In Ciaran Carson’s extraordinary new book he refers to Bach’s fugues and comments, ‘Melodic fragments/perpetually unfinished, that seems to have been his style.’ As an encapsulation of the process of writing poems — how they resist completion through draft after draft and through their interrelation with other poems, how they thread through our experience of our life and of other poems — that seems fairly irresistable. Each of these three collections is focussed in its own way on the type of truth a poem can tell us; each is engaged by narrative, and by the way poetry treats narrative not as an end in itself, but as a stepping-off point for aesthetic pattern. In each case, and in Carson’s in particular, to adapt Pater slightly, they aspire if not to music, then to a distinctive musicality. They represent poets from three different cultures, Northern English, Scottish and Northern Irish, at two different stages in their respective careers, Catherine Smith at the outset, Tom Pow and Carson at a distinct moment of maturity. They therefore demonstrate something of the range of contemporary poetry in these islands.
Catherine Smith’s first collection, The Butcher’s Hands, was a distinctive, even forceful debut, and her second redoubles its successes. Lip is adept at a poetry of the passions: the body (usually female) and what it cannot resist constitute its main points of focus; the senses and how to evoke them therefore becoming the central formal puzzle it sets itself. Its couples and its couplings are delineated in elegantly-controlled bursts of sensuousness, culminating in a sequence about an affair, Lapse, another monosyllabic title which alliterates neatly with Lip, pointing to the tightness of poetic control needed to convey people surrendering control to their impulses and needs. What it achieves by these means is a series of fleeting insights into the wisdom of the body, a wisdom perhaps more caught up with the emotional value of actions than their moral consequences.
The book is full of delicious successes, whether the estranged couplets of ‘Ascension,’ in which a somnambulist girl is discovered curled up on a crane, striking a high note of danger, ‘she could roll off/like a pea on the blade’; or the bus driver, whose willingness to help is extended in a fine passage of rhetorical excess whereby the female passengers are imagined being driven through Paris and the Dordogne before getting off in the African desert ‘on cumin-coloured sand’ and sipping ‘mint tea with bright-eyed men/who’d like to be our husbands.’ Tenderness is sought in the witty ‘Losing It To David Cassidy,’ in which the seventies teen idol becomes the ideal deflowerer, contrasted with the less than tender ministrations of an actual lover: David, of course, wouldn’t ‘roll off, zip up, and slouch downstairs//to watch the end of Match of the Day with my brother.’ And maternal tenderness is demonstrated in ‘Fontanelle,’ seen as ‘a slow naked heart’ in the infant, and powerfully contrasted with the grown up son heading a football.
That use of contrast, between male and female, young and old, real and ideal, forms a powerful fulcrum in Smith’s work. Where it is less evident, the work sometimes seems a little too deliberate, as in ‘Milk’, where a mother in the supermarket begins to leak milk at the cry of ‘a stranger’s baby’. The appearance of the beautifully-observed ‘blue-tinged milk he sniffed out’ through her top is compared to a woman seeing a former lover and spontaneously reaching orgasm, but the analogy seems forced upon us, the description of her milk as ‘illicit’ not quite standing up to scrutiny. The adulterous are behaving illicitly in that they’re breaking a moral law, while the merely lactating at most disturb a social convention. This equating of the entirely natural with the somehow naughty recurs elsewhere, as in ‘Cut,’ where love-making during a power cut leads rather too swiftly to ‘wolves padding/through suburbs,’ as though the quickie and the collapse of civilisation were two sides of the same coin.
The poem which indulges this impulse towards exaggeration most is ‘The Ewe’ where, after brilliant observation of the odd presence of the fostered animal, ‘eyes/the colour of a drinker’s piss’ ‘toes/clattering like nails on glass’, particularly of the smell of lanolin (‘our hair after rain’) and the ewe sleeping by the fire ‘her black lips smiling’, the poem presents the man and woman making love then the man slaughtering the sheep. This is clearly intended as a cathartic response to the presence of the animal in their house, but the second half of the poem feels like it’s gesturing towards this when the first had already evoked it.
