Mark Ford

  • The Irish for No by Ciaran Carson
    Bloodaxe, 63 pp, £4.95, July 1988, ISBN 1 85224 075 X
  • On Ballycastle Beach by Medbh McGuckian
    Oxford, 59 pp, £4.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 19 282106 7
  • Themes on a Variation by Edwin Morgan
    Carcanet, 166 pp, £6.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 85635 778 2
  • Metro by George Szirtes
    Oxford, 68 pp, £4.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 19 282096 6
  • April Galleons by John Ashbery
    Carcanet, 97 pp, £8.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 85635 776 6

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.

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