This is Ciaran Carson’s second collection of poems. His first, The New Estate (1976), revealed an intricate, lyrical poet intensely aware of traditional Irish cultures, and concerned to connect them meaningfully with the sprawl of modern living; these early poems are taut, rather literary, and often very beautiful. His themes are pretty much the same in his equally impressive new book, but his approach to them has changed radically. All the poems in The Irish for No are written in long easygoing lines – more or less fourteeners – and exhibit a wonderful fidelity to the casual flow of ordinary speech and storytelling. What could be more enticing and relaxing than this for the opening of a yarn?
Horse Boyle was called Horse Boyle because of
his brother Mule;
Though why Mule was called Mule is anybody’s
guess. I stayed there once.
Or rather, I nearly stayed there once.
This is the beginning of ‘Dresden’, the book’s first poem. Horse and Mule Boyle live in a decrepit caravan surrounded by pyramids of empty baked beans tins that, according to Horse Boyle, are as good as a watch-dog. In a rambling, round-about manner the poem tells the story of how during World War Two Horse Boyle – who couldn’t be much further from Yeats’s exhilarated Irish airman – finds himself on a mission as a rear-gunner in a bombing raid on Dresden, and claims afterwards that he could almost hear store-rooms full of Dresden china shattering. In a biscuit tin, along with his war medals and a broken rosary, he still keeps the remnants of a Dresden milkmaid he used to treasure as a child. Like many of the poems in the book, ‘Dresden’ unobtrusively sets up a contrast between intransigent political realities and the inner emotional aimlessness with which characters attempt to ignore or accommodate them. An anecdote Horse tells of a young IRA recruit’s attempt to smuggle some sticks of gelignite by bus across the border into Derry encapsulates this state of whimsical paralysis quite neatly. When the bus is stopped and a policeman climbs on, Young Flynn takes it like a man:
he owned up right away. He opened the bag
And produced the bomb, his rank and serial
number. For all the world
Like a pound of sausages. Of course, the thing
was, the peeler’s bike
Had got a puncture, and he didn’t know young
Flynn from Adam. All he wanted
Was to get home for his tea. Flynn was in for
seven years and learned to speak
The best of Irish. He had thirteen words for a
cow in heat;
A word for the third thwart in a boat, the wake of
a boat on the ebb tide.
The political contexts The Irish for No sets out to establish are present throughout, but most directly in the series of short poems – nine long lines each – that make up the middle section of the book. These depict a sickening Belfast of duck patrols, riot squads and waste-ground murders. These vignettes, with their precisely observed details, fit together like the squares of a city map. Carson’s success here depends on his almost Joycean passion for specifics – this is no generalised unreal city of the damned, but Eighties Belfast presented with the deadpan accuracy of a documentary. Almost all the imagery is of disconnections and disruptions: a heap of burning tyres, the insides of a hotel exposed by a wrecker’s ball, obliterated streets, broken glass and knotted durex. In a graphic metaphor Carson illustrates the impossibility of dissociating language itself from the live ammunition of the conflict. During a riot it rains not only nuts, bolts and nails, but exclamation-marks, a ‘fount of broken type’. A hyphenated line becomes a ‘burst of rapid fire’, an explosion ‘an asterisk on the map’, and as the riot squad advances the poet finds himself lost in ‘a fusillade of question-marks’. The idea that all language is inherently political, and therefore culpable, can rarely have been so concretely imagined.
The bleak realities of contemporary Ulster insisted on so vividly in these shorter poems throw into greater relief the lush, free-associating narratives of the longer ones. Carson has always been interested in oral and musical traditional Irish cultures, so it’s not surprising that many of them seem to unfold with the arbitrary inner logic of a ballad. Like Muldoon, he is fond of creating internal connections that serve to delimit and justify the poem, but without Muldoon’s Post-Modern delight in the capricious accretion of coincidences for their own sake. His use of Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in the title poem starts out flippantly enough perhaps, treating it as a mere counter in a poetry v. politics debate, but ends up taking on a ghastly resonance. Carson’s pursuit of labyrinthine chains of correspondences can have a more Proustian intensity than anything in Muldoon:
We are looking
For a piece we know is there, amongst the clutter
and the glug of bottles,
Whispering, the chink of loose change, the unfamiliar
voices that are us
And cloud our hearing.
In the book’s final poem, ‘Patchwork’, various kinds of stitching are collated – handkerchiefs hemmed by his mother, his own appendicectomy, his grandmother’s sewing of a patchwork quilt – and serve to introduce some family reminiscences. Carson is never exactly personal, and frequently aims to be off-hand, but it is definitely the pressure of emotion rather than the fascination of the image which drives the poem, and momentarily suspends the historical consciousness that has seemed inescapable elsewhere in the book.