Perhaps reading about other people’s sex lives is too much like hearing about their dreams, more likely I’m being prudish, but I found the erotic element occasionally turned up too loud, to the extent that I began to predict it — in lists ‘…I have such an appetite for lobster,/dressed crab, venison, raspberries, sex…’, and in comparisons, as with this one of swimmers at a local pool, ‘Almost naked, our bodies/hold no secrets from each other — like lovers…’. These are clearly the tactics of a writer laying claim to a territory, but the book is filled with altogether more subtle successes: the theme of revenants is explored in several fine poems, including the spooky ‘Original Residents,’ where thrifty ghosts of the war years ‘peel back your fat duvets. What soft skin,/we think, what soft, soft hands you have.’ That touch of the fairy tale at the end is nicely sinister. ‘The Fathers’ sees grown-up daughters all over a nocturnal city cope with the return of their grumpy, dearly-missed and keenly-observed dead fathers, they ‘part with a kiss that misses a cheek — lint/left on coats, buttons done up wrong.’
Catherine Smith’s work is wonderfully quotable, genuinely moving, full of careful witnessing; there is a marvellous excess to her imagination which poem after poem catches up in flurries of rhetoric. When that is judiciously deployed, as in the magnificently titled ‘The World Is Ending Pass The Vodka’ she shows real promise. I’m not as convinced as she appears to be that sex is her deepest theme, but, as they say, when it’s right — as in the moment in ‘Heckmondwike’ when the would-be masochist realises ‘he’s forgotten the Safe Word’ — you know it’s right.
Tom Pow has been teaching Creative Writing at the Crichton Campus of Glasgow University for eight years now. The campus, on the outskirts of Dumfries, is a former asylum built in the nineteenth century. I remember it from visits as a large site with magnificent Victorian buildings in red sandstone including a church and a theatre, a kind of miniature city within a large town. His new collection plays with all these ideas of marginality and microcosm, reanimating the interior lives of inmates and staff, recounting visits by famous individuals as diverse as General Tom Thumb and Sigmund Freud, and taking in such disparate themes as Outsider Art, Nebuchadnezzar and the so-called Ice Man discovered on the Italian-Austrian border. It shows a poet of considerable range deploying all the formal gifts at his disposal in the service of a rich and troubling theme: not how do we care for each other, but how do we care for those we have declared to be ‘other’?
The title poem, ‘Dear Alice’, imagines a correspondence between Peter Pan, reinvented as a patient, or perhaps a patient reinventing himself as Pan, and Alice, apparently narrating her own adventures from Wonderland. Hook becomes the psychologist in this scenario, ‘we fight on and on, yet show no scars’, and the poem uses subtly jarring half- and off-stress rhyme to create a poignant sense of the permanently-interrupted life:
Me, I’m captain
of my own ship, absolved from time’s stain,
though I’ll never step ashore. The sun
sinks now over these soft green hills.
Muffled, I hear geese’s meaningless calls.
Somewhere, I’ve missed out on love, dear Alice.
Wendy tells me I don’t know how to kiss.
The book is nimble in finding analogies between Celtic mythology, the psychological extremes of balladry, and the ill-understood suffering of the patients, whether in the figure of Deirdre, singing to appleseeds, or by weaving together the old tale of Rashin-Coatie (Rush-Coat) with the tiny clothes one man made out of grass in Montrose as recently as the 1990s. The analogy with the mad Nebuchadnezzar, eating dirt and crawling on all fours in a sonnet which nods neatly towards Shelley, helps bind the book together. Grass, with a full sense of its Biblical connotation, is evoked as a symbol of fragility throughout. As in a fine poem is its near-cognate ‘Glass’, taken from an instance recounted by Foucault and significantly recast as a ballad — a triumphant demonstration of the manner in which a formal verse structure, in itself, can become allusive, here of the folktale:
Because I’m made of feathers
I must not fear to fall.
