Earth writing: Seamus Heaney and Ciaran Carson.
A fascination with place and displacement is not confined to Britain and Ireland. On every side it would seem that intellectual life is turning from history to geography. As Foucault compactly puts it:
The great obsession of the nineteenth century was, as we
know, history: . . . The present epoch will perhaps be
above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of the
near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed.(2)
This transition has not involved the substitution of a fixed or neutral sense of `space' for the dynamic models of history developed by Hegel, Macaulay or Taine. All the dimensions of experience, spatial as well as temporal, have been transformed by air travel, cinema, Cubism, General Relativity, and the opening of cyber-space. One might argue about the chronology, but Henri Lefebvre cannot be far wrong when he says, in The Production of Space, that `around 191 0 a certain space was shattered. It was the space of common sense, . . . of classical perspective and geometry ... bodied forth in Western art and philosophy'.(3) What modified it most radically was the impact of Fordist capitalism, a system which so rapaciously bent all the resources at its disposal -- including geography -- to the service of manufacture that it showed space to be a social product as well as a means of production, and thus capable of reinvention through politics, technology, and art.
As I want to show later, Lefebvre's late-Marxist arguments help clarify the relations between geography and writing. A still more important contribution, however, comes from the opposite political extreme, from the later philosophy of Martin Heidegger. As he understands the matter -- in his etymologically inventive prose, which constantly tracks words back towards Indo-European origins -- a place is not the same as a hill or river. Places come into existence through human activity and language; they are intersections of the mortal and the metaphysical unconcealed by building and dwelling. A built bridge, for instance, remakes what is around it. As the product of physical poiesis, it does more than `connect banks that are already there. The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge crosses the stream.... The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream'.(4) What a bridge is to riverbanks, poetry is to dwelling. It potently manifests Being because its poiesis inheres in the language which structures our structuring of the world. `Language is the precinct (templum), that is, the house of Being', and `we reach what is by constantly going through this house.'(5) A poet brings language, in this radical sense, into a state of at-homeness with dwelling. `All the poems of the poet who has entered into his poethood', Heidegger says of Holderlin, `are poems of homecoming', only to add, `But this homecoming is the future of the historical being of the German people.'(6)
The racial atavism of that sentiment indicates the problem. Heidegger's ideal of a life lived in accommodation with the earth has won him environmentalist followers. He has been seen as a precursor of the Greens. As the Ulster poet Tom Paulin points out, however, his political loyalties were repulsive. In an essay which praises the lightness and mobility of Elizabeth Bishop's geographical imagination, Paulin notes that `when the Nazis seized power, Heidegger wrote that the Volk had won back the "truth" of its "will to be". Too easily perhaps, Paulin mocks the Nazi professor in Lederhosen, the would-be peasant philosopher, who `enjoyed walks along woodmen's paths in the Black Forest, which he used as metaphor for his thinking, arguing that Being declares itself in forest clearings', but he concedes the lingering potency of his vision, secured, as it is, by the afterlife of Romanticism. Doesn't Heidegger's `exaltation of the poet reflect two centuries of European aesthetics?' he asks. `If it does, how can writers come to terms with this tainted cultural inheritance? To rip up all those deep-laid roots like so much worn electrical cable is to place oneself in a minority and erect a makeshift building nowhere.'(7)
Admirers of Paulin's poetry will recall, here, the makeshift buildings of his 1987 sequence `The Caravans on Luneberg Heath'.(8) This poem is about the `Pumpkin Hut' erected by a group of writers in Konigsberg during the Thirty Years War, and about Heidegger's compromised position during the period of German defeat in 1945, when the Nazis were signing surrender documents in those caravans. Paulin gives Heidegger his say about `the dwelling of peasants', but contrasts the conviviality and cultural productiveness of the Pumpkin Hut with the Auschwitz stench which hangs about Heidegger's ideal home. What leads an Ulster Protestant to explore these strange conjunctions? One clue can be found in the name of the nonsectarian society which met in the Pumpkin Hut, against the background of a long war which set Catholic against Protestant: the Cucumber Lodge. Paulin has been engaged in retrieving the Enlightenment origins of a masonic and Orange Lodge tradition which, in the wake of the French Revolution, made common cause with Irish Catholics and joined in the 1798 rebellion. When he writes, in the Bishop essay, about being `in a minority' when erecting makeshift structures, we know that one Lodge or another represents the continuing minority' position of Protestants in Ireland. As for Heidegger: to stress that his view of poetry is secured by `two centuries of European aesthetics' is to encourage comparisons between the Romanticism of the Third Reich and the chthonic strain in nationalism elsewhere. And certainly Heidegger's atavism overlaps with the blood and soil commitments of Padraic Pearse, and the `Thirty-two counties, Gaelic and free' ideology of the more sectarian Northern republicans.
I do not mean to imply that Paulin regards Heaney as no better than a Green fascist. Consciously or not, however, there is Heaneyesque parody in the Heidegger of Paulin's poem, digging trenches in home ground like the Derry farmers of Death of a Naturalist (1966) -- like the pen-delving poet, in fact, of that early manifesto piece, `Digging':
this red Rhine clay
lignite and gravel
I stood on the wet
my boots sogged
in muddy water
Indeed, that touch of Ursprach, which roots German speech in German soil, recalls the celebration of Gaelic place names in Wintering Out (1972): `Toome, Toome', `the black O // in Broagh', `Anahorish, soft gradient / of consonant, vowel-meadow'. Though such lyrics echo the dinnseanchas, the Irish poetry of place,(9) they substitute for genealogy and the busy narratives of tribal history which characterise the Gaelic poems a high Romantic urge to empty the scene for sublimity and to authenticate the at-homeness of the speaker by grounding his locale in language. The qualities of `Anahorish', for instance -- simultaneously place and poem-title -- are presented as distilled in the name, which is translated with a possessive at the start of the lyric (`My "place of clear water"') as part of a process which makes the childhood landscape of the poet as elemental and originary as that of the `mound-dwellers' which the lyric retrieves from the Celtic past.
