Belfast Confetti (a poem by Ciaran Carson)

Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining exclamation marks,
Nuts, bolts, nails, car keys. A fount of broken type.
And the explosion
Itself – an asterisk on the map. This hyphenated line, a burst of rapid fire …
I was trying to complete a sentence in my head, but it kept stuttering,
All the alleyways and side-streets blocked with stops and colons.

I know this labyrinth so well – Balaclava, Raglan, Inkerman, Odessa Street –
Why can’t I escape? Every move is punctuated.
Crimea Street. Dead end again.
A Saracen, Kremlin-2 mesh. Makrolon face-shields.
Walkie-talkies. What is
My name? Where am I coming from? Where am I
going? A fusillade of question-marks.



Filed under Ireland, Poems

66 responses to “Belfast Confetti (a poem by Ciaran Carson)

  1. This one is new to me. Excellent use of punctuation imagery. I particularly love the raining exclamation marks, and the asterisk on the map.
    A friend of mine once wrote a poem comparing the back view of cows to commas. I must see if I can find it.

  2. Thanks for that, Isobel, and I’d like to see the cow/comma poem.

    Yes, the imagery of this one is good, and the sense of shock and disorientation … ‘I was trying to complete a sentence in my head, but it kept stuttering’.

  3. claire2

    Brendano; hi. Long time no see.
    Like this poem a lot..

  4. Hi Claire … good to see you. How are things?

    I’ve just been watching the Algeria-England match … dreadful performance by England.

  5. claire2

    Oh fine thanks! I’m feeling bright eyed and bushy tailed after falling asleep for a couple of hours while other half did just about everything!
    I’ve not watched any football..what happened?! How you been?

  6. I’ve been very well, thanks. I saw that you won a competition on Bearsy’s site, so well done.

    England 0, Algeria 0. You didn’t miss much.

    I’m going out to the pub for a bit of music soon.

  7. claire2

    Cheers luv! Yes I was genuinely taken aback by that. Ferret was lovely very complimentary about it.
    Incidentally, don’t know if you’re aware of new short story comp on MyT now. It’s on historical fiction – I bet would be right up your street…
    Enjoy pub. Grr 😉

  8. Cymbeline

    I have tried to like this poem, but I can’t. It seems to me to be a laboured punctuation exercise. Lacks soul.

  9. Cymbeline

    I read your poem about miners, and I liked it, Claire. A fast freshness to it, in spite of the theme. My great grandfather on my mother’s side, was an English miner. He was also a union leader. He was a Methodist, and keen on education and rights for all.

  10. Cymbeline

    Brandwood was a miner, and some of his writing describes that world, first-hand. Have you seen it? He later went to Oxford. He is an older man now, and he lives in Normandy. I have a lot of time for Brandwood on MyT.

  11. Cymbeline

    Ferret is very clever, and his voice is especially important when he describes how Thatcher destroyed and trampled human lives in his part of the world. No wonder your poem struck a chord with him.

  12. Cymbeline

    The dignity of the ‘slave warrior’ did not matter a jot to her.

  13. Cymbeline

    Re my English great grandfather. His wife, my great grandmother, was a lady’s maid, and I think that the children were brought up with a combination of appreciation for upper class refinement, and the dignified working class socialism of the time.

    The complicated world of the British class system.

    • ‘The complicated world of the British class system.’
      Which was introduced by the Normans. The Saxons had a much more egalitarian way of doing things, and women had more rights. interesting.

  14. Thanks for the comments, Cymbeline. I have a lot of time for Brandwood too … not Ferret, though.

    I remember that Brandwood posted a very good piece about his colleagues and himself going down the mine … the banter and so on. Hard men.

    There’s never been much mining in Ireland – it has very little coal – although I grew up near a large lead and zinc mine at a place called Silvermines in Co. Tipperary. A lot of Canadians came over to work there.

