Intelligence Operation

A review of Irish poet Ciaran Carson’s captivating and witty new collection.

By Carmine Starnino
Poetry Media Service

For All We Know, by Ciaran Carson. Wake Forest University Press. $20.95 cloth; $12.95 paper.

Without the Troubles, it’s hard to say what kind of poems Ciaran Carson would have written. The New Estate (1976) introduced him as talented if typical. But the Troubles did happen. And nine years after his first book, a very different poet emerged: daring, high-spirited, and, above all, mouthy. Written during Belfast’s British occupation, The Irish for No (1987) was the acoustic equivalent of an adrenalin rush. Carson’s ability to make grittily rich music out of local speech (“Horse Boyle was called Horse Boyle because of his brother Mule;/Though why Mule was called Mule is anybody’s guess”) revealed a powerhouse ear paired with a down-at-heel sensibility. Literally so, in fact, since the poems cast him as a flaneur taking in the sights and sounds of his now-militarized childhood haunt (“A no-go area, a ghetto, a demolition zone”). But behind the unceasing patter and punch lines was a spooked mind. The poems were simply trying to calm themselves down.

As critics have pointed out, living under occupation encouraged Carson to change linguistic identities. Carson’s next book, Belfast Confetti (1989)–slang for the fistfuls of screws, bolts, and nails hurled by rioters–was a mishmash of genres. First Language (1994) moved more aggressively into polyphonic wordplay and the “general boggledybotch” of ludic storytelling. When the carbonated whimsy of Opera Et Cetera (1996) turned up, it became clear Carson was writing some of the most remarkable political poems around. Outwardly irreverent but shot through with concerns of tribal authenticity (“His ‘Belfast’ accent wasn’t West enough. Is the H/in H-block aitch or haitch?”) and a constant look-over-your-shoulder unease (“Be paranoid,” one poem ends). Carson has today learned to throw his voice in any direction he pleases. And after the careful, one-word-or-two steps of Breaking News (2003)–“red alert/car parked//in a red/zone//about to//disintegrate”–he takes a running leap into one of the best books of his career.

For All We Know begins with a couple at a dinner table celebrating an anniversary (“whether first or last”). But they seem more like spies trying hard not to give themselves away: “For one word never came across just as itself, but you/would put it over as insinuating something else.” Right from the jump, courtship marries itself to the theme of dissembling. Each with something to hide, the lovers spend the next seventy poems teasing hidden patterns out of the texts of each other’s lives. Conversations become sites of puzzle solving. Putting two and two together, they see clues in every word. Spy craft has, of course, had many devotees among contemporary poets (W.H. Auden, John Hollander). But I can’t think of anything quite this smart and subtle. While Carson doesn’t lean on the conventions, he’s clearly a junkie of pulp atmospherics. The romance plays out against the backdrop of European cities. Twists occur and the story turns out to be more complicated than first assumed. Ends and means become confused. Anonymous men close in.

Carson makes effective sport of these elements in couplets of (mostly) end-stopped lines. The form fits: it aerates the language, lifts it into greater transparency. More voiceover than inner voice, Carson’s virtuosity is a potently simpler version of his earlier pell-mell energies. Content is generalized: lots of details, but free of context. What strikes us, instead, is tone. Odd angles on familiar bits of diction colored with menace (“Then I would try to separate the grain from the chaff of/helicopter noise as it hovered above my house”). The mood–itself unaccountable, like a thought process without address–fills in for real information, forcing us into a kind of implication manhunt:

Again you are trapped in the smouldering streets. Knots of men
armed with axes, files and chisels guard the intersections.

For all that you avert your gaze you know you know your kind.
The city wards have all been sealed, and there is no escape.

For all that you assumed a sevenfold identity
the mark of your people’s people blazes on your forehead.

You will be questioned by the black stream of the shibboleth,
your story picked like a cheap lock until it comes unstuck.

This, from “Birthright,” shows that Carson’s couplets are also handy for visually suggesting the loose ends that will forever go untied. We get news–more like strobe glimpses–of a war: bomb blasts, gunfire. But unabsorbed into any larger political storyline, the sequence becomes a self-contained world that keeps shrinking. Circling back to the same events, poems swim in a kind of narrative stasis, a Beckett-like sense of anti-adventure. And yet anxiety mounts. The book, structurally speaking, is two-faced: divided sections, with matching set of noirish titles (“Treaty,” “The Assignation,” “Collaboration,” etc.) reinforce the theme of double lives. Images not only repeat (helicopters, quilts, fountain pens, watches, foreign perfumes) but, like a fugue, new emotional information seems folded into each new repetition. The book, you might even say, is its own nonce form: the abba of a mysterious, and mysteriously moving, chiastic experiment. What happens, happens again, and the mesmerizing roteness pushes the poems halfway to allegory, and, at times, all the way to brilliant. For All We Know is an intelligence operation in the truest sense.

Carmine Starnino’s newest book of poems is This Way Out, from Gaspereau Press. This article originally appeared in Poetry magazine. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

© 2009 by Carmine Starnino. All rights reserved.


~ by ericedits on March 24, 2009.

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