Monday, March 10, 2008

For All We Know

The maitre d’ was looking at us in a funny way
as if he caught the drift I sought between the lines you spoke.

Here, in "Second Time Around," the first poem in Ciaran Carson's For All We Know (a perfect example of a verse novel, but one the author has not called that himself), Carson's narrator pursues various ways in which meaning can be elsewhere (anywhere but here, that is): "between the lines you spoke" (a traditional example of meaning being elsewhere), but "the drift I sought" there (trying to find the meaning in what another person says), while the waiter seems to have "caught [that] drift" (trying to find the meaning in a conversation one overhears).

Carson continues with words "insinuating something else," again embedded in the dialogue between the speaker and his conversation partner:

For one word never came across as just itself, but you
would put it over as insinuating something else.

The particular "insinuations" of this couple's conversations are the issue here, not the general philosophical-literary-linguistic problem of slippery language. This is made even clearer in the image that follows:

Then slowly, slowly we would draw in on one another
until everything was implicated like wool spooled

from my yawning hands as you wound the yarn into a ball.

This "drawing in on one another" complicates the previous image of "you" talking and "me" listening, in the process rendering another cliché vivid: after "between the lines," the idea of a story as a "yarn" is suddenly much more complex, involving wool, hands, and the winding of a ball of yarn.

This imagery begins a story that is "told slant," to echo Emily Dickinson. The central event is the couple's first meeting, which does not get presented until halfway through the first section of the book, in "Fall," where they have just "exchanged names" when "the bomb went off at the end of the block":

... and drowned all

conversation. All the more difficult to find the words
for what things have been disrupted by aftershock and shock,

a fall of glass still toppling from the astonished windows,
difficult to ponder how we met, if it was for this.

The line about the "fall of glass" took my breath away while I was reading and was my initial reason to quote this passage, but of course it also plays into the theme of uncertain, ambiguous meaning that opens the book.

Shortly thereafter, "Birthright" explores the identities one tries to establish for oneself and the identity that one is finally unable to abandon:

For all that you assumed a sevenfold identity
the mark of your people's people blazes on your forehead.

The malleability of meanings ends up running into the immutable identity one receives at birth: being Irish, being Catholic or Protestant. Still, "whatever happens to you next is nothing personal."

When you begin Part Two of For All We Know, something will seem familiar: the title of the first poem, which is again called "Second Time Around." In fact, the poems in the second part of the book have the same titles as those in the first, in the same sequence. This doubling allows Carson to explore what is "between the lines" further, as the second poem always reflects (if often only indirectly) back on the first.

That does not keep the individual poems from standing out on their own terms. In the second poem called "Treaty," for example, the poem's "you" tells the narrator about growing up "between languages": "My mother spoke one tongue to me, my father another." This resonates with me, though not because of my own upbringing—my wife and I are raising bilingual children. And the resonance is increased when the speaker later adds: "When I learned to write, that was another language again." My children learn English and German at home, and Basel German dialect at day care, then learn to write in German at school, so their layering is similar to that of the speaker's experience here.

The doublings of the poems through the repetitions of the titles is most explicit in the pair of poems called "The Shadow." Echoing a scene from the beginning of the film "The Lives of Others," in which Ulrich Mühe is lecturing to future Stasi officers, the first poem begins:

You know how you know when someone's telling lies? you said. They
get their story right every time, down to the last word.

Whereas when they tell the truth, it's never the same twice. They

The poem later refers to Herman Hesse's The Glass-Bead Game, which becomes the central topic of the longer, second poem called "The Shadow":

It's like this, you said. Those who play the Glass Bead Game don't know
there's a war on they're so wrapped up in themselves and their game.

I've discussed this book at some length in order to more than simply say "get this, it's brilliant." But that's what I want to say in a nutshell. Like his namesake Anne Carson in Autobiography of Red, Ciaran Carson has used the narrative form to channel his playful, explosive side into a shape whose power only increases as one continues reading. In the past, I have always been impressed by C. Carson's work, but not moved. This book is deeply moving, and it concludes with an allusion to a deeply moving film that is just as elusive, Hiroshima mon amour:

You woke up one morning and said, I must go to Nevers.