`Anahorish' is beautifully carried by fluently enjambing short lines which cohere through evolving sound-clusters often built around chiming consonants. Yet the poem makes the expressiveness of its vocables subject to the claim that they elaborate a topography enshrined in the name itself in order to suggest that, through the undermusic of anach fhior uisce, we hear a genius loci overlaid by colonization. This is to discount what Tim Robinson has brought out in his work on Gaelic place names -- that they are contingent, workaday, sometimes obscure, and misunderstood by local Irish speakers.(10) Against the charge of essentialism it must be said that, although the reader of, say, `the black O // in Broagh' does not need to know that bruach (`riverbank') has no `o' in Gaelic, the scrambling of the place name by Anglicization, and the tangential accessibility of `that last / gh the strangers found / difficult to manage' to locals of Scottish stock, does make the title-word of `Broagh' a site of some historical and philological complexity. But Heaney feels no imaginative urge or responsibility to make this explicit in the poem, not just because it would disrupt his lyric textures if he engaged in a dictionary-thumbing modernism in the manner of David Jones, but because his poetic instincts are inseparable at this stage from a politics which wants to find, under layers of linguistic colonialism, a more authentic in-placeness in Gaelic than in a hybrid vocable.
Paul Durcan nicely skewers such pieties in `Before the Celtic Yoke', where Mother Ireland complains about the imperialistic Gaels who colonised her before the Normans. As though turning Heidegger against Heaney, she says that her `primal tongue' was ontic and in-place (presumably among the Fir Bolg) until those Micky-come-latelies arrived: `In Ireland before the Celtic yoke I was the voice of Seeing / And my island people's Speaking was their being'.(11) And it is true that, if Heaney did `Come back past / philology and kennings', as `Bone Dreams' in North (1975) invites, he would not arrive at the mutely eroticised landscape posited by that poem without finding his linguistic tracks dispersed, sifted together and apart by invasion and inter-marriage, back and forth, between Ireland and parts of Britain, Gallia, and Scandinavia. It is symptomatic that, when his verse does encounter this sort of linguistic fracturing, in `Beldberg' (North), there is a self-conscious impoverishment of the lyric voice, an emptying through the eye of a quernstone, which seems a function of despair at the grinding away of belonging in the mills of endless regress.
When the lyric voice feels at-home, by contrast, in Wintering Out, there is a trope of territorial self-expression: Heaney becomes the recorder of an `earth writing' (for that is what `geography' means) which the philologically obsessed Heidegger would appreciate:
The tawny guttural water
spells itself: Moyola
is its own score and consonant,
bedding the locale
in the utterance ...
This famous passage from `Gifts of Rain' makes a hauntingly reflexive music (though `Moyola' doesn't sound very `guttural'), but the `harping' river is heard as race music, `in the shared calling of blood' -- a phrase which sits awkwardly with Heaney's recent attempts to present these place-name poems as celebrating `diversity as an implicit ideal'.(12) In `A New Song', he rewrites Robert Emmet's reference, after the failure of the 1798 rebellion, to the `old song' of England's oppression of Ireland,(13) in order to signal another, more successful rising. He does not imagine, however, the non-sectarian return of Paulin's United Irishmen, but a tribal welling-up which will green over the planters' earth writing of `demesnes' and `bawns', a reclamation enacted in the poem's movement towards a Gaelic ending with `rath and bullaun'. These macaronics work against their ostensible pluralism in ways which make it unsurprising that when, as late as 1983, Heaney protested in An Open Letter against his inclusion in the wrongly named Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, he should cultivate a language of at-homeness, dwelling, and proper naming of the fatherland reminiscent (for all its Horatian elegance) of Luneberg heath:
You'll understand I draw the line
At being robbed of what is mine,
My patria, my deep design
To be at home
In my own place and dwell within
Its proper name ...
Does all this mean that a fascination with `earth writing' -- or with the `home text', the `oikos language' of `ecology' -- must taint a poetry of place? To get some purchase on that question it is useful to edge away from Irish circumstances briefly, and turn to the other arts. For Heaney's desire to figure over distinctions between the earth and water of place, speech in the mouth, and the stuff of inscription on the page, has a suggestive parallel in the work of such painters as John Virtue and land artists like Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long. Virtue's current preoccupation is the countryside surrounding South Tawton, Devon. Since moving there in 1987, he has finished more than two hundred black and white paintings of the same small patch of home territory. His huge, unstretched canvases are taken. into the fields, laid on the ground, then daubed with paint, trodden into the earth, and both deliberately and accidentally marked by rain, grass, muddy boots, and sheep droppings. Back in the studio Virtue reworks the scenes, using basting syringes, Chinese calligraphers' brushes, sticks, fingers, and toes,(14) to thicken and rework his images until landscapes are produced in a visual language which marries Samuel Palmer to Jackson Pollock.