  15. I like the poem because of the sense of entrapment and disorientation.

  16. claire2

    Hello Brendano; Cymbers – again!
    Sorry I missed your comments before but thanks. The miners’ poem was very therapeutic to write; I think I’m a bit of a depressive at the moment!
    I’ve been reading some ‘orrible French stuff – balade des pendus, and Voltaire’s Candide. What struck me about both. even though it is old and archaic, is the violence and the sense of almost revelling in goriness. They both have an almost fairytale feel in genre and conception, and address the reader directly, which sort of makes their dscriptions of severed limbs and rotting flesh even more stomach churning!
    Interesting to hear your background, Cymbeline. No miners in my family background; dockers, sailors yes. We are more or less from working class made good stock; upper middle lower class as I think Orwell would have said…but there’s always room for jostling. My sister moved to the SOuth and thinks of herself as a cut above, by dint of having a better accent now! Says she, a tad resentfully.. (;

  17. Cymbeline

    But the sense of entrapment and disorientation is one-dimensional. It is on the page. That said, a street-map is a flat page too.

    Perhaps the reader has to have experience and knowledge of Belfast to understand and appreciate the poem – to go beneath the punctuation on the page.

  18. Cymbeline

    Claire. Yes, negative feelings can be transformed into beauty.

  19. Cymbeline

    Les Fleurs du Mal.

  20. I see your point, Cymbeline. I don’t know Belfast well, though I’ve stayed there occasionallly with friends or relations, or gone there for work-related matters. My wife would know it much better.

    I always saw it as a sectarian hellhole. It’s hard to warm to a place where your friends must advise you, as you go out the door, which places would or would not be safe for someone with a Southern accent.

  21. Cymbeline

    I once read a history of Flanders (The Fair Face of Flanders by Patricia Carson – excellent, accessible book for the non-specialist). I forget the precise details, but at a time of strife between the Flemish city-states, suspects were asked to pronounce the name of the River Scheldt. If they pronounced the word in a particular way, they were bumped off.

  22. Cymbeline

    My sister had a Catholic boyfriend from Northern Ireland. He said that British soldiers always told him to ‘fuck off’, even when he was a young child. He eventually went to China.

  23. Cymbeline

    Re comment 14. Yes, there is no popular association between coal mines and Ireland. There is with Wales though, and when I speak of my miner great grandfather, people always assume that I am talking about south Wales. I always have to say that I am speaking about an English coal miner. Interesting about the Canadian element. Could you tell us more, please?

    The English mind associates the Welsh with coal mines, and the working Irishman with the construction of roads and canals. After his degree from Edinburgh University, my sister’s boyfriend mentioned above, worked as a navvy on the A55 tunnel beneath the Conwy River. I think that the work entertained him on several levels.

  24. Hello Cymbeline. Re your 21, I’m sure I heard of some other instance where pronunciation meant life or death. Cruel fate.

    There is no doubt that police and soldiers harassed people in nationalist areas of the north, and sometimes beat up young men in those areas for no reson … I know that for a fact. There wasn’t much effort to win hearts and minds.

    The ‘British’ regiments of the army were resented far less than the locally recruited Ulster Defence Regiment, which specialized in petty harassment (plus the occasional murder).

    In my school there were people with surnames like Vogel and Rusnak whose fathers worked in the mines … they had come from Canada where there must have been similar mining operations. There were also, I think, some originally Welsh families with names like Mitchell and Lewis whose ancestors had come over for the same reason.

    I neighbour of mine visited the old coal mine in Arigna, Co. Leitrim, recently – he said it must have been backbreaking work. But that would not have been a deep mine.

    When I was exactly the same age as my son is now, I was working on building sites in London. The MyT blogger AntB has interesting stories about building tunnels under the Thames with Irish navvies in his student days.

  25. Cymbeline

    Yes, I have always been interested in your time working on building sites in London. I think you once said that you packed in being a student at Dublin University. Very brave thing to do – very brave to seek your own answers in the way you did.