Medbh McGuckian, by contrast, and unusually for an Ulster poet, avoids all issues of this kind in her work. Her poems are fabricated solely out of the textures of her inner experience, and tend to melt into each other across the page, drenching the reader in the heavy perfume of her amorphously sensual imagery. This can get rather monotonous. Her earlier books – The Flower Master (1982), Venus and the Rain (1984) – were praised for their oblique, erotic mysteriousness, and they did suggest the liberating drama of a poet feeling her way towards an original style of self-expression. In this new collection, however, McGuckian’s sensibility seems to have become trapped within the idiom. Many of the poems feel syntactically inert, but are forced to stagger forward under an impossible weight of proliferating metaphors. At her best, McGuckian suffuses the lyric with a kind of awkward fervour, through which individual lines suddenly shimmer with possible meaning: ‘I am velvet stroked the wrong way,’ or ‘I knew she was drinking blue and it had dried/ In her ...’ Her lack of interest, though, in larger patterns of significance or irony means that all that seems to hold the poems together is the breathless urgency of their desire to confess something or other. In this collection in particular she seems as helpless as Swinburne before the blandishments of fine-sounding nonsense:
Sky of blue water, blue-water sky,
I sleep with the dubious kiss
Of my sky-blue portfolio ...
It may be that, after the initial breakthrough, the model of the intense sensual lyric McGuckian has fashioned for herself has difficulties in evolving in interesting new directions – though her imagination is so vivid and confident it is hard to see this state of affairs lasting for long.
The political dimensions of most Irish poetry are rarely as pronounced in mainland British verse. Edwin Morgan and George Szirtes are both willing to expand their poetics beyond its traditional range. Morgan has always delighted in maverick experiments both with the typewriter and with scissors-and-paste, and his new book, Themes on a Variation, provides the customary amalgam of verbal high-jinks, social comment and deft versification. Here he ‘reconstructs’ poems by various famous writers (Milton’s ‘On Time’, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55, Byron’s ‘Sonnet on Chillon’), establishes the ten vital ‘Rules for Dwarf-Throwing’, and gives us over sixty pages of Newspoems – cut-outs from newspapers snipped to obtain some unintended pun or joke. Many of these throwaways are literary gags; Morgan’s rambling through the daily press unearths no fewer than six unpublished poems by Creeley, and one by Zukofsky.
He is a conjuring sort of poet, astonishing when you least expect it. Not that all of his ideas come off; for such a prolific poet maybe it is surprising there are as few longueurs as there are. In this book the dense metaphysics of ‘Waking on a Dark Morning’, for instance, can be heavy going, though in the end the effort seems just about worth it. The most compelling sequence is one entitled ‘From the Video Box’. These poems are all about television, and mimic types such as the disgruntled viewer, the channel zapper and the games-show addict. The programmes they respond to sound interesting, though improbable. Some are about characters referred to in Shakespeare but who never appear: Ragozine, Sycorax, Barbary (‘Poor Barbary! I must tell you/ I switched off. I knew she was going to die./ I mustn’t blame the programme-makers ...’). Others concern the burning of various libraries, including the British Library, the televised conflagration of which one punter rates as ‘quite unusually riveting’. The new spectator sport Morgan envisages is jigsaw puzzles. One watches the champion live for a whole week struggling to piece together a vast picture of a featureless stretch of the mid-Atlantic. On the evening of the sixth day he manages it:
People streamed onto the set. Bands played.
That was fine. But what I liked best
was the last shot of the completed sea,
filling the screen; then the saw-lines disappeared,
till almost imperceptibly the surface moved
and it was again the real Atlantic, glad
to distraction to be released, raised
above itself in growing gusts, allowed
to roar as rain drove down and darkened,
allowed to blot, for a moment, the orderer’s hand.
Morgan’s own poetry depends for its resilience and imaginative scope on precisely this kind of collapse of the orderer’s boundaries, beyond which lurk the freakish and unknown, immune to our formulations of their being. Or as the Loch Ness monster puts it in a famous earlier poem, ‘Sssnnnwhuffffll?’
George Szirtes is a less frolicsome poet than Morgan, and his new volume, Metro, has him dealing with particularly grim subject-matter. The book’s long title poem is set in the Hungary of 1944-45. The country has been overrun by fascist forces, and Hungarian Jews, including the poet’s own mother, are being rounded up and sent to concentration camps. The poem’s narrative cuts between his own childhood memories of Hungary and the fates of various branches of the Szirtes family, but mainly concerns his mother’s love for a disdainful older brother, lost during the war, her courtship, and the circumstances surrounding her arrest. In contrast with Carson’s Belfast, wartime Budapest is presented by Szirtes in lurid, mythical terms. The poem’s city is more a generalised European urban chaos, through which the poet’s mother leads him in Dantesque fashion:
I see a voice, the greyest of grey shadows.
Lead me, psychopompos, through my found
City, down into the Underground.
‘Metro’ is written in fluent rhyming stanzas that carry the story forward with sinuous verve. Szirtes’s language is a blend of the aphoristic and the keenly visualised, which locates the real events described at an odd sort of aesthetic distance; the poem is constructed out of relics, out of photographs, family gossip and chance memories, about which Szirtes can speculate but no more. ‘The rest is reconstruction and conjecture,’ as he ruefully comments on a picture of his enigmatic lost uncle. This gives the fictions with which he animates this vanished past a hesitant immediacy. Scenes are set and facts delivered in staccato shorthand, while motives are brooded on in more thoughtful passages of guesswork. Szirtes sifts the evidence as unemotionally as a historian (compare, for instance, Ginsberg’s ‘Kaddish’), seeking a framework within which to understand his own origins, rather than any kind of mystical truth. His mother, who survived the war and emigrated to England, where she died, now lives in his imagining of her and nowhere else:
I build her
In meccano. Here’s the skeleton.