Andy Goldsworthy is best known for using found objects -- stones, leaves, icicles, and the like -- to construct transient sculptures in situ. In 1990-2, however, he started making ice and snow drawings. The work began when he went up Black Hill near his home in upper Nithsdale to draw the view. Once there, he gathered a ball of snow and, unsure at first whether to use earth from the hill or the adjacent valley (`The decision was made by the place itself', he says), he stained the snow with soil from the summit, in his studio, and let it melt on a piece of paper.(15) The result was the first of many images which are almost sheer inscriptions of Place. `The paper reacted to the melting snow - buckling and forming a landscape in itself with hills, ridges and valleys', he explains: `Those drawings that did not match my experience of a hill were rejected and in this respect I see them representing a place in the tradition of landscape painting and drawing. Where they are different is that not only do they represent the Lowthers; they are the Lowthers'.
John Virtue resists being categorized as a Green,(16) but Goldsworthy acknowledges his place in a ruralist tradition with environmentalist sympathies. His desire to retain only drawings which seem true to his `experience of a hill' also places him, as he recognises, in a line of Romantic landscape artists. His stained surfaces, in this respect, have affinities with Constable and Turner, but his acute self-consciousness about what is involved in the inscription of locale entails a far more pronounced reflexivity Wordsworth, for instance, drafted his poems about the Lakes using pencils made of local graphite, and his poems on the naming of places speak of literally and figuratively marking the rocks. Goldsworthy's comment, however, that `The relationship between material and source is an essential part of the way I work, and finding raw graphite in the Lake District was a profound discovery', implies a different order of attention, a geo-graphing free of race music: `I was no longer drawing with a material bought from an art shop. I was drawing with the mountain itself'.
The `poetry' which is sometimes looked for in Goldsworthy's titles is more legitimately to be found in the records which Richard Long makes of his work. Ever since A Line Made by Walking was trodden into a field and photographed in 1967, Long has been making lines and circles out of stones, cleared pebbles, water sprinkled on the earth, and so on -- especially in England and Ireland, but also in Nepal, Kenya, and the Americas. Like Goldsworthy he is interested in transient construction, and in allowing physical settings to determine where and what is made. Latterly, he has brought his lines and circles into galleries, and one such display, called `Mud Hand Circles', made from rings of muddy hand-prints arranged concentrically on a wall, caught Heaney's imagination in the mid-1980s, and led him to write `The Mud Vision'. The text-works which Long produces, along with photos and marked-up maps, to bring the experience of his walks into galleries and books, are in effect modernist poems, made up of words or phrases which rarely connect into sentences, but which correlate with objects on the ground.
Long's work on text and place has a lightness yet concreteness which sets useful limits to ways of thinking about earth writing. Does it also begin to suggest a geopoetics which avoids the dark Romanticism of Heidegger? Lefebvre points in the right direction when he says that `Places are marked, noted, named.... Paths are more important than the traffic they bear, because they are what endures in the form of the reticular patterns left by animals, both wild and domestic, and by people'. But he concedes too little to Heidegger and the structuralists when he resists calling this web `a text, or a message'.(17) Words resemble houses and bridges because their vocables and inscriptions are materially and spatially involved products which represent the forms of life. Much the same could be said of the paths which interest Long and Lefebvre. A track guides future travellers. What emerges through use and custom also has a signifying function, though for the track, as for the word, the semantic is only one aspect of the mark. What the track signifies to the stranger is that people in this locale go this way, and that he can accommodate himself to the Being of the place -- or, in more materialist terms, engage in its social practice, develop a grasp of its conventions -- by following that route and reinscribing that sign. From this it is a small step to recognising the semiotic potential of particular footprints, of guiding marks deliberately made at cross-roads, and so on to those informative scratches on tree-bark along the way which are by tradition and etymology the origin of the book (boc is Germanic for `beech').
Books are now so processed and packaged that copies look like identical units of information rather than individually unique physical objects. But even if a modern paperback or computer printout lacks the irregularity, worked mass, and value of a Jacobean folio, it is made from pulped or reconstituted trees, dragged from particular places, and marked with dendritic, minerals which also have a locational history.
The squiggles which cover its pages are more complexly inscripted with information than are the dirty swirls of Andy Goldsworthy's melted snow, but a geopoetics helps us see that the difference is not absolute but one of degree. From this point of view, poems like Heaney's `Anahorish' or his lines on the Moxola spelling itself remain conceits, but their self-conscious linking of graphing and locale reworks, and so reactivates at great depth, a recognition that marks made in place are where writing (even electronically) starts from. The occult power of such conceits makes it the more imperative that poems about locale be written in a language adequate to their human geography.
If `A New Song' and An Open Letter were typical of Heaney, he would lack a range of sympathies, a grasp of cultural perplexity, adequate to the home ground which motivates his early lyricism. Since the mid-1970s, however, he has sought to integrate the diversity which `Broagh' incorporates linguistically into a more comprehensive poetic, and reminded himself that inhabiting a `split culture' can be a spur to creativity. Though audibly in two minds about the ease with which you can be in two minds, and inclined to revert to the notion that `all human beings ... would prefer to live in one' place, he has drawn analogies between the experience of those living in British/Irish Ulster and the `divided loyalties' which apparently helped produce The Prelude.(18) Writing of John Crowe Ransom in 1985, while hinting at his own circumstances as an Ulster poet by then based in Dublin who also worked in Boston (a figure of exile, Sweeney redivivus), he says that Ransom was `in place and displaced and consequently his poetic challenges and their resolutions were tactical, venturesome and provisional'.(19) This is closer to the language which Paulin uses of Bishop than to Heaney's insistence eight years earlier that `we are dwellers, we are namers' secured by the `stable element of the land itself'.(20) It was partly to free himself from what remains grounded in the legacy of Romanticism that Heaney emulated the parable poetry of Eastern Europe,(21) allegorising (too transparently) the political geography of Ireland and moving the verse of The Haw Lantern (1987) with greater freedom between the sort of `Frontier of Writing' which he encountered at British Army checkpoints along the border and the imaginative frontier which writing crosses as it reaches poetic fluency. Increasingly, the balance has tilted away from the poet as Bardic medium of locale towards an admiration for writing which breaks free from and then makes and unmakes places, and, beyond that, for verse as itself a made homeplace. Heaney would now praise those, like Patrick Kavanagh and W B. Yeats, who have made the impulse to at-homeness creatively plastic, and satisfied the need through and in their work.
