Isolation Read #40

I bought this book because I love the title poem. Except the title poem isn’t in the book. Bugger. I have included it at the bottom of this.

We are all being watched through peep-holes, one-way mirrors, security cameras, talked about on walkie-talkies, car ‘phones, Pye Pocketfones… (the opening to Intelligence)

As someone who has always read, and as someone who has been around long enough to do better than this, I am somewhat embarrassed to say that this is first time I have held a book by Carson, let alone read one. And I think that is the first problem: I was raised through the English school system in the 1980s. We didn’t talk about Northern Ireland. Sometimes, we heard adults talk about it in hushed tones and euphemisms. And yes, sometimes it was on the news: almost always bad news. It seemed scarcely credible that this was part of the ‘our’ country: the only ‘good things’ that I can remember being associated with Northern Ireland were Mary Peters, The Undertones (predictably enough, sorry about that), when Armstrong scored that goal in the ’82 World Cup and the kids TV show We Are The Champions, which always seemed to come from Enniskillen. Even Heaney, I can’t remember hearing his name until long after the Good Friday agreement. In the early 2000s we drove all the way round the island of Ireland, heading into Derry, seeing those barbed wire, concrete bunkered watch towers and police stations was an unearthly, sobering and shocking moment: this is still notionally the same country as the one I grew up in. If this were a political tract this would be your starting point for investigating the complete lack of understanding in England of the fear caused by things like the laissez faire attitude to Brexit and the importance of borders and the complacency of peace: there is a wilful ignorance at work that is dangerous.

In Belfast Confetti Carson speaks of life in the six counties, concentrating mainly on Belfast, the detail and the streets and the people of his home city: I have recently seen an appreciation of his life and work which uses the word ‘encyclopaedic’ to describe his knowledge and descriptions of the city and its people and it is a good description. The cover to this edition has a schematic of central Belfast, centred on the Falls Road where the young Carson was schooled. We are unequivocally located.

The collection is in three parts; there are haiku scattered about the place, variously credited to Buson, Yasui or Basho, seemingly indicating shifts in tone, or moment, or perhaps they are just a quiet place, a pause for breath amidst the torrent of Carson’s overflowing verbosity. I love the fact that he writes lines that are too long, and his poems go on for several pages, and they are so unguarded, so undomesticated. He cannot stop himself. I’m sure that what I’ve just said might give the impression of the need for a good editor, that’s not the case, the words are not wrong or badly chosen…its just that he has so much to say. All of it worth listening to.

The book opens with Loaf; “I chewed it over, this whiff I got just now, but trying to pin down / That aroma – yeast, salt, flour, water – is like writing on the waxed sleeve / That its wrapped in: the nib keeps skidding off.” This poem like this collection, is about memory, tangible memories and what triggers the reappearance. Later, pondering over the lunchtime pint, ” The bitter edge of Guinness would cut through the bread and oxtail soup / Till bread and soup and stout became all one. We would talk with our mouths full…/ We made up affairs between / the bakers and the packers – bread and paper – then we wiped it all clean.

One of the shorter poems, Snow, on the wonderful by-ways of memory and the varying evocations of it, starts with a table-tennis ball (a ‘ping-pong’ ball) moving back and forth across a darkening bay window on the “extended leaves of the dining table” that bounces away lost in a corner, only to be found gain days later bringing with it…the “tacky pimples” on the bat, which becomes the rubber thimble used by the bank teller to count the cash, before moving to an auction and “the Thirties scuffed leather sofa I wanted to make a bid for / …I won’t say what I paid for it: anything’s too much when you have nothing” and when he looks under the cushions he finds “all the haberdashery of loss – cuff buttons, / broken ball-point pens and fluff, old pennies, pins and needles, and yes, / a ping-pong ball”. The poem is too deliberate to be called wistful, but there are shades of that, none the less.

Ambition, opens with memories of walking in hills, a crazy tale about a saint who walked seven miles with head cut off, “And the wise man said, The distance doesn’t matter, / Its the first step that was difficult” and the drive home from the walk, before it crashes into “The Troubles”:

And if time is a road, then you’re checked again and again / By a mobile checkpoint. One soldier holds a gun to your head. Another soldier / Asks you questions, and another checks the information on the head computer. / Your name. Your brothers’ names. Your father’s name. His occupation...”

Other poems continue this theme Queen’s Gambit; Gate (I see it’s got a bit of flak… The stopped clock of The Belfast Telegraph seems to indicate the time / of the explosion – or was that last week’s); Last Orders ( Squeeze the buzzer…like a trigger); Hairline Crack (a bullet neatly parted her permanent wave); Bloody Hand (My thumb is the hammer of a gun. The thumb goes up. The thumb goes down.); Jump Leads (The victim is his wedding photograph. He’s been spattered with confetti.); Punctuation; Yes; The Mouth; The Knee; Night Out (…we get a broken rhythm / Of machine-gun fire. A ragged chorus. So the sentence of the night / Is punctuated through and through by rounds of drink, of bullets, of applause.) The assault, the language, the language of assault, is relentless, as it must have been trying to live ordinary lives there.

None of this feels forced. It is story-telling, life-telling, such is the joy of language and the rhythm of speech that it flows without seeming at all unnatural, quite the opposite in fact.

So far I have only mentioned the poems. There are also 6 pieces of prose in the middle section of the book, they do not look to my eye that they are intended to be seen as prose poems, they seem solidly, small pieces of prose, and they are if anything the most fascinating pieces in the collection. They ponder language, the history of the naming of Belfast, they are truly encyclopaedic wandering through the names of streets, pubs and landmarks. How the naming of place matters, and how you name a place tells so much about you to others around you – but only to those who also know how contended some places and names are.

The central pice of these 6, seems to me the terrific – and terrifically frightening – Question Time, which relates when he was out for a bike ride one quiet Sunday and made a u-turn at the wrong place in the wrong street. Two men stop him, drag him from his bike, frisk him, press him to a wall:

You were seen coming from the Shankill / Why did you make a u-turn? / Who are you? / Where are you coming from? / … Where are you from? / Who lives next door? / Next door again?

The questions are snapped at me like photographs. The map is pieced together bit by bit…they check it for error, hesitation, accuracy.

Those of us fortunate enough not to have experienced this life in our country should count ourselves lucky, and should read this and similar books to get a grasp of the fuller history of nation. It is not what you have been taught it was.


Belfast Confetti

Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining exclamation marks,
Nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys. A fount of broken type. And the explosion
Itself—an asterisk on the map. This hyphenated line, a burst of rapid fire…
I was trying to complete a sentence in my head, but it kept stuttering.
All the alleyways and side-streets blocked with stops and colons.

I know this labyrinth so well—Balaclava, Raglan, Inkerman, Odessa Street—
Why can’t I escape? Every move is punctuated. Crimea Street. Dead end again.
A Saracen, Kremlin-2 mesh. Makrolon face-shields. Walkie-talkies. What is
My name? Where am I coming from? Where am I going? A fusillade of question marks.

Ciaran Carson, from Belfast Confetti (1989)

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