“The War Correspondent,” by Irish poet Ciaran Carson, appears in Carson’s collection, Breaking News (2003). It consists of seven poems, all but one of which are set in the Crimea at the time of the Crimean War. This war took place between 1854 and 1856 and pitted a British and French alliance against Russia for influence in the Near East. The Crimea is a region off the Black Sea in present-day Ukraine.
“The War Correspondent” is based on dispatches from the Crimea written by Anglo-Irish war correspondent William Howard Russell for readers of the Times, a London newspaper. In his notes to Breaking News, Carson writes that “The War Correspondent” is “especially indebted to his [Russell’s] writing; in many instances I have taken his words verbatim, or have changed them only slightly to accommodate rhyme and rhythm.” Taken together, the seven poems in “The War Correspondent” convey a sense of the wastefulness and destruction of war, set against the ever-recurring rhythms of nature.
“Gallipoli” is the first of the seven poems that make up “The War Correspondent.” It gives a vivid description of the slum regions of Gallipoli, Turkey, at the time when British and French forces were billeted there on their way to the Crimea. The ten-stanza poem presents Gallipoli as a teeming, cosmopolitan, polyglot city. The first four stanzas all begin with the word “take,” as the poet, drawing on the work of the war correspondent William Howard Russell, evokes the sights and smells of various places around the world to give the reader a picture of the impoverished areas of Gallipoli.
The first reference is to Billingsgate, a well-known fish market in London, with its “scaling-knives and fish.” This is followed by a reference to outhouses in “English farmers’ yards” that “reek of dung and straw,” then horses in Dublin, Ireland. The next three stanzas extend the range of associations almost worldwide, beginning with references to pagodas from a “Chinese Delftware dish.” (Delftware is a Dutch imitation of Chinese porcelain from the Ming Dynasty that was first imported into the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century.) The scope of the comparisons then expands to ships bound for Benares, India, to collect massive amounts of tea.
Stanza 3 describes the houses in Gallipoli, introducing them with a reference to a “back street in Boulogne,” a city in France, then to chimney stacks in Sheffield, a town in northern England, that belch out smoke like a fleet of British ships. There is another comparison to “Irish round towers.” These are early medieval stone towers, still found in Ireland, which may originally have been bell towers or places of refuge. (They are generally found in the vicinity of a church.)
Stanza 4 begins with an evocation of the rich scents in the arcades of Bologna, a city in Italy, including garlic, oregano and “rotten meat.” These arcades are “as labyrinthine as the rifle-factories of Springfield.” This is a reference to the Springfield Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts, which has manufactured weapons for the U.S. armed forces since 1835, including the Springfield rifle.
Stanza 5 moves from descriptions of what Gallipoli is like to descriptions of its inhabitants. The heterogeneous nature of the city is emphasized, populated by Cypriots, Turks, Armenians, Arabs, Greeks, and “Nubian slaves” (Nubia is a region in the south of Egypt and in northern Sudan), as well as British and French soldiers. Zouaves was the name given to a French infantry corps that was first created in 1831. By 1854, there were four regiments of Zouaves, and the Crimean War was the first time they served outside Algeria.
In stanza 6, the variety of dress worn by all these nationalities that live in Gallipoli is described, from “turbans” to “fedoras,” from “pantaloons” to “knickerbockers” and “sans culottes.”
Stanza 7 describes the creation of quarters for the troops in a...
(The entire section is 2,793 words.)