Ciaran Carson Criticism

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Clair Wills (review date 4 March 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: Wills, Clair. “Responses and Allegiances.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4431 (4 March 1988): 254.

[In the following excerpt, Wills describes how Carson demonstrates the connection between violence and language in The Irish for No.]

The use of physical force and verbal persuasion are at opposite ends of the spectrum of communication, and neither could be said to be alien to Ireland. It is the connection between these two ways of getting your message across which interests Ciaran Carson in his outstanding new collection, The Irish for No; he demonstrates how the violence which arises from the breakdown of communication penetrates the structures of language itself. The book is split into three parts, the first and third of which comprise a series of long poems seemingly aimless and arbitrary in their adherence to the rhythms of colloquial speech and the distorted procedures of oral narrative. In stark contrast, the central series of short Belfast poems present “a formula for the collapsing city” in the “squiggles, dashes and question marks” which lie somewhere between language and silence. So, “Belfast Confetti” represents the disturbance caused by an explosion on the map of the city and on that of the page:

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.

Language, like artillery, does violence to thought and speech, but it is also an aid to expression—the violence of the explosion can be graphically represented by the broken type which the city resembles. When the speaker is halted by “a fusillade of question marks” it is clear that also at issue here is the violence done to language when it is used as a means of control. Having to talk to “the invisible man behind the wire-grilled / One way mirror and squawk-box” would make anyone's speech falter. Meanwhile in another poem “two winos” manage to “converse in snarls and giggles, and they understand each other perfectly”. Lack of understanding derives from “errors of reading” which condition our responses, and, more particularly, our allegiances.

This is a central concern of the longer poems too, in which the narrative depends less on an external event than on the vagaries of linguistic association: “Horse Boyle was called Horse Boyle because of his brother Mule”. Such metonymic connections account for the way we make sense of the various narratives at our disposal—so in “Judgement” chance similarity of names gathers together one set of men on the “wrong” side of the law, and another on the other side, and the poem suggests that this means of making sense of events may be as valid as any other.

Language's mastery over society is taken up again in the marvelously wry title-poem; as the speaker wanders through Belfast he wonders:

 how to render The Ulster Bank—the Bank
That Likes to say Yes into Irish, and whether
                                                                                eglantine was alien to Ireland.
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, when yes is
                                                                                                    the...

(The entire section is 45,085 words.)