For All We Know by Ciaran Carson (Loughcrew, Co Meath: The Gallery Press, 2008) 113 pp.
Hb ISBN: 978-1-85235-440-4, €20.00
Pb ISBN: 978-1-85235-439-8, €13.90
A strange departure for Carson who chose a somewhat old-fashioned form: this is a long narrative poem; a hail and robust tradition more ancient than the sonnet. For instance, the unrhymed dactylic hexameters of Longfellow’s Evangeline reads better than For All We Know; it springs to mind as both have a Gabriel ‘character’. Carson’s sequence falls down on many fronts: the grasp of postmodernist narrative is not well handled; the overall impression is that the form is ill fitting: the entire impetus may have come from the few good poems—
blue, you said. It puts me in mind of winters in Paris.
It is frosty, and if you stand in Montmartre you can
see for miles. I’m looking at the patchwork quilt of Paris:
parks, avenues, cemeteries, temples, impasses, arcades.
I can see the house where I was raised, and my mother’s house.
I am in her boudoir looking at her in the mirror
as she, pouting, not looking, puts on L’Air du Temps, a spurt
of perfume on each wrist before she puts her wristwatch on.
L’Air du Temps (pp. 36-37)
This is early on in the sequence but these high points dizzily topple, so it is a choppy terrain to traverse and when other peaks are reached as in the following (quoted below) there is a double nostalgia more for the better verse than for the ‘story’ of the poem. Sustained performance is not the hallmark here but the perennial problem with poetry is the good, the bad and the indifferent. T.S. Eliot wrote of a preordained hierarchy of poetry and ipso facto of poets: hence, a corollary that long poems have high and low pressure, so to speak, despite and according to T.S.E. that there is a corresponding high and low in performance. Carson may be implying that to turn off the poetry is in itself artistic, somewhat like a painter who leaves deliberate incompleteness of form proving that what has been well done need not be re-achieved, what has been a pinnacle must not be re-iterated; still, one looks for more of what one likes. There has always been the presumption of a reader for poetry, the imposition of a critic, as well as the longing beyond the longing for oblivion that is the assumed reward for the poet’s implicit melancholy as opposed to the gladness and madness. There is the useful Wallace Stevens prescription for evaluation within his own long poem ‘Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction’ about the necessity of change within the composition, but equally there is the demand for pleasure. The harshest critics of poets are other poets who never have the village schoolteacher’s encouraging, ‘could do better’ rather ‘must do better, must do the uttermost.’ So, when the lines of ore run out towards workable lines there is the longing that is only resolved and healed in the better stuff, such as
I’m the lady in charge of the airport lingerie store
who asks you if there is anything she can help with.
I’m the lady in question whose dimensions you reveal
To the lady in charge of the airport lingerie store.
I’m the lady you bump into unwittingly before
you know her name or age or what she does for a living.
I’m the lady propped up at the bar beside you, who puts
words into your mouth before you even know what they are.
I’m the lady who sleeps in you until death do you part.
I’m the lady you see in your dreams though she be long dead
‘Filling the Blank’ (p. 104)
There is a hint of French modernism, since the poem titles are duplicated between ‘part one’ and ‘part two’. However, this merely results in some spinning out of the text and displays major slack and slippage as to what it is all meant to be: Poetry.
What Carson has managed, if nothing else, is to get out of Belfast metaphorically speaking, still the Northern city intrudes as in ‘Revolution’ with the Remote Bomb Disposal Unit. ‘The helicopter hovering on its down-swash of noise.’ (p. 73). Otherwise in ‘L’Air du Temps’ (in part two) the narrator (of which more later) notes: ‘They were showing the latest news from my native city./It looked like a Sixties newsreel where it always drizzled,’ (p.87) Drizzle was the only benevolence in Ulster during the Troubles. Central to the ‘story’ is a bomb-blast while Gabriel and Nina (Miranda) are in the Crown pub. Otherwise, they are not ‘framed’ particularly well within their largely continental setting, which is non-exotic, seeing as this is a tale of romance but lacks ‘Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance.’ The erotic is non-existent also. Any lovemaking by our two lovers, as ‘depicted’ by the hesitant narrator is quickly brushed aside, as if this were a tale only fit for Sunday school. Carson is not to be blamed if he comes from the screwed-up-about-sex writers’ club of Ireland but it certainly shows in ‘For All We Know’. The wit is also thin being NI, as in the long awaited introduction to our unfleshly pair via his contorted postmodernist Belfastianisms: ‘I’m Miranda, you said, though some people call me Nina./Gabriel, I said, though some people call me Gabriel.’ (p.85)
While the immaculate Gabriel and immaculate Nina cavort covertly inGermany, somewhere in the Dresden region, their location is mainly Paris and beyond, ‘Remember those radiating pathways of Versailles where/you confessed yourself happy to be known to me?’ “Treaty” (p. 19). The latter is not even good Margaret Mitchell. ‘Treaty’ in part two is a particularly weak poem. Gabriel is too much centre stage, and feminists who read this (?) will cavil at Nina’s walk-on-part and over-glorification by the narrator. The narrative comes unstuck also with the intellectual overlay, and the use of Bach, Beethoven, and Hermann Hesse. If this material was blended in artistically, it might have marginal validity but still is top-heavy and pedantic by his treatment. In addition, there were never such twentieth-century lovers in Northern Europesolely discussing B, B, and HH in such superficial banalities. Not even Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir ever spoke like this even with hangovers; had they ever done so, they would have been removed by thegendarmerie for lowering cultural standards on the Left Bank. Similarly, his use of bierkeller and ‘Vous êtes étranger?’ does not exactly authenticate the scenery or set one dreaming, it all comes across as inept use of a Rough Guide Book appendix.