  26. Hello Cymbeline … thanks for that. I’m not sure that it was entirely a matter of my own volition; there was a certain amount of fatalistic drift.

    I went to University College Dublin … the relatively new university, originally set up for Catholics. Dublin University (aka Trinity College) is the one in central Dublin, established in Elizabethan times and historically catering for Protestants … Burke, Wilde, Beckett et al. All that is long changed, of course.

  27. Cymbeline

    Thank you for the explanation. I had never thought about the Catholic/Protestant division in Irish university education before, although it seems obvious now. I see that Trinity College accepted Catholics in 1793, while the Catholic hierarchy waited until 1970 before allowing Catholics to study there.

    I see that James Joyce went to University College Dublin.

  28. Cymbeline

    Religion should be a private matter of the heart, and the politics of religion should be kept under control. European history and thought have taught us that, and that is why I do not welcome certain extremely undigestible aspects of Islam in Europe.

    There are limits to tolerating intolerance.

  29. What you say about UCD and TCD is correct, Cymbeline. Another example of the Catholic Church throwing its weight around and trying to run the country.

    Already in the late seventies when I went to university, Trinity had become transformed and religion wasn’t much of a factor in choosing a university.

    I agree with you on the politics of religion. The world would be a much less fractious place if religion were a private matter of the heart for all.

  30. Cymbeline

    Yes, no religion should be allowed to throw its weight around and try to run the country. Why was there no Irish Enlightenment when other European countries were going through that age of thought?

    Do you think that your seeming great tolerance of Islam in Europe is to do with this? Sometimes I think that you make a great leap from your own personal anti-clericism to ‘tolerance’ without thinking about the history of thought in between.

  31. Cymbeline

    This thread is linked to the other one.

    There was opposition to the rational age of Enlightenment in other countries too, of course. In England, that opposition sometimes took the form of the English interest in what was defined as ‘folklore’ in 1846. The English idea of ‘folklore’ spread to other countries in Europe. Folklore v Enlightenment.

  32. Cymbeline

    1856, not 1846

  33. Cymbeline

    Sorry. 1846 was correct.

  34. Cymbeline

    The Industrial Revolution also made ‘well-meaning’ (I quote Brendano) people think about saving what was in the process of being lost.

    But there was no Industrial Revolution in Ireland, although of course Irish muscle was very much part of the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

  35. Cymbeline

    Not a quote : ‘they meant well’.

  36. I wouldn’t tolerate intolerance, Cymbeline.

    The Enlightenment was influential in Ireland, although there was no Irish Enlightenment as such. Voltaire and Montesquieu were widely read here. But perhaps the Irish mind tends to distrust intellectualism and rationalism. Edmund Burke, an Irishman, was suspicious of it.

    The situation was complicated by the nature of Irish society … the Protestant ascendancy favoured some aspects of the Enlightenment, but not those that might have disadvantaged it (in any case, Voltaire approved of the penal laws).

    The lack of an Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution here perhaps shows that not much can be built on fractured foundations. The historian F.X. Martin has made the point that ‘The tragedy of the Norman invasion was not the conquest of Ireland – for that never took place – but the half conquest … If the conquest had been completed as in Normandy, England and Sicily, a new nation would have emerged, combining the qualities of both peoples.’

    By the time England had gained control of Ireland in 1603, there was the confounding factor of the Reformation … the fact that Ireland remained largely Catholic again prevented any kind of unified polity from being forged. Government was largely imposed against the people. And the seventeeth century saw terrible wars and rebellions.

    In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the only area where government was not concerned largely with keeping the people down … the north-east … did have an Industrial Revolution of sorts.

  37. Cymbeline

    Thank you for your very interesting response, Brendano. Incidentally, Voltaire did not decry slavery either – mainly because part of his income came from the sugar islands.

    I was interested in F.X. Martin’s remark – it is true that there is no feeling of Ireland ever having been conquered. Very permanent place in many ways. Extraordinary spirit. Perhaps that is the key to its distinctive literature.