The consequences of this are clear in the final sonnet of `Clearances', in The Haw Lantern, where Heaney takes the anecdote which begins his 1985 lecture on Kavanagh -- about the felling of a chestnut tree known to him in childhood -- and projects his imagination into that gap which the lecture calls a `place ... all idea',(22) and which the poem calls
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place ...
Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.
When this sonnet appeared in pamphlet form, in 1986, it was printed opposite an abstract by Felim Egan. Previously associated with such figurative Irish artists as Edward McGuire, Heaney now turned to a painter in whom he found a `geometrical reticence and implication'. Interestingly, however, this compliment is attached to a `philological fanfare' on the word `tree'; Heaney digs, with Heideggerean relish, through Old English, Greek, and Sanskrit to its Indo-European root.(23)
As for Yeats, he is a commanding presence in Heaney's Ellmann Lectures, The Place of Writing (1988). From the outset, he has valued Yeats's ability, even in his early work, to bring to life the place names of his childhood in County Sligo: now he is attracted to the mature poetry in The Tower. Playing down the historical meanings which attached to Thoor Ballylee when Yeats bought the Norman, Ascendancy fortress from The Congested Districts Board, Heaney represents it as a bright nowhere: `a sacramental site', or place of vision. `It is obvious', he says, that, for Yeats, `the tower's first function was not domestic. Here he was in the place of writing.'(24) Evidence for this is found in the architectonic images of the tower poems, and in an analysis of syntax and form which works building imagery hard. Heaney argues that `My House', for instance, `begins and accumulates its force as a pile-up of nouns wrested from the air and placed like builder's blocks in a course of stonework, each block handled and fitted without the benefit of mortar, which is to say that the nouns function without the bonding action of a main verb' (p. 26). By means of a manoeuvre which reading Heidegger prepares us for, Heaney advances from this equation of verbal poiesis with building to the lift-off claim -- which yet depends on a poetics of groundedness -- that, in the title-poem of The Tower volume, `the tower's stoniness is repeated in the lean, clean-chiselled obelisk of the verse-form; ... it also marks an original space where utterance and being are synonymous' (p. 30). When Heaney goes on to confirm the identity of utterance and being through place by reminding us that `another tower-dwelling visionary, Rainer Maria Rilke ... declared in his third sonnet to Orpheus ... that Gesang ist Dasein, singing is being, or song is reality', he may not be alluding to Heidegger, but in `What are Poets For?', the philosopher finds his way to just this line of Rilke in order to clinch the claim that `the very nature of language, is Being itself. To sing the song means to be present in what is present itself'.(25)
The suspicion begins to form that, though Heaney has abandoned the stance of the ditch-digging philosopher of `The Caravans on Luneberg Heath', he has curbed what is potentially creative in the disruptiveness of `displacement' by translating the ground of at-homeness from place to text,(26) rather than following the tentative venture of The Haw Lantern beyond Romanticism. There is a yearning for the angels and auras of in-placeness which discourages him from exploring those geographical facts which are detaching language from the sites of dwelling and lines of travel and making even the powerless depend on a global topography of video monitors and information flows. The style of an artist like John Virtue confirms the justice of Heaney's remark that a poet or a painter does not need `modem subject matter' to `engage with the modern world' (he can work with rural themes), because `an artist engages ... through the techniques of his art'.(27) But the indifference or active resistance of Heaney's sensibility to the reinscription of the earth by advanced capitalism does limit his `techniques'.
In `The Mud Vision', for instance, Richard Long's mandala of hand-prints is taken as a counter-apparition to global modernity. The poem starts in an Ireland which is, by Heaney's standards, ostentatiously contemporary: a scene of jet aeroplanes, aerosol graffiti, and satellite links. But these are swept aside as a `rose window of mud' appears in the midlands. This vision is yet another celebration of the chthonic, and it is not surprising to find Heaney explicating the poem as about the projection, and national loss, of `de Valera's dream of transforming the local customs and folk Catholicism of rural Ireland ... into something were self-conscious and purposeful, his dream of founding a culturally distinct and spiritually resistant Irish republic'.(28) It should be clear from this alone how far the poem diverges from the unburdened, earthy lucidities of Long's circles on the wall. Heaney has said that, like the early place-name poems, `The Mud Vision' emerged spontaneously, and that it follows its own `slightly zany logic';(29) but it is constrained by the simplest narrative, leading through the miracle to a phase of disappointment in which photographers film absence and commentators indulge in `post factum jabber'. It is telling that the only heteroglot touch in a poem supposedly about how the Irish appear `for the eyes of the world' should be in a tongue so unlikely to be used by the international media. The fragmentations, mediations, and competing languages of that global machine find no scope in a poem which is commanded to the end by a poet-centred communal `we'.
