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The Shrinking Lines of War: Marc Pietrzykowski on Ciaran Carson and Medbh McGuckian 


Breaking News by Ciaran Carson. Wake Forest University Press, 59 pps.

The Soldiers of the Year II, by Medbh McGuckian. Wake Forest University Press, 130pps.

Most readers familiar with the work of Irish poet Ciaran Carson will have noticed by now that his line is shrinking. The long, looping, snarled syntax of Carson’s early, C. K. Williams-inspired work dwindled first to the alexandrine sonnets and translations of The Alexandrine Plan and The Twelfth of Never, then to the loose pentameter line used for his translation of the Inferno, and now, appropriately enough, to the one, two, and three beat lines of those poems in Breaking News not composed by appropriating the texts of war correspondent William Howard Russell. Figuring out why Carson’s lines have shrunk so is difficult to say, but to simply acknowledge this rather obvious shift in style without examining the qualitative effect such an aesthetic choice has had on his work would not do it justice. Perhaps the reader who comes upon Breaking News without prior knowledge of Carson’s style would be able to judge more objectively the poems therein, but then the decision to cast these poems just this way could never have been reached if the context of his career did not exist as a sort of grain to go against, and so valuation of these poems must be arrived at in light of his decision. One can confound expectations, in other words, only if expectations are present, and in Carson’s case, the act of confounding is not destructive, but an attempt at revitalization.[private]

To illustrate, without resorting to a bar graph, the reduction of Carson’s habitual long line through the course of his career, here is a characteristic selection from his 1989 book, Belfast Confetti, titled “Yes”:

I’m drinking in the 7-Up bottle-green eyes of the barmaid
On the Enterprise express—bottles and glasses clinking each
When the train slows with a noise like Schweppes and halts
just outside Dundalk.
Not that unwontedly, since we’re no strangers to the border
As the Belfast accent of the tannoy tells us what is happening.

I’m about to quote from Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep
Blossoming mushroom: from some unknown tree a leaf has stuck to it—
When it goes off and we’re thrown out of kilter. My mouth is
Of broken glass and quinine as everything reverses South.

And another, titled “Picador,” from 1998’s The Twelfth of Never:

We swept through Austerlitz and Friedland like a plough
Through bloodied water, and all Europe cowered.
But when we came to Moscow, we were overpowered
By snow; our horses wallowed in the wintry slough.

Up to the stirrups in it, they plunged this way and that,
Slowly scattering across the moonlit landscape.
The Cossack dogs snapped at our heels. We’d no escape.
The huge stars glittered in their frozen concordat.

We found ourselves alone on the edge of a wood,
My horse and I, where wolves howled like a hundred banshees.
My bullets were all spent. I had no food.

I carved the horse’s belly open and I crawled
Inside. I ate her flesh for weeks, expiring by degrees.
Some day you’ll find us where her bones and mine are sprawled.

Obviously, more than just a restriction of line length is occurring here; as the language gains density, Carson’s personae grow more culturally and historically distant (a move that began with 1994’s First Language). Breaking News shrinks the line about as far as it can go, while shifting its landscape back to the contemporary (at least in those poems directly penned by Carson). Here is the poem “Trap”:

backpack radio



I don’t
read you

what the


Carson has displayed a great fondness for haiku, referencing the form in his own work (as in “Yes”), and also publishing many of his own translations, but that predilection alone cannot account for the reductive principle at work in Breaking News. It does, however, prevent the shift in style evident here from being a successful disruption of his reader’s expectations, if that was the aim—both the early haiku fixation and the shift to alexandrines mean the astute reader could see the move to short lines in Breaking News as somewhat obvious, even predictable, if only in retrospect. If we consider these poem an attempt at mutating (a la Agnello?) into another kind of poet, or at least as a means of expanding one’s poetic turf, then they are a bit more successful, but as the gesture of a poet concerned with the shape of his career rather than as fine poetry.

When navigating the glut of imagery and music in Carson’s earlier work, a reader can more easily forgive the uninspired patch, since another dazzling bit will no doubt follow on the duller one’s heels. Such is not the case, of course, with poems as quantitatively slight as those in Breaking News, and so an odd sensation arises as one reads, quickly, through them: a sense of appreciation, even pride, for Carson’s willingness to change his style so radically, while simultaneously feeling disappointed by the results. Perhaps the purposefully malleable example of Yeats lurks somewhere in the alleyways of Carson’s poetics; whatever the inspiration for it, making such a choice in a time when the strict marketing of one’s easily recognizable poetic brand is the rule of the day requires not a little courage.

Another decision Carson makes in Breaking News is to use the work of war correspondent William Howard Russell as the texte of some of the poems in the collection; two of the selections even take his words verbatim and break them into lines, altered here and there, as Carson mentions in the afterward, for rhythm and rhyme. The line lengths of both these poems are more various than the other selections in the book, and both are easily the best therein; though not an original idea by any means (Pound and Lorine Neidecker have worked successfully in this mode), it allows Carson to focus less on the gesture he intends to make and more on shaping the melody of the lines to their content. Two stanzas from the “Tchernaya” section of “The War Correspondent” illustrate how deftly Carson handles a line when no greater, self-conscious gesture is at stake:

Finches and larks congregated in little flocks.
Buntings, gold-crested wrens, yellowhammers,
linnets, wrens, and tomtits formed little claques,
piping and twittering and shimmering.