Because I’m made of fear,
you must come when I call.
The book is full of resonant stories and its success depends on how fully it animates them as narratives, as voices, and as forms. In some sections, for instance the sequence ‘Resistances’, it sometimes feels as though too much weight has been placed on the voice: it is a series of utterances apparently by ‘female admissions’ (an ambiguous phrase in itself), dated to 1839. Some of these are enormously moving (‘I lose no more//than the world loses daily’), while others feel too baldly emblematic (‘we are the least deceived/the most free to act’). The ironic contrast — or lack of contrast — between the present and previous use of the site also seems too lightly explored. ‘Inauguration’ is a gently witty confrontation between the academic and the insane where we might have expected something fiercer, whether satiric or destabilising.
Pow is at his most subtle and effective, arguably, when he plays with the issue of interpretation, a matter which might raise both psychiatric and academic eyebrows. In the epigraph to ‘Tryst’ a doctor opines that, in paintings by the mad, ‘the story told is merely stupid and Quixotic’. Here the word ‘merely’ sets us up to interpret the significance or otherwise of the painting the poem describes, a clever way of engaging the reader with the often distancing device of ekphrasis. One artwork represented in the form of another can feel like a step too far, but here we are moved by the image of a woman climbing a ‘fruitless tree’ and ‘the impassive wound/that is her mouth’ precisely because we see meaning where the good doctor found none. In the account of Freud’s famous patient, the Wolf Man, and his visit to Crichton Hall, we are again drawn into the matter of judging an image, here his iconic dream of the wolves sitting in a tree. Told they are actually nightshirts, he asks ‘where are
the seven white wolves/that were in their place?’ imagining them padding between four of the buildings on the estate like harbingers of war, striking a parallel ‘between/Rutherford and Carmount, between/Dudgeon and Monreith’ and ‘between Ypres and the Somme,/between Paschendale and Verdun.’ Meaning here is conveyed simply by pattern, a method which challengingly links the poetic and the paranoid.
The context in which meaning is almost entirely conveyed by pattern is, of course, music, and the type of music in which, arguably, pattern is at its most dominant is fugue. Ciaran Carson’s latest book not only alludes to fugue structure throughout, it shows a musician’s fascination with the harmony of number and with the rigours of counting. The two halves of the book, each thirty five poems long, are filled with poems which are either fourteen lines long, or are multiples of that unit. Each line is fourteen syllables in length. The long line has long held a fascination for Carson, as has the sonnet and variations thereon, while thirty five and seventy are of obvious resonance in relation to both Dante (another great counter who Carson has translated with distinction) and, again, the Bible. That the titles of the poems in each section are exactly the same (and in the same order), reminds us of Marx’s pronouncement that history repeats itself first as tragedy and second as farce. In other words, structure itself, before we have read a word of the poetry, alerts us to seek out parallels, dyads, mid-life crises and, potentially, love poems.
What we discover is a world of lovers, doubles, spies and doubtful memories. Recurrent motifs reconfigure themselves in patterns that nag at the reader’s memory as we try to distinguish the melodies and unravel the shifting, almost twitchy transitions of ‘I’ and ‘You’. Sometimes one lover is addressing the other, and we must determine which one, sometimes they are reporting something the other has said, and we must determine the accuracy of what is being said as well as the motive for saying it. Both allude to a baroque European context in which the distances between languages and the distances between ideologies are set against the complexities of human intimacy. Ireland is haunted by Germany in particular, Belfast by Berlin: ‘We were in the Ulster Milk Bar I think they blew up back/in the Seventies’ is echoed by ‘The Wall was not long down. It was Easter 1990’ . Motifs familiar from earlier books recur and reverberate from a familiar piece of porcelain and the bombing of Dresden to the deafening, music-destroying engines of helicopters which have hovered over previous books. Apples and perfumes, quilts and Afghan rugs, pens and watches, shapeshifting horses and fetches and doppelgangers of all descriptions haunt these pages.