In Heaney's work since The Haw Lantern, where `The Mud Vision' appeared along with `Clearances', there is a great variety of accomplishment, and a number of wonderful poems -- especially in the second half of Seeing Things (1991). But there is often an uneasy sense, not least in the douzains collected there, that the verse is achieving weightlessness by despecifying familiar situations rather than inventing new ones or welcoming impurities into the poem. This exacerbates a tendency which has long been familiar in Heaney (and which the early place-name lyrics depend on), for poems to be readable as figuratively and even formally about their own conditions of representation -- lyrics about excavating the past in North which are long and narrow and shaftlike, or, in Seeing Things, poems which build verbal structures that are so much places of writing that they turn locales inside out without developing their human geography. The texts are now less likely to be about cottages than like cottages and about themselves, and it is hard to feel, in, say, the second poem of `Lightenings', that the shift of building-work from tenor to vehicle, in the final tercet, can matter as much to the reader as it does to the poet:
Roof it again. Batten down. Dig in.
Drink out of tin. Know the scullery cold,
A latch, a door-bar, forged tongs and a grate.
Touch the cross-beam, drive iron in a wall,
Hang a line to verify the plumb
From lintel, coping-stone and chimney-breast.
Relocate the bedrock in the threshold.
Take squarings from the recessed gable pane.
Make your study the unregarded floor.
Sink every impulse like a bolt. Secure
The bastion of sensation. Do not waver
Into language. Do not waver in it.
This constructs for Heaney, in the poem-as-place, what he said Yeats found in his tower: `Within it, he was within his own mind.... The stone in all its obstinacy and stillness, the plumb bulk and resistant profile of the keep.... all this transmission of sensation and symbolic aura made the actual building stones into touchstones for the work he would aspire to'.(30) What that juxtaposition shows however, is how much is left out of Yeats's tower by Heaney, and out of Heaney's own douzain, when he discounts social geography. Naturally, as a Catholic countryman, Heaney's poetics are cottage-roofed; he does not crave a Norman fortress like the Ascendancy-minded Yeats: but that information remains external to a poem whose real subject is its own construction. The lyric is, admittedly an exercise, and it conjures up pleasures for the reader more subtle and interesting than might be expected as its pattern is fulfilled and its consistent injunctions change in timbre as the poem achieves what it advises. Yet it does illustrate the dangers which lie in wait for a poet who becomes indifferent to what language can do as he draws confidence from what the being-in-place of language stands for. That is why the imperatives, which (in the manner of The Tower) block out a poem which lacks the mortar of connective verbs, sound less bracing than cosy (for a text so self-commanding is clearly not going to `waver / Into language', nor `in it'). The injunctions are self-sustaining, not born of risk and need, and the freedom they bring the poet -- for all the ostensible thinginess of his structure -- is hermetic.
The straggly but attuned long-line poems which make up the bulk of Ciaran Carson's major collections -- from The Irish for No (1987) to Opera et Cetera (1996) -- digest so much dreck and dross, so many advertising slogans, brand names, in-jokes, and round-about stories, and, latterly, so much babel-talk within an ostensibly English language, that almost any of them would offer a contrast to the exalted lyricism of Seeing Things. To keep Heaneyesque motifs in view, however, here is part of one of the prose passages which, along with translations of Japanese haiku, punctuate Belfast Confetti (1989). The piece, called `Brick', reminds us at the outset that an urban poet can be as interested as a rural poet in Grund, because earth is what cities grow from:
Belfast is built on sleech -- alluvial or tidal muck -- and is
built of sleech, metamorphosed into brick, the city
consuming its source as the brickfields themselves were built
upon; sleech, this indeterminate slabbery semi-fluid -- all
the public buildings, notes Dr Pococke, visiting the town
in 1752, are founded on a morass -- this gunge, allied to
slick and sludge, slag, sleek and slush, to the Belfast or
Scots sleekit that means sneaky, underhand,
not-to-be-relied-on, becoming, in the earnest brick, something
definite, of proverbial solidity -- built like a brick shit-house,
we say; or, in dated slang, you're a brick. Yet even this
paradigm of honesty has its verbal swamp. Its rom is in
break, related to the flaw in cloth known as brack; worse,
it is a cousin of brock -- not the hardy badger, but rubbish,
refuse, broken-down stuff, pig-swill, which is maybe why
a German lager of that name never caught on in Northern
Down to the final joke, this mud vision is typical Carson: the gangling, energetic syntax, which keeps the reader working through lists and interruptions; the employment of found material not for an epigraph or note but as part of the texture of a piece, creating a documentary register which lyric Romanticism would deny; the alertness to words as things which warp, connect arbitrarily, and can give anything, perhaps wrongly, a bad name. Carson's attitude to names, indeed, has an anti-heaneyesque edge; his mock etymological earnestness does not find meaning in a bog but discovers a swamp in philology.
