Ciarán Carson, one of this year’s contenders for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, has written over twenty works of poetry, memoir, translations and fiction. His poetry collections include Belfast Confetti (1990), which won the Irish Times Irish Literature Prize for Poetry; First Language: Poems (1994), winner of the T. S. Eliot Prize and Breaking News (2003), winner of the Forward Prize for Best Collection. He has been the director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University, Belfast since 2003.
Carson is no stranger to translation, having translated the seminal Irish texts Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) and Cúirt An Mheán Oíche (The Midnight Court). He received the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize in 2002 for his translation of Dante’s Inferno. Carson’s most recent offering is, in part, a book of translations from the French poet Jean Follain (1903-1971). However, this volume is so much more. For every translation there is an accompanying original poem by Carson that has in some sense been “fetched” from the translation. In his Introduction to the volume the poet explains his fascination with the word “fetch” and how it encompasses borrowing, following, questing, mirroring, “bringing from a distance, or reaching after: it is something brought from elsewhere, an act of translation in other words”.
Carson opens his collection with a translation of one of the first of Follain’s poems that caught his attention, Soulier renoué: Shoelace Tied:
When evening waves
its bank of clouds
one sees the grass fires
raise their smoke
flowers grow in the sunken lanes
there’s still a glimpse of daylight
and a boy in an iron-grey smock
bows to a rut
to tie his shoelace
no slack in his life
no trace of absence.
The spare resonance of the poem gives rise to Carson’s own poem “Out” which draws on a passage from John Clare’s autobiography detailing an incident when the young Clare wanders over the heath in search of the horizon. Although Clare wanders without a sense of direction, he chances upon the right track home. The poem concludes:
…he had walked
having no words
for what he had seen
beyond those that were of home.
Carson’s poem has the same direct simplicity that conveys the innocence of the boy and the omneity of the world around him.
Carson’s method of association, almost “riffing” on the original poem, allows a rich dialogue to emerge. The originals act as prompts for Carson. In several poems he turns from the European wars featured in Follain’s poems to the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. In “L’île brûlée: The Burnt Island” Follain’s memories of the bombing of his native Normandy are transposed into a view of the sectarian horror of Ulster in the 1970s. ”Timing Device” illustrates Carson’s adroitness with the sound of words:
As with thunder
the rumble comes
after the flash the shimmer
of a tolled bell stroke
after stroke reverberating .
Other themes emerge from the poems, the tenacity of history (“Revolution”, “History”), the mystery of the ordinary (“The Given Name”) and the endurance of art. He approaches this last theme in many poems but most affectingly in his response to Follain’s poem “Sans le langage: Without Language”. Carson’s accompanying poem, “In Memory”, references his friend and fellow poet Seamus Heaney’s poem “Personal Helicon”. Carson invokes Heaney’s line “I rhyme / to see myself, to set the darkness echoing” with his own :
Now that the man
he would become
This is a full collection – 162 poems in all. Readers who want to mull over the subtleties of the translation will be disappointed, since Follain’s originals are not included, but Carson’s translations and responses offer a rich and original dimension to “the unimaginable horizon” (“One Day When”) created by these poems “from elsewhere”.
Read “The Blotting Paper” from From Elsewhere.