Irish Literary Society – Ciaran Carson, A Celebration

On Monday, 24 February, it was a great pleasure to contribute to an evening celebrating the work of  Ciaran Carson at the Bloomsbury Hotel, London. Jointly  sponsored by the ILS and Queen’s University Belfast’s Seamus Heaney Centre, the event consisted of readings and reminiscences by Liam Carson,  Bernard O’Donoghue, Martina Evans, Cahal Dallat, Leontia Flynn, James Conor Patterson and Anton Thompson-McCormick. Hosting the event was the novelist, Glenn Patterson, who directs the Heaney Centre.

The  poem I chose to read was ‘Dresden’, from Ciaran Carson’s collection The Irish for No (1987), primarily because it is a brilliant piece, but also since the 75th anniversary of its bombing had occurred earlier in the month. What also strikes one immediately about that particular poem is how markedly different it is in style from so many of the other ‘war’ poems of the period, particularly those of Heaney-Longley-Mahon generation, and yet how conscious of their work. While its ostensible subject is historical, the reminiscences of a character known as Horse Boyle, the gaps, hesitations, self-corrections, digressions and contradictions in the narrator’s recollection of those stories make it quickly apparent, however, that Carson is engaged by issues of form, language, narrative and textual authority. The less than illuminating disclosure that ‘Horse Boyle was called Horse Boyle because of his brother Mule’ places the reader on guard from the outset. It is not until line four that he begins to command attention, when the narrator details the unprepossessing nature of Boyles’ domestic circumstances;  Horse shares a ramshackle caravan with Mule  in a remote spot outside  Carrick. It is out of such impoverishment, economic, cultural and emotional, ‘Dresden’ obliquely implies, that so many of Ireland’s current woes arise. For the narrator, however, the brothers’ home-base is not devoid of attractions, albeit of an unconventional, postmodernist kind. Heaps of empty baked-bean cans form ‘baroque pyramids’, he tells us. Made up of ‘rusts/ And ochres, hints of autumn’ (11), worked upon by the elements and time, the tins have fused together – like the twins? – into an unstable sculpture.

Like that of his counterpart in Muldoon’s ‘Anseo’, much of Horse’s schooling appears to have involved subjection to a sadistic Master. Deprivation partly explains, though does not justify the violence McGinty’s exacts upon his charges, beating them strap ‘stuffed/ With threepenny bits’.. Horse’s aside about his teacher ‘nearly’ becoming a priest leads one to speculate on how Father McGinty might have interpreted Christ’s command to ‘Suffer little children…to come unto me’.

The poem’s climax comes in stanzas eight to ten, which reveals how Horse emigrated to England, endured an arduous career in scrap in Manchester, before enlisting in the Royal Air Force during World War Two. The most devastating experience during the war for him was taking part in the fire-bombing of Dresden. Beneath the ‘rapid desultory thunderclaps’, he could hear, or imagined he could hear ‘a thousand tinkling echoes’, as ‘All across the map of Dresden, store-rooms full of china/  shivered, teetered/ And collapsed, an avalanche of porcelain, slushing and/  cascading: cherubs,/  Shepherdesses, figurines of Hope and Peace and Victory,/  delicate bone fragments (15).

The reference to ‘the map of Dresden’, rather than ‘Dresden’ stresses the importance of distance in the poem, how everything within it is represented and re-presented. For the air-crews, the city exists only as a diagram, a piece of made-up lines. The allusion to ‘bone fragments’ might lead one to expect some mention of the 35,000 Germans killed in the air-raid, yet both Horse and his proxy are silent on the human cost. Instead they focus exclusively on the ruin inflicted on the city’s stocks of china, vividly recreating it for us as a visual and aural spectacle; by using words like ‘avalanche’ and ‘cascading’ they naturalise destruction, and so deflect attention from human agency. The ‘writerly’, ‘open’ nature of Carson’s poem compels its readers to supplement it with meanings and narratives of their own, considering the large moral questions raised by the mass targeting of non-combatants, and how in more recent, localised conflicts they continue to take the brunt of violence. In depicting the shattering of the cherubs, shepherdesses and abstract figurines – images betokening Christian and Enlightenment ideals – Carson hints at the fate of the grand narratives in the modern era. More particularly, the poet may well be casting a cold eye on Churchillian rhetoric,which constantly encouraged Britain’s war generation to concentrate on the goal of Victory. The poem deliberately avoids giving an answer as to whether the Dresden bombing was justifiable or not, but it does offer a glimpse of the rewards in terms of ‘Hope’ and ‘Peace’ that Horse and his like enjoyed in the post-war years.

As this ‘Cold pastoral’ moves to its conclusion, one last art-work is presented for our inspection. This is a statuette which figured importantly in Horse’s childhood and adolescence. While the rest of his family were absorbed in  nightly devotions, his eyes would rise towards this kitsch figurine, which, as Neil Corcoran points out, functions as ‘an erotic substitute’ or double for the Virgin Mary. The heart-broken, wifeless Horse is unable to forget how this china dairy-maid ‘seemed to beckon to him, smiling/ Offering him, eternally, her pitcher of milk, her mouth of rose and cream’ (15). Unlike the ‘unravish’d bride’ of Keats’s imagining or Heaney’s ‘frail device’ which survive to embody universal truths, the object of Horse’s reverence endures only as a fragment and a memory. He relates how on one unspecified day, trying ‘to hold her yet again’, he dropped her. In what proves to be the only action he performs in the poem, Horse takes down and shows the narrator a biscuit tin which contains all that is left of the ornament, ‘a creamy hand’, an ‘outstretched/ Pitcher of milk’ (15-16). A container of spoilt, ‘antique’ remains, the tin is clearly analogous to the caravan which confine the Boyle twins in a loveless, womanless state.

What breaks the momentum and pathos Horse’s narrative has managed to create is the ‘scraping’ and ‘tittering’ which heralds the return of his drunken brother. Mule’s arrival clearly snaps ‘the thread’ connecting teller and listener, and serves as a cue for the frame narrator’s departure. The closing obstacles he negotiates, ‘the steeples of rust, the gate that was a broken bed’ (16), exemplify the unconsoling, anti-Romantic nature of Carson’s art, and the corroded, damaged spiritual and cultural environment in which it makes its way and mark.