Throughout The Irish for No and Belfast Confetti, Carson is drawn to flimsy dwellings -- structures as improvisational as the long lines which he models on the measures of traditional Irish music. He describes the tinker of `Travellers', who wanders through a `personal map' of `junked refrigerators' and `anchored / Caravans' (the line-break is shrewd), and Mule and Horse Boyle, in `Dresden', who inhabit a `decrepit caravan ... Encroached upon by baroque pyramids of empty baked bean tins, rusts / And ochres, hints of autumn merging into twilight'. Horse Boyle's `personal map' is reverting, like brick and autumn leaves, to earth" to sleek and slush, but meanwhile he inhabits its squalor as though in partial atonement for his role in the destruction of a city whose fragile earth constructions were cupboarded within houses as well as lined-up along streets. Flying with the RAF over Germany, he heard `a thousand tinkling echoes -- / All across the map of Dresden, storerooms full of china shivered, teetered / And collapsed, an avalanche of porcelain, slushing and cascading'. A similar kind of destruction consumes the map of Belfast. Urban renewal, expansive consumerism, and IRA bombing ensure that no building is safe, that geography is unstable. Houses rise and fall; even the structures that remain in place are dislocated by the bulldozing around them. As the city sinks `back into the sleech and muck', writes Carson, `Pizza parlours, massage parlours, night-clubs, drinking-clubs, antique shops, designer studios momentarily populate the wilderness and the blitz sites; they too will vanish in the morning. Everything will be revised.'(31)
That is why the interplay, in `Brick', between memory and destruction is so pregnant. At times, as in `Calvin Klein's Obsession', Carson writes with Proustian intensity about the elusiveness of memory in poems which thickly describe the fashions, songs, and smells of a vanished Belfast, without focussing on what the blurb of Belfast Confetti calls `the theme of a place as cognitive map'. More often, the work discloses that underlying or mobilising interest, as when Carson writes and rewrites an account (`Everything will be revised') of `The Exiles' Club' -- a group which meets in the Wollongong or Woolongong Bar, in Adelaide, to drink Irish whiskey and reminisce:
After years they have reconstructed the whole of the Falls
Road, and now
Are working on the back streets: Lemon, Peel and Omar,
They just about keep up with the news of bombings and
demolition, and are
Struggling with the finer details ...(32)
The exiles and Carson collaborate in the collective attempt made by so many inner and overseas emigres to reconstruct a Belfast which keeps falling into the obscurity of the past, yet which could never be said, like Broagh, to emerge from obscurity through writing, let alone be called -- as Heaney, implausibly, does Thoor Ballylee -- `a place that was nowhere until it was a written place'.(33) Belfast is already constituted by a flux of paths, names, and memories, to which Carson would claim no privileged access.
Even so, he too deals in earth writing. Not only does it seem to him as though `every inch of Belfast has been written-on, erased, and written-on again', the place itself maps out as an `ubiquitous dense graffiti of public houses, churches, urinals, bonding stores, graving docks, monuments, Sunday schools and Orange halls'.(34) Inevitably, his local inscriptions are more provisional than those in Heaney. The map on the jacket of Field Work features such lasting sites as Glanmore Castle, Nunscross Bridge, and the River Vartry. On the Bloodaxe cover of The Irish for No, there is a large-scale chart of the crammed, now redeveloped streets of West Belfast. The imperial history which gave meaning to the mapped names has faded, but the streets are also, in the most literal sense, deconstructed. As Carson wittily puts it, `The sleeve of Raglan Street has been unravelled; the helmet of Balaklava / Is tom away from the mouth'.(35) To return home in Belfast is not to revisit a Glanmore cottage, as Heaney does in Seeing Things, to reexperience in-placeness in the light of mature vision. It is to confront that `recent wasteland'(36) which Carson finds off the Falls Road, to encounter an interrogative gap.
Environmental and memorial coherence square with Heaney's admiration for the Romantic solitary, but in Carson the solitude of the poet is investigated in the character of the weirdo described in `Linear B':
Threading rapidly between crowds on Royal Avenue,
Simultaneously, and writing in this black notebook,
A cracked lens fixed with Sellotape ...(37)
This unappetising crank is always on the go, but never getting anywhere. What mystic truths are in his notebook? On one occasion, when Carson managed to peek inside, he saw `Squiggles, dashes, question-marks, dense as the Rosetta stone'. `It was', he says, `either nonsense, or a formula -- for / Perpetual motion, the scaffolding of shopping lists, or the collapsing city.' Linear B' does not deny that this eccentric has something in common with Carson (to discover the ultimate structure of lists sounds like an ambition of our poet), and there is even a possibility that he has found out what keeps Belfast ticking. There are fractal hints in Carson, as though `a many-toothed, elaborate' key might unlock the embedded structures of the city.(38) But a weirdo thinking in code is what the poet would have to be if he were to command the language of place. Carson's aspirations are more modest. If he must go to work alone, he would rather be seen as a postman -- in his father's job -- carrying messages around a city which he can only interpret by traversing. ` think I'm starting, now,' he writes, `To know the street map with my feet, just like my father.'(39)
The idea that streets are known as a map connects with the thinking of other, visual artists in Ulster. Perhaps because of the history of projected plantation and military surveying, and because territory is still divided along lines which are triumphantly reinscribed during the marching season (when roads and lanes and fields become a chart on which to mark community boundaries and symbolic incursions that are already cognitively mapped), artists in the North are inclined to perceive their ground -- the ground, technically speaking, of their painting -- as cartographic projection. Chris Wilson's images of gable-ends in moonlight, and of sprouting potatoes (in decay or regeneration?) in empty churches, are painted on maps. More propagandistically, Rita Donagh's `Shadow of Six Counties I' (1973) shows the British portions of Ulster as a cartographic dark patch. And Michael Minnis, who seems closest to Carson, reconstructs an area destroyed by violence, in `Street Index' (1993), by merging the text of a street directory with the relevant portion of a map. Painting plans of Belfast onto aluminium, and textualising them With script, he cuts holes in his design, or leaves gaps -- which gleam, and mirror the gallery space -- to reveal the strategic silences on official maps of the city that withhold information about the shape of military installations.