The treatment of Hesse’s Das Glasperlenspiel or The Glass Bead Game, an indisputable masterpiece of vast polemics with implications that reach as far as Gallery Press: its actions and drawbacks, is far too awkward and nervously pasted into the narrative. Nina is the Hesseexpert apparently, and Gabriel the doddering disciple in a cruel echo of Joseph Knecht, Magister Ludi of the Glass Bead Game from the novel. ‘I gather the glass beads became metaphorical beads,/not to be fingered by hand but tuned to some other sense.’ “The Shadow” (p. 80). Jesus wept, and by God no wonder. Is the Mona Lisa a woman? No, she’s a box of chocolates. Carson’s intellectualism gets the better of him. Cue Bach and Beethoven. Of Johann Sebastian B it is queried, ‘I’ve often wondered/how many quills Bach went through over those twenty-two/years.’ “Le Mot Juste” (p.28) (Count the geese that Bach cooked over a lifetime: is that the answer you are looking for?) Beethoven’s deafness is remarked on, as you might expect while Van Gogh’s ear does not get a mention but you feel it might easily have entered the soporific conversation of these lovers. Also unfortunately, in “Le Mot Juste” Eliot’s oft-quoted lines from East Coker are misquoted: ‘…the intolerable wrestle/With words and meanings’. Even after getting one of the words ‘wrestle’ right, he changes it to ‘struggle’ twelve lines on: the unforgiveable, is misquoting ‘intolerable’ as ‘interminable’. Eliot is Eliot primarily because of his original mellifluous language: vers libre for a poet requires the same artistry as for composers such as Chopin, John Field or Lizst, to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase. Carsonroyally screws it up with ‘interminable’. It is surprising that as a teacher of ‘fledging poets’, he clunked on this one: the fact that Fallon and Gallery did not catch it in the proofs, might actually be poetic justice, or perhaps, Eliot has not yet permeated the consciousness of Loughcrew?
The biggest ‘no-no’ is that having botched ‘the plot’, Carson unravels the denouement early on in ‘Second Hand’ (‘part two’), ‘You drove too fast. I’d wonder how long it would be before/they’d pull you from the wreck of the immobilized Déesse,/and know by its sweeping hand that your watch was still working.’ (p. 76). Before this, crucially, the watch is ‘placed’ in some present that implies the death of Nina. In “The Anniversary” near the end of the sequence (in every respect it is a sequence) much is made of her death in a car accident in the Citroën: this had already been set up pages back as ‘a midnight blue vintage Déesse’ (p. 76). One does not expect strict adherence to a linear narrative, however, the often clumsy and implicit spooling out of details brings too much attention to the flow and makes the denouement inconsequential when it belatedly arrives.
To their detriment, the poems are littered with materials that generate banalities, resulting in a sequence that never lifts into orbit about the travail of these nebulous lovers. However much this may be confessional or based on experience, there is the mawkish stemming of a thumb wound accidentally caused with an oyster knife by Nina, ‘When you raised your head I kissed my blood on your open lips.’ ‘Anniversary’ (p. 103). This out-Stokers Stoker’s Dracula for repression but could not create a moment of the Gothic masterpiece. Prior to this in the sequence one reads, ‘The Oyster is synonymous with its watertight case,/ you explained./’ (p. 102). The Marine Biology is also banal. Carson gives a jerky performance: the blurb states 10 collections, proving that over-production does not mean you can label each according to the manufacturer’s seal of approval and worst of all, foreigners are noticing this; we would want to watch it: people are liable to quote Bono, Van Morrison, The Pogues, and Paul Brady instead of some of our homemade-reputation-poets who like Guinness do not travel very well. Brady is another nervous performer when it comes to writing about the birds and the bees, as in the chorus of ‘The Island’, ‘We’ll make love to the sound of the ocean.’ That is about as horny as a picnic in the Gaeltacht in the rain. The same lack of an artful core of erotica makes Carson’s efforts desultory. What is it about Belfast and sex? It is another unmentionable.