Two of the poets whom Cahal Dallat focused on in the week in Carnlough in August were Ciaran Carson and Lucie Brock-Broido, and so I’ve been reading both lately.
I was already familiar with some of Carson’s poetry, though, as noted here before, I’ve read more of his prose than his poetry, but when I was at the Poetry Business HQ two weeks ago I borrowed a book by Carson which I’d not seen before: From Elsewhere (Gallery, 2014) . It’s an unusual book, with an unusual premise: it consists of Carson’s translations of the short, rather dream-like yet precise, gnomic poems of the French poet Jean Follain (1903–1971) with each translation faced with a poem by Carson which responds, sometimes obliquely, in some way to the content or tone of the Follain poem. In his own poems, Carson matches the chiselled detail of the translation; for example, in the way the studied, pent-up masculinity in his ‘Closed Circuit’ responds to that within Follain’s ‘Contours’:
He is the regular whose eyes you avoid
because the only time you did not
yours were met with a blank
still you think he knows
who you might be
[. . .]
who takes his gun apart
and reassembles it
three times a day
every day that passes
From time to time the harness maker
would turn his hand
to barbering armed with razor
everything stayed coiled
within him and about him
his great forked beard [. . .]
No doubt, Carson’s references, as here (presumably), to the ‘Troubles’ and the British Army occupation of Belfast are intended as a mirror of sorts to Follain’s responses, however tangential, to living through the Nazi occupation in his native Normandy and then the Allied pulverising of Caen and Saint-Lô. Both poets’ poems have an attractive freshness born of what seems like spontaneous, associative composition which appears to go with the flow with little cerebral overlay. The appearances in Carson’s poems of the stock images and paraphernalia of the North of Ireland conflict are memorably vivid – ‘the painted kerbstones/ bordering a waste ground/ where the skeleton/of a child’s perambulator smoulders/ at the heart of a dead bonfire’ (‘The Geography Lesson’). Sometimes, though, they have a degree of repetitiveness which is either a little wearing or a deliberate stroke of genius depending on your viewpoint, e.g. ‘upon a mantelpiece/ a Dresden vase crowded/ with open-mouthed flowers/ trembles about/ to topple/ over’ (‘Reverberation’) is resoundingly echoed by ‘the whole house shuddering/ under the onslaught/ the Dresden milkmaid figurine/ falls from the mantelpiece/ and shatters on the hearth’ (‘Covert’). Occasionally, a line-break appears obtuse to the point of cussedness: surely the break should be after ‘was’ rather than ‘boy’ in ‘As he told it/ when the boy/ he was stumbled’. But these are minor quibbles, as Carson’s translations and his own poems are limpid and often beautiful.
Brock-Broido, who died last year aged just 61, produced four collections of poetry in her lifetime, from the first three of which Carcanet selected the poems published for a British readership in Soul Keeping Company (2010). They have a formality reminiscent of great American poets like Tate, Lowell, Bishop and Plath, and a worldview full of curiosity about history, fact and language. In a fascinating 1995 interview with Bomb magazine, she described her writing process:
Yes. I listen to the poem. First I hear the provocation and the name, and the trouble, the trouble in mind. But then what I listen to is not what provoked the poem, not what named the poem, not what I originally insisted that the poem was going to be about. The poem has to have its own circulatory system, and I begin again. When I’m “composing” it, I can say anything, no one’s looking. I can be overwrought, underfed, I can be anything. It’s in the editing of it that I allow the poem to tell me what its particular truth will be. Even if that truth is Autobiographically Incorrect.
I’m not going to say any more than that I’ve been enjoying her poems so much that I’ve had to limit myself to one a day. I’m late to this particular party but I’m determined to enjoy it.