Where place leaves off and charting begins, and thus how spatial perception interacts with written discourse, similarly fascinate Carson. It is as though political conditions had produced in the old conflicts of his Belfast a proleptic post-modernism, validating Baudrillard's dictum, `The territory no longer precedes the map . . . it is the map that precedes the territory'.(40) Even that solid-sounding passage already quoted about the `ubiquitous dense graffiti of public houses, churches, urinals . . .' is suspended by its syntax between referring to features of the city and to their representation on an Ordnance Survey map. Like Minnis, Carson is interested in the dubiety of maps which seem authoritative: no more permanent than place, they keep changing along with the city, and shape perceptions of the territory through censorship and velleity. He points out that the North Belfast map of 1920, for instance, refuses, for security reasons, to chart the shape of a prison. Others, from 1788 onwards, represent structures that were never built. Above all, maps are uninformative about those crucial features of place which are temporary: `ramps, barricades, diversions, Peace Lines. Though if there is an ideal map, which shows this city as it is,' Carson adds, `it may exist in the eye of that helicopter ratcheting overhead'.(41)
That `may' is not very strong. The Troubles made the North perspicuous. The Provos whitewashed walls to make soldiers visible to snipers. British patrols were equipped with image-intensifying nightsights to help identify targets. Taxi firms and public bars got fitted with video cameras and entry-phones to discourage sectarian attacks. `We are all being watched', Carson writes, `through peep-holes, one-way mirrors, security cameras, talked about on walkie-talkies, car 'phones, Pye Pocketfones'. Here the poet is on the same wavelength as the artist Paul Seawright, whose Inside Information (1995) reprints the prose piece just quoted (`Information') alongside photos of the RUC at work, and of Willie Doherty, who has adapted the photographic conventions of such eco-artists as Richard Long to Ulster conditions by using superimposed text to bring out the intensity of surveillance in contested territory: cameras, radio masts, meshed walkways, all the dystopian hardware which wires up the Bogside and Belfast.
Because for all the high-tech surveillance, Belfast remains a city of secrets. That is the nature of its geography, partitioned in little as Ireland is at large, by corrugated iron and plexiglass. When Carson goes on a taxi ride, through a `place' which he knows `like the back of my hand', he is forced to add (with a glance at the Ulster emblem) `except/My hand is cut off at the wrist', because the taxi speeds `through a mesh of ramps, diversions, one-way systems' and ends up 'at an open door I never knew existed'.(42) These devious channels show at street level the communicative tangles of the city. The more that is seen and known, along hot-lines and across blackboards, the more confusing it becomes, and the closer cognitive mapping gets to the perceptual loop of the Stealth bomber in the first poem of Opera et Cetera: `Its map is virtual reality'. In the intricate narrative, `Queen's Gambit',(43) a huge array of monitoring equipment is bent to thwarting a raid on a post office, which may be criminal but which also involves the IRA ambushing troops. In the end, counter-measures fail, and the poem leaves you perplexed about where and what has happened. Like Ordnance Survey maps, surveillance falls short of geography, since only place is its own earth writing. As Carson puts it in `The Revised Version', `The city is a map of the city'.
That pleonastic formulation does not validate the thing in itself but carries into the material city inscribed by Carson a sense that the earth writing of place is neither a pre-social given (not even Heaney believes that, despite the articulacy of the Moyola) nor a construction troped as symbolic (the cottage as poem, the poem as cottage), because it maps as it makes locations. This brings an extra band of poetic and so human experience into play which is unavailable (except by glimpses) in Heaney because Carson's writing can engage with the stuff of its own signification without the poem closing up in self-reference. His openness to the technologies which build and constantly revise the informational worlds in which we live and through which we construct the mental maps that help constitute place encourages him to develop that involvement with dynamic poiesis which is registered, rather too emblematically, in The Irish for No and Belfast Confetti, through the motif of demolition and building. With First Language (1993) that emblem is promoted to the book-jacket, in the image of a tower of Babel -- Carson's version of Thoor Ballylee, perhaps, half-dead at the top, aspiring to be demolished -- and the verse more freely fabricates a globally polyglot localism beyond any figurative need for loco-descriptive grounding.
The stuff of the verse is in question because English is here a `Second Language' -- as one title puts it -- to Carson's native Gaelic (the book starts with a poem in Irish), and it is written with a lexically-driven, Alexandrian recalcitrance which suggests a tongue acquired: a kind of translationese (there is language beyond this language), though one which is vividly hybrid. Instead of vocables being arranged to enforce a link between word and thing -- Heaney's `squelch and slap / Of soggy peat' (`Digging') -- attention is concentrated on the material and signifying density of the medium. And when Carson's meditation on Breughel's Babel (in `Contract') prompts him to buzz `words like gremlin, glitch, Zeno's Paradox, and genetrix', to conjugate semantic chance through `bumble, blunder, umbilicals, and guarded labials', it is the other lives of those words which make them distinctive in the way he uses them, not their special relationship with him. He views them as he does turns of phrase in the `vast cartography' of Irish music, passed to him through other fingers and danced to by other feet; and no doubt he runs words in lists until they blur into sound-clusters to match the time-dissolving flow which he admires in the playing of traditional musicians.(44)
Whatever its motivating principles, however, the shape of Carson's evolution is clear, and it isn't surprising to discover that, in Opera et Cetera, the A to Z of the street index gives way to that of the alphabet. Poems start from the meanings thrown up by each of the twenty-six letters, then again from the associations of the call-signs Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc. The generation of text from the sound of words like `gremlin' is now only one of several ways in which what `Second Language' had called `The topos of . . . discourse' -- the place, literally speaking, of language -- becomes the active matrix of geography. Carson's narrative energies, which used to be sprung by places and the memories of those who lived there (as in dinnseanchas), are increasingly involved in micro-stories generated by physical aspects of text. Letters are imaged as icons, for instance, like the italic I which corkscrews the statement, `I is the vertical, the virtual reality', or the zs which form zig-zags down which the poet thinks of skiing.
