that section. Brief poems are also included in his penultimate collection From Elsewhere (2014) a response to the French poet Jean Follain or, as he put it in an introductory note: This book consists of translations of the French poet Jean Follain, faced by “original” poems inspired by these translations: spins or takes on them in other words. Translations of the translations as it were. If many of the translations are a little flat, the translations of the translations, the original poems, some of which are included below, are far more interesting. There are no brief poems is Carson’s last posthumous publication Still Life (2019) but it is a remarkable swan song, one of the best poetry books of the decade, a superb concluding look at life, death and the streets of a Belfast that nourished this remarkable poet throughout his life.

 

Brief Poems by Ciaran Carson

from THE NEW ESTATE AND OTHER POEMS (1988)

Eaves

Rain in summer –
it is the sound of a thousand cows
Being milked.

In winter
The eaves are heavy with ice,
Their snowy teats drip silence.                             

from the Welsh

***

Epitaph

Now I am bereft of answers
Your questions have gone astray –

Your roofs are open to the wind,
My roof is but cold clay.

after Dafydd Jones

 

 

from BELFAST CONFETTI (1989)

Plains and mountains, skies
all up to their eyes in snow:
nothing to be seen.

-Joso

***

I know the wild geese
ate my barley – yesterday?
Today? Where did they go?

-Yasui

***

These are wild slow days,
echoes trickling in from all
around Kyoto.

-Buson

***

I’ve just put on this
borrowed armour: second hand
cold freezes my bones.

-Buson

***

In Kyoto, still
longing for Kyoto: cuck-
oo’s two timepworn notes.

-Basho

***

Darkness never flows
except down by the river:
shimmering fireflies.

-Chiyo

 

 

from BREAKING NEWS (2003)

Belfast

east

beyond the yellow
shipyard cranes

a blackbird whistles
in a whin bush

west

beside the motorway
a black taxi

rusts in a field 
of blue thistles

***

Trap

backpack radio
antenna

twitching
rifle

headphones
cocked

I don’t
read you

what the

over

***

Breaking

red alert
car parked

in a red
zone

about to

disintegrate
it’s

oh

so quiet

you can
almost

hear it rust

***

Wire

I met him
in a bar

he shook

my hand

spoke
of coffee-grinders

this

and that

time
and place

by now

he’d lit

a cigarette

he reeked of
explosive

***

Waste  Not

birds flock
above the field

near
dark

women with sheaves
attend

the dead
harvesting

gold braid
and buttons

***

Fragment

from a piece of
the Tupperware
lunchbox that hold

the wiring
they could tell
the bombmaker wore

Marigold rubber gloves

***

Campaign

shot
the horses fell

a crow
plucked the eyes

time passed

from a socket
crept

a butterfly

***

Siege

the road
to Sevastopal

is paved
with round-shot

the road
from Sevastapol

with boots
that lack feet

 

 

from ON THE NIGHT WATCH (2009)

It Is

never
as late as

you think
you think

you know
the small hours

grow
into decades

measuring
eternity

or dawn
to the chink

chink
of the first bird

***

Snow

that we two
looked at

last year
does it fall

anew
or what is this

a blinding
dazzle

dark & stars
we wonder which

is yin
which yang

what then
what now

***

Rank

divested
of his gear

a soldier
by his neck

tag
all 33

vertebrae
intact

the body
laid out where

he went kaput
a bullet

through
the occipital bone

***

Night after Night

in room
after book-

filled room
upon storey

after storey
I scan spine

after spine
upon shelf

after shelf
trying to locate

a volume
lodged at

the back
of my mind

 

from UNTIL BEFORE AFTER (2010)

So it is

as when
death draws

nigh death
draws a hush

upon the house
until the one

who is about
to die

cries open
the door

***

Whatever

imponderable
toll time

takes we
cannot tell

the order
of our going

hence until
the next

not even
then

***

It is

as if another city
dark as this one

dwells in this one
as before now that

you hear it through
the helicopter

beat that swells
from where

the city meets
the city

***

Time and

again time
after time to

play in time
as we did with

each other for
the last time

before now that
after without you

I still keep
your time in mind

***

The tag

round your wrist
bore a number

your name
and DOB

two weeks after
two stone less

the day you
came home it

slipped off
no need to snip

 

 

from FROM ELSEWHERE (2014)

Reverberation

From time to time
following the rumble of thunder
or a bomb
upon a mantlepiece
a Dresden vase crowded
wIth open-mouthed flowers
trembles about
to topple
over.

***

Then

Fallen from some
unknown tree
the leaf stuck
to the mushroom
trembles
in a moonlit glade
a horseman passes by
vanishes
into the gloom.

***

Revolution

Amid the nosie of gunfire
only the blind man
hears his cane
as he taps his way
through streets thronged with rioters
to the printing press
where they cast bullets
from type.

***

What Light There Is

By night
a flotilla of helicopters
circles above a city
never seen but heard
a noise indistinguishable
from that of the world
beyond its waves
from time to time
pierced by
a lightning stroke
the shriek of a night bird.

***

All poems: ©The Gallery Press.

 

 

LINKS

 Poetry Foundation page on Ciaran Carson.

The Gallery Press page on Ciaran Carson.

An interview with Ciaran Carson in The New Yorker.

Michael Hinds discusses the poetry of Ciaran Carson in the Dublin Review of Books.

Still Life: a review by David Wheatley.

The Triumph: In memory of Ciaran Carson, a poem by Paul Muldoon.

Irish Times Obituary.

The New York Times obituary.