  38. Cymbeline

    To the outsider such as myself : permanency and yet openness – perhaps the openness is to do with its history of emigration to other parts of the world.

  39. Cymbeline

    But I see that Mr Broxted speaks of ossification.

  40. Ossification, Ossianification …

    I’ll respond properly later, Cymbeline.

  41. Cymbeline

    Thank you. I know you are busy.

  42. Hello again, Cymbeline. I think the Irish mindset historically has been that of a colonized people, based on self-preservation … doing whatever it takes to survive. Thinking in Irish, talking in English. Saying one thing and meaning another (the language of the Irish travellers, cant or Shelta, consisted partly of words turned backwards and was designed to be indecipherable to others). Smiling to someone’s face and plotting behind their back. Humouring the colonizer while holding him in contempt and seeing him as culturally inferior. Subscribing to two ‘incompatible’ belief systems (paganism, Christianity) at once. Switching religions in extremis, then switching back. Engaging in sabotage rather than unwinnable war. Thinking laterally rather than linearly. Mocking rather than arguing. Subverting rather than constructing.

    These traits can be a help in surviving colonization, but a hindrance in an era of self-government … hence a long postcolonial transition. Cunning is valorized and organized thought denigrated. Localism, nepotism and personal advancement take precedence over public-spiritedness. The state and its laws are to be thwarted or ignored; tax is to be evaded. Effortless brilliance is preferred to rigour. There is no point in showing up on time, as nobody else will. Make promises freely, then forget them.

    One of the reasons often cited by multinational IT companies for setting up in Ireland is Irish people’s ‘tolerance of ambiguity’. Of course this can be a double-edged sword (!).

    The Irish traditionally saw the English as their opposite (and vice versa, to some extent) … the English tended to be regarded as excessively and amusingly linear in thought … dull and stolid. But much can be achieved – an empire, for example – by those who take the trouble to organize themselves and plan things out in a dull and stolid manner.

    When Samuel Beckett was asked whether he was an English writer, he replied Au contraire.

  43. In Ulysses Stephen Dedalus says ‘It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked looking-glass of a servant.’

  44. Cymbeline

    Once again, a very interesting response. Thank you.

    Tolerance of ambiguity, or understanding of ambiguity?

    It is interesting how Ireland took on the English language, while thinking in Irish. I suppose that there are grammatical structures and expressions which reflect this. You can’t imply that Irish does not lend itself to organized and rational thought though. The use of language may have been subverted for the sake of survival, but that does not subvert the language itself. Those Irish monks, were great thinkers, by any culture’s standards.

    Although I know that you disapprove of the Catholic Church, I believe that Irish priests were keepers of the Irish language. In cultural terms, would you ever consider that they did more for Ireland than the collectors of folklore?

    There is a Welsh feeling of being culturally superior to the English too. This is linked to Welsh literature, the oldest literature in Europe. Maintaining the language was very much part of that. My father who is very international in outlook, and a Welsh nationalist, can’t stand it when Dylan Thomas is described as a Welsh writer. He does not see Dylan Thomas as a Welsh writer. At the same time, the fact that Welsh literature is seen as only truly Welsh if it is written in Welsh, means that there is no international power to it, in the Irish way.

    African magic and Catholicism are very much in evidence to this day in the Caribbean. They live side by side, although nobody will tell you that they practise voodoo. I am, of course, an outsider, so people speak to me in a certain way. I have told you about the mockery inherent in Creole. There are also lots of stories about outwitting the powerful.

    I did not know that ‘Cant’ was another word for Shelta.

  45. Thanks for that, Cymbeline. I wasn’t implying for a moment that Irish doesn’t lend itself to organized and rational thought, or that it was subverted. It was strongly linked to oral culture, though, and was outflanked by nineteenth-century developments.

