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The Collected Poems of Ciaran Carson Vols 1&2: Innovative works by important poet

Belfast-born poet’s writing was vast in its contemplation of time and mortality

The Collected Poems of Ciaran Carson: Volume 2
Author: Ciaran Carson
ISBN-13: 978 1 91133 859 8
Publisher: Gallery Books
Guideline Price: €25

“The stitches / Shine in everything I’ve made.”

A complement and extension to Volume 1, The Collected Poems of Ciaran Carson Volume 2 gathers together four books of poems published by The Gallery Press since 2009. Where the first volume represents Carson’s oeuvre between his first collection, The New Estate (originally published by Blackstaff Press in 1976) and his eighth, For All We Know (2008), this second volume draws together further innovative and compelling works by this most important and dearly missed poet.

Born in Belfast in 1948 into an Irish-speaking family, Carson attended Queen’s University Belfast where his contemporaries in poetry included Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian. He worked as traditional arts officer at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and was, in 2003, the founding director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s.

Eleven years after his first book – a time during which he travelled the country playing traditional music – 1987′s The Irish For No was a breakthrough success. That book’s long, rangy lines were inspired variously by the tunes of traditional music; the shaggy-dog storytelling tradition; the 17 syllables of the haiku consolidated into a single line. In these poems, and those of Belfast Confetti (1989), Carson’s exceptional narrative skill and attention to detail would depict the effects and conditions of violence on Belfast and its people, amid translations of Basho and Buson among other Japanese masters. It contains essays on the city, its mutable cartography, its history and the material of its architecture: “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.”


Many celebrated collections followed: First Language (1993), winner of the inaugural TS Eliot Prize; Opera Et Cetera (1996) and The Twelfth of Never (1998). Breaking News (2003), in which the Crimean War provides an analogue by which Carson explores imperialism, won the Forward Prize. It introduced a radically short line into Carson’s repertoire. In its astonishing sequence, The War Correspondent, quotations from the dispatches of William Howard Russell (the Times correspondent for that war) are interwoven with Carson’s.

As a poet, for he was also a musician, novelist and essayist, Carson’s poetic forms are mercurial and exorbitant; each book’s subject or preoccupation demands another approach or reconfiguration of language. The Collected Poems Volume 2 picks up with On the Night Watch (2009), comprised of a species of micro-sonnet. Its three movements give us fragile sequences of seven couplets, spare and haunted. Its companion collection, 2010′s Until Before After, also has at its core the anxieties of family illness. These works are simultaneously vast in their contemplation of time and mortality, and attendant to the particular moment. In their delayed syntax, readers are made conscious of the movement of time, as we follow each unravelling sentence.

Of Yesterday

says St Augustine


is there to say

the past is not

as is the future

as for now

it flits from

split to split

into the next

so what

is there to fear

from time

when now

is forever

Across Carson’s career, translation played a fundamental role. Everything is a kind of translation, he liked to say, between languages, between musicians, between history and the present. In the latter part of his work, though, it took on a new significance. From Elsewhere (2014) brings into English the French poet Jean Follain. What accompanies each fairly straight translation is what Carson calls in his preface “spins or takes on them”; “Translations of translations as it were”.

With these spins, we have then an evocation in poetic form of one of Carson’s most recognisable stylistic hinges, where something reminds him of something else; the deviations and detours by which stories hang together. With the translation of Sans le Language: Without Language, comes In Memory, a poem remembering Seamus Heaney: “As he told it / when the boy / he was stumbled / on the well / in the derelict brickyard / deep as a brick mill chimney”.

This inventiveness and facility with language; the inclination to think beyond the thing at hand is demonstrated with devastating elegance in Carson’s final masterpiece, Still Life, written in the months following his terminal diagnosis in 2019. The book abounds with poems about paintings: Monet and Angela Hackett, Velázquez and Jeffrey Morgan. “Never mind the death in the foreground, for months I’ve been pondering the miniature / figures in the distance”, he writes in Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake, 1648.

The Collected Poems Volumes 1 and 2 represent Carson’s monumental contribution to poetry in Ireland and internationally. These are poems of enduring brilliance, passionate about the world, sensate and curious, dissonant, and euphonious. These are indispensable books by an essential poet.