The bare bones of the story are reduced
To ashes and a name in Golders Green,
Behind the Hippodrome, behind the station.
In the end, the poem’s connections can never transcend the actions of memory, and its low-key conclusion puzzles blankly over the arbitrary construction of our minds:
Someone else or something, certain numbers, Certain streets and faces. One is worried
By forgetfulness, another by clarity.
Someone is not sure they should be here.
But the city, and its metro, source and site of such anxiety, continue indifferent to such reflections.
Elsewhere Szirtes is in a slightly lighter mood. There’s a poem about one of those paper skeletons popular a few years back, and a jaunty vision of Heaven as a world of perfect art. Even in these gayer moments his tone is never far from the sardonic, and overall this is a rather sombre book, with the tragedies of East European history felt in some degree in nearly all its contents. The shorter poems are distinguished by his customary verbal agility and disciplined formal control, but some of them make rather dour reading. Szirtes’s no-nonsense approach to the possibilities of poetry is occasionally a constricting one, and he can leave one feeling a trifle unengaged. His tightly measured rhythms and imagery sometimes feel overworked, to the extent of excluding the reader from the experience the poem is presenting. In this collection, for instance, the poem ‘Iron Age Burial’, which describes the neatly arranged skeletons uncovered in a prehistoric tomb, is certainly competent enough, but seems forced and trite beside Heaney’s bog poems, or Larkin’ ‘An Arundel Tomb’, with both of which it seems to offer itself for comparison. It is only in his longer poems that he really seems to relax into his medium, and ‘Metro’, which takes up well over half the book, is one of the most successful of these.
Szirtes is a poet with a very definite idea of what poetry is. Part of John Ashbery’s charm is his self-deprecating uncertainty about the whole business: ‘Some certified nut/ Will try to tell you it’s poetry,’ begins an often-quoted passage from the right-hand column of ‘Litany’. A poem from Houseboat Days entitled ‘What is Poetry’ ends with a line lifted verbatim from a conversation he once overhead in a bookstore: ‘It might give us – what? – some flowers soon?’ One of Ashbery’s many paradoxes is to have evolved a medium so self-consciously literary it can include the fragmentary and banal – surely the dominant features of most of our days – on a scale hitherto unattempted in verse. It is this shadowing of the underside of experience, the areas that ean’t get included in any of the stories with which we might attempt to make sense of our lives, that is probably his most decisive originality, and the basis for the extraordinary lyric possibilities his unique stance towards language has opened up. A poem here called ‘Vaucanson’ (Jacques de Vaucanson was an 18th-century inventor of odd robotic devices – among them, a mechanical duck capable not only of eating and drinking, but digesting as well) puts the matter succinctly:
It hurts, this wanting to give a dimension
To life, when life is precisely that dimension.
April Galleons is his 12th collection, and one of his smoothest and most elegant yet. The rapid disjunctions of some of his Sixties and Seventies experiments have settled into a suppler, more accommodating surge, the long lines unfolding unhurriedly, but still full of quirks and surprises. Though his tone is often serene, it is rarely solemn:
surely we eat
Breakfast each day, and shit, and put the kettle on the stove,
With much changing of the subject, much
twisting the original
Premise back to the nature of the actual itch
Engulfing us, now.
Ashbery has always been comfortable with the imprecisions of everyday language, but loves to involve them, as in this passage from ‘Forgotten Sex’, in a dialectical syntax capable of suggesting the velleities, refinements and contradictions that make up the spool of our thoughts. References to earlier poems are similarly naturalised and made to seem simply a facet of the composite texture of Ashbery’s medium. The book’s opening poem, ‘Vetiver’, is a lush echo-chamber of high Symbolist imagery, with its ‘fragmented garlands’, ‘spun-sugar/ Palaces’ and ‘decorative tears’, but its final lines imply a state beyond such stylishly frozen gestures, one that must be possessed in a more personal way:
That has come to mean us to us, and the crying
In the leaves is saved, the last silver drops.
In other poems various fairy-tales are obliquely alluded to, but again more in the spirit of an accompaniment than as a possible source of narrative.
As always in Ashbery, not much is exactly concluded in these poems – indeed their endings often seem designed to suggest further ranges of possible speculation – and the reader must be content with the language’s surface pleasures as they recommend themselves. These are, though, considerable, most especially in the tranquil ‘Fall Pageant’ sequence, and in the book’s title poem ‘April Galleons’, in which there seems nothing that the rushing fluid syntax can’t somehow involve. One would hesitate to call Ashbery a visionary poet in the conventional sense, his wit being so dry and even his intensest moments so provisionally offered, but in this book there is much further evidence that the heritage of Emerson, Whitman and Stevens is being given a new twist.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.