Ciaran Carson
On the Night Watch


Published by Gallery

Showing not Telling

Sue Hubbard finds what slips between languages in collections by Gillian Clarke, Valérie Rouzeau and Ciaran Carson.

In his essay The Task of the Translator, Walter Benjamin asks, 'What does a literary work "say"?'. 'No poem', he suggests, 'is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener'. In this statement he seems to be implying that a work of art is always a showing rather than a telling and goes on to add:

Its essential quality is not statement or the imparting of information. Yet any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information - hence, something inessential.

Ultimately, translation, he suggests, serves the purpose of expressing the central reciprocal relationship between languages. Benjamin appears to take Freud's view that art, at its best, reveals the latent content behind what is manifest. Freud said of poets:

"… One may well sigh, when one realizes that it is nevertheless given to a few to draw the most profound insights, without any real effort, from the maelstrom of their own feelings, while we others have to grope our way restlessly to such insights through agonizing insecurity".

Groping towards meaning is thus the role of psychologist, translator and poet alike. For as in psychoanalysis profound insights are reached through the revelation of what it is we really meant rather than what it is we have apparently said. A poem, thus, becomes an act of almost alchemical transformation, a translation between feeling, meaning and language. This reciprocal relationship between languages, this revelation of what exists in its gaps and spaces, is what these three books have in common. Meaning exists in the gaps between Clarke's Welsh and English, between the French baby-talk, neologisms and translated English of Rouzeau and Wicks, and in the echoes of Irish, especially the genre of song known as sean-nós ('old style'), which linger behind Carson's terse English lines.

The nuts and bolts of language are also of fundamental concern to Ciaran Carson. In perhaps his best known poem Belfast Confetti, the nitty-gritty of language, its fonts and letters, its question and exclamation marks become synonymous with the ammunition of riot squads during the troubles. Carson was brought up bilingual in Irish and English, and the sense that meaning lurks beneath perceived surfaces is everywhere in his new poems. The style is something of a departure from his previous long lines reminiscent of C K Williams. Made up of fourteen terse lines of two or three words each (a bow towards the sonnet form), each poem is written in couplets, with spaces in between each couplet. Their real subject is silence; the attempt to find meaning in the interstices and lacunae of what appears to have been said. Here, Carson demonstrates a sympathy with his compatriot Beckett who wrote of:

The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express. (Proust and the Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit.)

Written in three movements, the poems are full of darkness, illuminated only by tentative chinks of light in the small hours and the first flutters of birdsong. Meaning is elusive, seeping through slits and cracks, nooks and crannies. The dawn is full of the wail of sirens or as in 'Between':

two hoots
of a factory horn

an aperture
of silence two

puffs of smoke
an afterthought

against the blue
of night

becoming morning
as you stoop

below the lintel
to step out

into the street
beware

Mortality overshadows these poems. In the first light 'flickering / through the slats', 'we turn on / the radio for / but will not hear / about tomorrow'. They are infused with a sense of waiting, though for what is not made clear. The image of the common medicinal flower eyebright or euphrasia is scattered among these poems as a metaphor for clear-sightedness. Yet such clarity is only ever fleeting:

we speak in sign
language at times

not in so many words.

Remembering and forgetting, and the memories we choose, or are capable of hanging on to, are themes that run through this work like a refrain. At school Carson was influenced by Hopkins and Frost, both poets whose meaning lurks behind the heft and power of their language. He has said in the past that he is not interested in ideology, only in language. But these obdurately bleak poetic palimpsests reveal an endless search for a form of transcendence, which seems forever to be just out of reach.


Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

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© 2014 Sue Hubbard