All that's left after this second poem called "Je reviens" is the concluding poem, "Zugzwang," built, like the first "Zugzwang," around a long, Dante-esque simile. Six times the speaker begins couplets with "as" before concluding:

so I return to the question of those staggered repeats
as my memories of you recede into the future.


For All We Know is the Poetry Book Society Choice for Spring 2008. I've read the recommendations already, too:

Jen Hadfield, Nigh-No-Name
Julie O'Callaghan, Tell Me This Is Normal
Stephen Romer, The Yellow Studio
Kathryn Simmonds, Sunday at the Skin Launderette

Hadfield's book (the first one I read) struck me as quite flat, except for two excellent cat poems at the end. That was a disappointing start, but things got better through the rest of the Recommendations and then Carson's book.

Stephen Romer is another expat, an English poet who is a professor in Tours. His Yellow Studio is a book full of excellent details, along with a goodly number of strong individual poems. There's a fullness to his writing that makes it resonant even with the poems that are not as strong individually.

there were tears, along with tequilas ... ("Recognition")

He requires a definition // and all we can give him are instances... ("A Bridgehead of Sorts")

O'Callaghan's book is a "New and Selected," so it would have been quite startling to have the book seem as flat Hadfield's collection; after all, you should have a certain degree of quality to reach the stage of a "selected poems"! And her book is quite strong. The poems are often quite humorous: "Life is way too short / for blasé colours" ("Spring Robe"). Or a description of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing, in "Saturday Afternoon in Dublin":

Dietrich, meanwhile, has moved on to a beautiful, sad,
song with harps—I'm glad I don't know any German—
it's even sadder hearing words sung
that make no sense.
He says, "Ja, ja," better than anyone.

O'Callaghan was born and raised in Chicago, but lives in Ireland, so it's no surprise, I guess, that she has some expatriate poems that move this expatriate (born in Detroit, living in Switzerland), such as "Home," which you can read all of here (scroll down a bit). The reverse of being an expat is the experience of being back where you raised and finding things different, if only in the slightest ways, as in the poem "Sipper Lids," where O'Callaghan describes not having known what to do with the sipper lid on her hot cup of coffee to go!

In her debut Sunday at the Skin Launderette, Kathryn Simmonds demonstrates that she is a great lister—in fact, though her lists are always convincing and interesting, she demonstrates her skill with lists a tad too often. Still, when her lists are not the whole poem, but are fully embedded in scenes, then the poems work exceedingly well, as in "The Men I Wish I'd Kissed," or even more so in "The Woman Who Worries Herself to Death" and "Handbag Thief." And "Tate Modern" is a memorable poem about contemporary art, as the speaker discovers at the end of the poem that the installation she had liked best (with its abandoned coffee cup, stepladder, and tools, among other things) was a room that was "out of use," that is, closed for renovation.

All in all, not a bad set of Choice and Recommendations: a superb Choice (Carson), two very strong collections (O'Callaghan's and Romer's), one promising debut (Simmonds), and only one book that left me flat (Hadfield's).

(One thing I've noticed: write about a collection by an American poet, and you're bound to find lots of on-line poems to link to. British and Irish poets do not publish as many poems in advance, so many fewer end up on-line as possible links for a blog review!)


Rob said...

I heard Ciaran Carson read in Glasgow a month or two ago. I thought he was terrific. Sounds like a book to buy.

I have Jen Hadfield's debut collection, Almanacs, which was astonishing, so your description of this new one as "flat" really surprised me, but I haven't seen it yet myself. However, I will be reviewing it for a UK print magazine when they send it to me.

Andrew Shields said...

The Carson is so good that it makes me want to finally realize my project of teaching a course on verse novels.

Fredy Neptune, by Les Murray
Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson
For All We Know, by Ciaran Carson

And one or two more, perhaps. Fred D'Aguiar, Bernardine Evaristo, or John Bricuth, say. And since I can teach in German, perhaps Durs Grünbein's "Vom Schnee" or Christoph Ransmayr's "Der fliegende Berg."

Michael Listening said...

I am really glad that you are now realizing your project! The reading has been outstanding so far (I have not read Grünbein yet), and most of your thoughts on 'For All We Know' correspond with the notes I chopped down while reading, although, of course, your blog entry is more elaborate and comes with the better examples. So am I looking forward to that Seminar? You bet!