This is not to say that Carson is now indifferent to Heaney. The intertextuality, however, is not of the obedient sort that one finds in a poem such as `Clearance', in The Irish for No, where that most transient home, a hotel, meets that Carsonesque fate, demolition, to provide an urban version of the epiphanic space-creation which, in Heaney's `Clearances', involves the felling of a great rooted blossomer. Rather as Heaney's sonnet amiably opens a new prospect by removing a Yeatsian chestnut tree, Carson, in Opera et Cetera, puts Heaney in his place by showing that place to be a context, since the place of writing can only be circumscribed by the scope of language. `Romeo', for instance, lists objects from a Belfast childhood, then ends:
The Orange lily and the Shamrock green; shades of
Capulet and Montague
It's all a tangled tagliatelle linguini Veronese that I'm
trying to unravel
From its strands of DNA and language. Perhaps I need a
No doubt this thickens up the Euro-babble a bit heavy-handedly, but it does show Carson's ingenuity in fine detail, since masculine `linguini' (a thin-ribboned pasta, `little tongues') should be feminine `linguine', but isn't, to show its Montague-Capulet incompatibility with `tagliatelle'. Yet Romeo and Juliet got married, much as it's possible, in Ulster, for a Carson to be called Ciaran (or even Ciaran). The integral heterogeneity of the writing says that the gene pool and its language can't be divided along tribal fines even in a feuding society by a poet as reliable as Heaney's The Spirit Level (1996) proclaims him to be.
St John's College, Cambridge
(1) Place and Displacement: Recent Poetry of Northern Ireland, (Grasmere, 1984), `Frontiers of Writing', in The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures, (1995), p. 190.
(2) `Of Other Spaces', tr. Jay Miskowiec, Diacritics, 16, (1986), p. 22.
(3) The Production of Space, tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith, (Oxford, 1991), p. 25.
(4 ) `Building Dwelling Thinking', in Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, tr. Albert Hofstadter, (1971; New York, 1975), p. 152.
(5) `What are Poets For?', in Poetry, Language, Thought, p. 132.
(6) `Remembrance of the Poet', tr. Douglas Scott, in Martin Heidegger, Existence and Being, introd. Werner Brock, (1949; South Bend, Indiana, 1979), pp. 233-69.
(7) `Dwelling without Roots: Elizabeth Bishop', in Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State, (1992), pp. 190-1.
(8) Fivemiletown, (1987).
(9) Seamus Heaney, `The Sense of Place', in Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978, (1980), pp. 131-2.
(10) `Listening to the Landscape', The Irish Review, 14, (Summer 1993), pp. 21-32.
(11) Teresa's Bar, (1976), rev. edn, (Dublin, 1986).
(12) `Further Language', Studies in the Literary Imagination, 30:2, (Fall 1994), p. 9.
(13) Neil Corcoran, Seamus Heaney, (1986), p. 86.
(14) Andrew Graham-Dixon, introd. to John Virtue: New Work, (Bristol, 1995).
(15) All quotations from Andy Goldsworthy, Ice and Snow Drawings: 1990-1992, (Edinburgh, 1992), pp. 7-10.
(16) Martin Gayford, `Nailing Forms Into the Land', The Sunday Telegraph, 23 April 1995.
(17) The Production of Space, p. 118.
(18) Place and Displacement, pp. 1-5, `Frontiers of Writing', pp. 189-90.
(19) `Place, Pastness, Poems: A Triptych', Salmagundi, 68-9, (Fall 1985-Winter 1986), pp. 46-7.
(20) `The Sense of Place', pp. 148-9.
(21) Cf., e.g., the discussions of Miroslav Holub and Zbigniew Herbert in The Government of the Tongue, (1988).
(22) `The Placeless Heaven: Another Look at Kavanagh', in The Government of the Tongue, p. 4.
(23) Seamus Heaney and Felim Egan, Towards a Collaboration, (Fermanagh, 1986).
(24) The Place of Writing, (Atlanta, 1989), p. 24.
(25) Poetry, Language, Thought, p. 138.
(26) See most recently his contribution to `Irish Poetry and the Diaspora', Metre, 3, (Autumn 1997), pp. 15-16.
(27) Interview with John Haffenden, Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation, (1981), p. 66.
(28) `The Frontier of Writing', in Jacqueline Genet and Wynne Hellegouarc'h, eds, Irish Writers and their Creative Process, (Gerrards Cross, 1996), pp. 11-12.
(29) `Unhappy and At Home', interview with Seamus Deane, The Crane Bag, 1:1, (1977), pp. 61-7; interview with Randy Brandes, Salmagundi, 80, (Fall 1988), p. 20.
(30) The Place of Writing, p. 25.
(31) `Travellers', `Dresden', The Irish for No; `Question Time', Belfast Confetti.
(32) The Irish for No; cf. `Schoolboys and Idlers of Pompeii', Belfast Confetti.
(33) The Place of Writing, p. 32.
(34) `Schoolboys and Idlers of Pompeii', `Intelligence', Belfast Confetti.
(35) `Hamlet', Belfast Confetti.
(36) `Question Time'.
(37) The Irish for No.
(38) `Smithfield Market', The Irish for No; cf., e.g., The Star Factory, (1997), p. 137.
(39) `Ambition', Belfast Confetti.
(40) From Simulacra and Simulations, tr. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman, in Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster, (Cambridge, 1988), p. 166.
(41) `Turn Again', `Revised Version', `Intelligence' and `Question Time', Belfast Confetti.
(42) `33333', The Irish for No.
(43) Belfast Confetti.
(44) See Last Night's Fun: A Book about Traditional Irish Music, (1996), p. 88; also pp. 53-4, 75-6, 115-16, 153.
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|Publication:||Essays in Criticism|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1998|
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