For All We Know
Wake Forest University Press, $12.95 (paper)
More than 30 years after his first book was published in the United States, Ciaran Carson remains little known to American readers. Born in Belfast in 1948 into a Catholic family—his great-grandfather was a Protestant who converted to Catholicism upon marrying—Carson grew up speaking Irish Gaelic at home, a consequence of his father’s nationalist leanings. Picking up English on the street and at school had a profound effect on the future poet’s understanding of language and its applications, which often hovers between mistrust and amazement.
Now Director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University, he skillfully moves between pub talk, reportage, and lyricism, whether in his own poems or in his translations from Irish, notably in his outstanding versions of The Táin (2007) and Brian Merriman’s eighteenth-century classic The Midnight Court (2005). At the same time, Carson is a quintessentially urban poet whose knowledge of Belfast illuminates the complex and tumultuous social fabric of a troubled city. With its symbiotic alchemy of love and fairy tale, autobiography and popular culture, formal rigor and fugue, Carson’s latest collection synthesizes the arc of a long career and may be the best introduction for those encountering it for the first time.
Part of that continuity, however, must be understood as return. With Breaking News (2003), which won Carson the Forward Prize in 2003, the poet largely abandoned the long, meditative lines that characterize most of his output. Carson was also fresh off a new translation of Dante’s Inferno, and his poems from this period suggest a counterweight to that project’s demands: very brief, consisting of no more than a few lines and images utterly stripped of rhetoric and ornamentation, as in “Home”:
my eye zooms
into the clarity
I see everything
Razor-sharp details are balanced by silence, even in the collection’s handful of longer poems based on the Anglo-Irish journalist William Howard Russell’s dispatches from the Crimean War. More than an attempt to draw an allegorical comparison between the Troubles and conflicts distant in time and space, Carson encourages meditation on the ways one responds to violence, a point that becomes especially resonant when we realize that many of the streets in Carson’s Belfast are named after Crimean locales. Breaking News represents a breaking point in the career of a poet who, having skirted the violence in Northern Ireland in his earliest poems, has now assumed the burdens of reportage. Carson handles the material with surgical precision, if only to pierce the wall of infotainment, as he suggests in “Exile”: “Belfast / is many // places then / as now // all lie / in ruins // and / it is // as much / as I can do // to save / even one // from oblivion.”
The notion of formal return, as opposed to thematic, is inscribed within For All We Know’s two sections, with the poems in the second half repeating the titles of those in the first. Indeed, For All We Know is a fugue, polyphonically reshuffling voices and themes, which seem to orbit one another before all loose ends are tied up and brought together at the end. Like those of Carson’s second collection, 1987’s The Irish for No, these poems expect us to pick up the pieces and connect the dots among intersecting, though open-ended, narratives.
Yet, even with all those plotlines weaved among each other, For All We Know is first of all a book about how love emerges from a chance encounter, perhaps not unlike that of the poet and his wife, Deirdre, to whom the book is dedicated. “It all began in Take Two, what with us looking at clothes. / You’d brushed against me as I stepped aside from the mirror.” The would-be lovers’ conversation, initially drowned out by a low-flying helicopter, finally echoes its beating rotors:
That was the kind of spin that passed for
dialogue back then,
one side revolving the other’s words for
or sidestepping the issue, demanding
It took us some time to establish our
for you’d learned where you come from
to choose your words carefully.
And often you’d seal my lips with a kiss
under a blanket we’d struggle into one
to end up sleeping like two naked spoons
or back to back,
the second-hand pencil skirt on your
side of the wardrobe,
the second-hand tweed jacket brushing
against it on mine.
This mingling of lyrical poignancy and erotic delicateness is atypical of Carson’s work, and it renders a more typical image—that of the helicopter hovering menacingly overhead—with an entirely new sense of possibility.
