C. L. Dallat, review of Breaking News by Ciaran Carson and Lake Geneva by Gerald Dawe,
in The Guardian (Sat. 18 Oct. 2003).

[Sub-heading: CL Dallat finds ordinariness and sophistication in Breaking News by Ciaran Carson and Lake Geneva by Gerald Dawe.]

Belfast’s hills are “still the same grey-blue” as when the returning Derek Mahon - the most outward-looking of the 60s crop of North of Ireland poets - dedicated “Afterlives” to James Simmons. But Mahon’s regret in that poem at not having, like Simmons, “lived it bomb by bomb” acknowledges a scintilla of doubt among those flying the nets for art’s sake. For those raised in Belfast, that scintilla becomes a San Andreas fault, segregating exiles from those who stayed (including Michael Longley, Medbh McGuckian and Ciaran Carson), perhaps in hope of learning, in Mahon’s words, “what is meant by home”.

This being the north, as disputatious as a kirk session, nicer details still distinguish returned exiles from temporary repatriates; and again from those who stayed but at one wise remove from MacNeice’s “soldiers with their guns”. And all this quite apart from theological quibbles as to whether a writer from a northern nationalist background moving to Dublin or Cork is actually leaving or staying put and whether London or Glasgow are home or away if you’ve been brought up “British”.

So the unifying link between these two Gallery Press collections - two mid-career Belfast poets born a year or two either side of the mid-century who both remain domiciled in Ireland - is subverted by more localized biographical distinctions. Gerald Dawe moved from Belfast, first to the west of Ireland. He now teaches in Dublin at the heart of a Europe that informs his work as richly as it has infused, in turn, that of Joyce, Mahon and Paulin. Meanwhile that indefatigable chronicler of Belfast’s street-names, graffiti, shrapnel and lore, Ciaran Carson, as he now draws imaginatively on the wider world, finds predominantly military matters and ante-bellum moments to bring him back to familiar and well-mapped territory.

Dawe’s work has long carried marks of his personal journey: a first Gallery collection, The Lundys Letter (1985), borrowed the Ulster Protestant shorthand for traitor (the annual burning-in-effigy of Robert Lundy, faint-heart commander at Derry’s 1689 siege, is a cherished Ulster folk custom). And his next collection’s title, Sunday School (1991), harks back to pre-lapsarian Belfast infancy and adolescence.

That mis-match between early ordinariness and later sophistication has fuelled much recent writing, but Dawe’s own transitions give the dichotomy specific resonance. In his quietly measured tourist stroll around the title - and final - poem’s Lake Geneva with Henry James’s muslined “all-American girl”, with “formidable chateaux” and the “clip-clop” of horses, the poet stumbles on a remembered homicide scene from 70s Belfast, all dereliction and armored constabulary. The recall is given sharper focus by the lakeshore ghosts of storm-tossed Byron and Shelley and the historical long view of Edward Gibbon. The “terraces trim / as they’ve always been” could be either Geneva or Belfast in this context, both politely oblivious to murderous back alleyways.

Geneva’s significance as the “good city” is not simply its tranquility, admired neutrality or (here) long-standing philosophical links with Belfast and Calvinist Edinburgh, but the fact that Calvin demanded not universal conformity to the standards of the Protestant elect, but merely that the ungodly should infect “some other place”, a notion that has traditionally enjoyed some currency in Dawe’s hometown.

The child/man perspective resurfaces in the sequence “A Moving World” which storyboards the shift from “At Home” - “I’d stay off school imagining the hubbub” - to an ironically celebratory “Fifty/Fifty” - “Such times ahead!”

Another poem, “The Jazz Club”, might seem a ritual nod to pre-Troubles Belfast’s links to America (jazz and its postwar exponents feature prominently in the work of James Simmons, Michael Longley and Seamus Deane). But in the sequence Dawe successfully annexes the older poets’ territory with his recurring terraces and his mother’s laconic, spondaic exuberance after an “Ella” performance - “I’m sent” - much as Van Morrison hops from Kerouac and Bechet to a physical Belfast of fanlights and streetlamps.

It would be easy to overstress parallels: Dawe has written on Morrison; both attended Orangefield School; and Morrison has his own extended riff on “Goin’ Down Geneva”. Both are allusive. While Morrison shamelessly raids Woody Guthrie and Howlin’ Wolf alongside Dylan Thomas and John Donne to map his “Caledonian” soul, Dawe finds referents for his own more restrained map-making in Melville, Barzini, F Scott Fitzgerald and De Chirico.

Carson’s home geography has been well mapped, but there is much to distinguish Breaking News, awarded the Forward prize last week, from his previous collections. The new book introduces a different fragmentary diction, one that offers vivid visual and aural metaphors for communal uncertainty, for damaged infrastructure and blocked roads, for unfinished business.

A new subject matter leaps out here too, from a familiar bomb-weary Falls Road to the Crimea and the Indian mutiny, through the work of the (Anglo-Irish) war correspondent William Howard Russell, the book’s dedicatee and first author of some glowing texts Carson has reshaped. One of these ends with a near miss at Lucknow - “twelve inches / lower and I’d not // be here to write”. It’s a chilling reminder of the risks taken by today’s journalists for “breaking news”. (The puns on “break” - as in the surfacing of news, the physical dam age of war, the decay of the breaker’s yard and the sense of a snatched moment’s reflection - are teasingly explored in the first few poems.)

Carson’s engagement with these unexpectedly foreign military campaigns has its home-grown roots, however, in his earlier obsession with the “imperialist” street names among which he grew up. Inkerman, Odessa, Crimea, Balaklava, Lucknow peppered the Belfast gazetteer, as they did in many late-Victorian cities throughout Britain, but with perhaps less bizarre impact on their later inhabitants. The physical revisionism of bomb damage and social improvement leaves Carson’s work as a record of the 19th-century city fathers’ empire mindset long after the vanishing of the street names and, in some cases, of the streets themselves. So Breaking News includes in its sweep the conflations of military pride and horror; the onus on the writer to convey the exact nature of the battle scene (clearly one of Carson’s own anxieties); and the ways in which language can best - whether through rich description or through the silences between words - convey both chaos and the quotidian.

In Carson’s work, too, there’s a breadth of reference. The vision of a disintegrating horse carcass at Balaklava from last year’s failed sortie confronting the next year’s advance comes from Russell’s prose, but echoes Rimbaud’s “Le Dormeur du Val” in which the sleeper proves to be a shot soldier. The Rimbaud poem is translated in Carson’s 1998 collection The Alexandrine Plan. Visual art also comes under scrutiny, with Géricault, Goya and Edward Hopper all brought into play. Other poems here deal with silences, signs, the interrupted two-way radio-speak of a soldier walking into a trap, the aftermath of explosions, a lucky escape and recurring noises: the boom of war, a helicopter confused with a washing-machine’s spin cycle . . . The clutter of Carson’s aural and visual Belfast has expanded to embrace a gaggle of 19th-century sights and sounds, but remains disturbingly and engagingly committed to “what is meant by home”.


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