Strange to hear them sing about the bushes
in the lulls between the thud of bombs,
or to see between the cannon-flashes
the whole peninsula ignite with blooms…

The two poems in question—”The Indian Mutiny” and the aforementioned “The War Correspondent”—comprise seventeen pages of Breaking News, and indicate, one would hope, the sort of direction Carson’s work might take now that the act of refashioning his poetic self-image has passed the terminal stage. It is difficult to say if this act could have been skipped over, or at least elided, in terms of publication; in any case, there it sits, and if “nice try, Ciaran” seems an inadequate response to a book of poems, well, this is an inadequate book of poems. Curiously, the very inadequacy of the work (all but seventeen pages of it, that is) indicates a grander ambition then we might have expected from Carson, a consideration of his place in posterity. The poet who criticized Seamus Heaney for getting lost in “metanarratives” while the Troubles were raging seems to have undertaken the project of analyzing and expanding the narrative of his own career.

Where Carson’s self-regarding poetic gesture leaves the reader unsure of what might come next (and perhaps that is really the point), Medbh McGuckian’s reliance on a single gesture is reassuringly static. That is not to say that The Soldiers of the Year II contains any great poems—it does not—but rather that McGuckian’s career has involved establishing a self-limited poetic space in which to work, and then festooning it with a variety of ornaments and themes. McGuckian herself has described it, in typically evasive fashion, as being “like embroidery, I guess.” So, while The Soldiers of the Year II offers no great poems, it does provide us many a great and delectable moment within individual poems, before McGuckian pulls the rug out from beneath us—her central gesture, evasion as poetic principle. McGuckian’s work is what Kant had in mind when discussing “purpose without purposiveness,” having found himself enraptured by the ornamental pattern stenciled on his kitchen wall. John Ashberry, among others, has built a body of work from similarly elusive maneuvers, but where he looked to abstract art as a compositional principle, McGuckian seems to have post-World War II literary theory in mind. “To My Disordered Muse” offers a more or less typical example:

The wall itself was almost hidden in summer
once the glens were opened, the commonness between us.
But there comes a time in life when the senses
change places, or the brain takes all that the seasons
describe, and cannot wait for the first snowfall.

The divisions of the town passed through his own
body, existing without, and without, and without,
the several cities in one, the bell-tongues and blood-
greased stones, the garden of masts, ships which fill
every inch of the tartan river, its last seaward turn.

Images approach, and fade away, the act of fading away hardens into something else, and so forth. The virtue of refusing to light on anything we might call “concrete” by constantly shifting and circling around certain leitmotifs (in the case of The Soldiers of the Year II, those of soldiers going to or coming home from war, their families, and watershed events in Irish history, and as well as those more constant in McGuckian: rooms and enclosures, landscape, the bodies’ relationship to the world) makes the error of repetitiveness more stark; worse, the endlessly diaphanous quality, extended over the course of nine books, removes her work further and further from broad social engagement, something we might think is the goal of an ideologically grounded verse. The argument undergirding McGuckian’s work, largely centered around the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, has to do with rejecting the “male voice” of order and reason, since women are thought to begin their process of identification with the world outside of that language, and so spend their time trying to fit into the vocabulary that represses them. There are all sorts of very obvious problems with this idea—perhaps most obviously, that drawing any simplistic connection between physiology and gender attributes (and they all, as yet, are simplistic) is a colossal mistake—but for the purposes of creating a poetry, this act of self-exile also limits the effect the poet can have on her audience.

Then again, social engagement may not be the goal at all. McGuckian has summed up her feelings on publishing her work thusly: “I feel that you’re going public—by writing the poem you’re becoming a whore. You’re selling your soul which is worse than prostitution—in a sense you’re vilifying your mind. I do feel that must be undertaken with the greatest possible fastidiousness.” Such an attitude makes one wonder why she bothers to write in the first place, but then statements such as this may just be more deliberate acts of evasion. Despite all the theorizing about (and inherent to) McGuckian’s work, then, it may be she only wants to establish her space and then wait for anyone seeking a respite from more “orderly” voices to come find her:

House without chimney or the grasp
of the earth, all stove, all wilderness,
all auscultation and masceration,
centripetal and centrifugal
as sea-robbed land: roped-off chamber
last lain in by Swift in his suit
of Irish poplin, glebely riding
the common strand towards Howth.

There seems little point, given the richness of such language, in asserting that aligning a domesticated, “disorderly,” dreamy body of work with the feminine only reinforces some very basic gender stereotypes. The grating repetitiveness of her approach, also in light of her obvious facility for intellectually gorgeous verse, is not ignorable, however. As with Breaking News, the experience of reading The Soldiers of the Year II is a strangely mixed one: admiration for the courage necessary to manifest a poetic gesture one believes important, while being disappointed at the blurry sameness of the results. Neither poet has taken the advice of Job’s wife and abandoned their integrity, but then the expression of integrity has a variety of means at its disposal, and both poets reviewed here have the talent and, we would hope, the time necessary to explore these means in greater depth.[/private]