Of course, not all possibilities can be realized, so For All We Know is also about what could have been but was not. The lovers’ journey, from Ireland to Germany to France, from World War II to the Cold War to peace negotiations in Northern Ireland and the war in Afghanistan, is sewn together into a mysterious quilt. The patches hold together not just as heirloom, but as a puzzle in need of solving, not just by the reader, but by our protagonists as well. The result is an extraordinary and intentional reflection on identity, time, history, loss, and language; the poet signals his aims in the closing lines of Part I: “So I write these words to find out what will become of you, / whether you and I will be together in the future.” The poem’s title, “Zugzwang,” refers to a forced and undesirable move in the game of chess, though we need not assume anything undesirable about the poet’s uncertainty, which he praises throughout the book, and which seems to generate the book itself.
In fact, Carson is a poet of a particular kind of uncertainty, one in which the clarity of language runs up against the indeterminacy of experience. In the long lines of “Dresden,” from The Irish for No and still one of Carson’s most memorable poems, a labyrinthine testimony is signposted with shards of experience both fearful and hopeless. The poem tells the story of an RAF gunner who flew over the carpet-bombed German city and now finds himself homeless and scavenging in the streets of Belfast:
Horse Boyle was called Horse Boyle
because his brother Mule;
Though why Mule was called Mule is
anybody’s guess. I stayed there once,
Or rather, I nearly stayed there once. But
that’s another story.
At any rate they lived in this decrepit
caravan, not two miles out of Carrick,
Encroached upon by baroque pyramids
of empty baked bean tins, rusts
And ochres, hints of autumn merging
The poem’s speaker is elusive without being obfuscatory; the eponymous city is similarly slow to appear. By telling Boyle’s story in circles, which also encompass myriad loose ends and allusions, the poet remains at large, avoiding a clear “yes” or “no” verdict about what he sees, just as the Irish language lacks words for “yes” and “no.” In the end, however, Horse Boyle, destitute among the bomb blasts, finds himself in a Belfast tragically similar to the Dresden he had seen from the air:
All across the map of Dresden, store-
rooms full of china shivered,
And collapsed, an avalanche of
porcelain, slushing and cascading:
Shepherdesses, figurines of Hope and
Peace and Victory, delicate bone
• • •
Carson, whose Irish first name and English surname stand as the ironic embodiment of his political preoccupations, came of age during the most horrific events of the conflict in Northern Ireland, and coming to grips with the violence has been at the core of his agenda as a writer. Emblematic of this struggle is the poem “Belfast Confetti,” also from The Irish for No, and perhaps Carson’s most celebrated. Here, the speaker comes face to face with violence and uncertainty in the middle of a riot:
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
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
The poem’s title, a sinister euphemism for shrapnel or debris, provides the key ironic gesture in an otherwise unrelenting flurry of sense (and senseless) impressions. Language itself cannot cope with the chaos, which warps it, and so the speaker runs along familiar west Belfast streets, only to find himself trapped at every corner. The labyrinth of the city closes in until British soldiers stop and interrogate him. Their questions, meanwhile, are existential, calling forth explosions instead of answers.
The Troubles cast a long shadow over the poems in For All We Know, but they are far from the center of attention; they are one of many circumstances that the book’s protagonists have not asked for but must deal with. In the book’s closing poem, also called “Zugzwang,” there is wreckage, but it is that of a car; there are police, but they are investigating an accident:
As you might hear every possible babble
in bells that tumble and peal to celebrate
as the quilters make a pattern of their
remnants and rags,
and the jersey, unraveled, becomes a new
skein of wool;
as the fugue must reiterate its melodic
in continuously unfinished tapestries of
as the police might have traveled the
wreck of your Déesse
in search of the twist in the plot, the
point of no return;
as the words of the song when
remembered each time around
remind us of the other occasions at
as the geographer traces the long fetch
of the waves
from where they are born at sea to where
they found no shore—
so I return to the question of those
as my memories of you recede into the
Carson’s new poems reflect an acceptance, however reluctant, of the arbitrary, of the need to try to make sense of that which cannot make sense. That is, the poet may wish to remain in the dark, unaware of what the future holds, but he writes on. The anonymous speaker, Carson, and the rest of us are left finding loss and uncertainty as the products of an excavation intended to mitigate the same. By ending the book with a couplet that essentially connects the past to the future, the poet rightly points out that it is precisely that search, however futile or maddening, that makes us who we are, that makes us human.