This could be maddening in two senses: if it only amounted to the swirl of images deployed by those who interpret postmodernism as a chaos which there is no point in attempting to add up; or if the arrangement of these elements was drily decorative, a pattern for its own sake. Neither is the case here. The structural tension between the book’s two halves is echoed by the passionate tension that exists between the two lovers, who remember and reinvent each other throughout, recounting and reinterpreting anecdotes and memories from their own and each other’s experience with the convincing goad of necessity: they, and we, need to know. ‘You know how you know when someone’s telling lies? you said. They/get their story right every time…’. This has all the intricate intertwining of both love-making and dance, it is a duet, as the imagery keeps finding new ways to remind us:
You reached suddenly across the table to put your mouth
to mine, muttering what I took for a fugue on your lips.
Moreover, symbolic balances can be depended on when human reciprocity cannot: thus we know if a description of perfume in the first half of the book brings us to a mention of Iris leading women to the underworld, then in the opposing half a remark about negotiation will bring us to a description of Hermes also leading the dead below.
As across all his books, Carson demonstrates that he is a great poet of the list, of the music of technical terminology, and of the twists of the anecdotal. Thus it is that a description of the Omega watch in the first half is gorgeously technical:
Lovely work: levers, bearings, ratchets, gears, wheels, screw and springs
performing their task of intricate synchronicity.
Lovely case: gold bezel, black guilloche enamel inlay.
Original crown. Original black silk ribbon band.
Whilst in the second the threatening finality of the word ‘Omega’ is displaced by a Rolex Oyster so that ‘I watched the time go by on your glowing watch as you slept/beside me, not quite as naked as the day you were born.’ This gives way in turn to the erotic adventure of stealing an oyster knife ‘from a comprehensively stocked kitchen implement shop (you can hear him relishing that phrase):
Then over to rue Montorgueil to ogle the oysters
reclining tight-lipped on their beds of crushed ice and seaweed.
…You opened one with a dab twist. When you gave me the knife
to try my hand slipped and I gashed the knuckle of my thumb.
Before I could protest you put your mouth to the deep cut.
When you raised your head I kissed my blood on your open lips.
The tales told by his idiosyncratic voices are inconsequential-seeming, constantly side-stepping expectation, throwing out and abruptly testing what seem like apothegms with an exuberant largesse that successfully recalls his musical master in this endeavour, the Bach of the fugues. The pleasure the reader can take in this is, unfortunately, not something fully accessible to the reviewer. Reviewing is reading done incisively, to a purpose, it is grateful for short books with clear themes. But this mode, which would seem to favour poetry over longer-term, more immersive art-forms like the novel, is unable to cope adequately with the full diversity of contemporary poetry. Carson’s book is as demanding, engrossing and satisfying as the best novels aspire to be, but its strategies, though they borrow from narrative and have clear roots in folk tales, film noir and European fiction (one of the key poems is a reading in both sense of Hesse’s Glass-Bead Game), are more reliant on the analogy they establish between poetic form and musical structure. The rewards the reader can reap (and the reviewer can only anticipate) are those of perceiving theme as a constitutive element within a deeply-satisfying architectonic structure.
Each of these three poets is articulating a version of poetic truth: Catherine Smith honours that emotional truth revealed by the passionate body; Tom Pow, through examining the historical context of a specific place, presents us with uncomfortable truths about how well we know ourselves; Ciaran Carson’s seamless interweaving of cultural estrangement with the deeply personal suggests that the truth about our complex interactions is revealed by the exact wedding of structure to content. There is a range of ambition and achievement demonstrated by these three books that indicates just how various and exciting poetry can be. As Carson puts it:
…Fugue, my professor said, is a kind of trance
in which the victim disappears for years on end, until
he comes to himself in a strange town and quits the double
life he led unbeknownst to himself.
(Published Poetry London, Summer 2008)