    I wouldn’t say either that priests were keepers of the language. The areas where Irish was spoken in the nineteenth century were those where the Catholic Church was weakest. According to Angela Bourke, priests in the late nineteenth century propounded a Catholicism that was modern-minded, outward-looking, literate, and essentially middle class. It would have favoured English over Irish and written culture over oral. The Irish-language culture of the people was oral, of course.

    Of course some individual priests may have been keepers of the language, but not particularly prominently and not more so than lay scholars.

    Interesting comments on Welsh and the Caribbean. I was aware that African magic and Catholicism lived side by side in the Caribbean … the mockery and stories would have parallels here and, I suppose, in other formerly colonized parts.

  46. Cymbeline

    Hello again. I see your point about the priests.

    Yes, in changing times, language is vulnerable if it is not written. The survival of Welsh is linked to the translation of the whole Bible into Welsh from Greek and Hebrew. William Morgan, 1588. That gave the language permanency.

  47. Cymbeline

    Hard to find information on this subject, and I am not a Catholic, so sorry for what are surely ignorant questions:

    Are you saying in post 45, paragraph 2, that Catholic priests in the nineteenth century used English for liturgy? If so, was that the first time? Was Irish never used as a liturgical language for Irish Catholics? Was everything in Latin before the introduction of English? Was Irish never used as a liturgical language?

    What about translation of the Bible into Irish?

  48. Cymbeline

    When I mentioned earlier the idea of Irish priests being keepers of the language, it was to do with something I had read about Irish priests having to have knowledge of Irish to be ordained. Part of the qualification, as it were.

  49. Cymbeline

    “I wasn’t implying for a moment that Irish doesn’t lend itself to organized and rational thought”.

    Post 42, paragraph 1. Your words were very ambiguous, and needed to be clarified. You spoke of thinking in Irish, and speaking in English. You then gave a long list of negative thought patterns. The implication was that this was the thought of the Irish LANGUAGE.

    You like ‘folklore’. I believe in the human dignity of language, and I do not like to see human language demeaned.

  50. Re your 47, Latin was the liturgical language up to the 1960s … I have vague memories of the Latin mass.

    ‘You spoke of thinking in Irish, and speaking in English. You then gave a long list of negative thought patterns. The implication was that this was the thought of the Irish LANGUAGE.’

    No, that’s how you took it. The first item in my list was just that … it didn’t govern or underlie the others. It’s interesting that you see my list of thought patterns as negative … I wouldn’t have thought of it like that. Surviving is better than not surviving, and what is is. I meant to characterize the Irish mind as flexible and mercurial. I like it, after all … I do have an Irish mind, and a voice designed for the Irish rather than the English language.

    I don’t know about the Bible in Irish … will try to find out. There’s a long and interesting section on Latin in the Oxford Companion to Irish History

    In your final para, I don’t see a contradiction between liking folkore and the human dignity of language. I think you have an unwarranted bee in your bonnet re the word ‘folklore’. 🙂 There’s no particular virtue in allowing stories and customs to die out unrecorded, I would have thought.

    Oscar Wilde’s father, William, was a noted folklorist, incidentally.

  51. Heightened imagination has perhaps been the salient characteristic of the Irish mind. There is also a love of language, and an appreciation of the well-turned phrase among all classes of people.

    The OCIL entry on Latin that I mentioned refers to an Irish fascination with language in the early medieval period. And language could be a weapon of sorts.

    The great Norman families in the centuries after 1169 became ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’ and adopted the language. The (English) Irish parliament legislated against this in 1366, and even tried to force people to ride their horse in the English manner.

  52. Now that’s what I call assimilation.

  53. Sipu

    Brendano, your 50
    “It’s interesting that you see my list of thought patterns as negative … I wouldn’t have thought of it like that. Surviving is better than not surviving…”

    It is I guess a question of perspective as to whether ideas are negative or not. I think the opening line of Ukraine’s national anthem is very negative. Ukrainians presumably do not.

    ‘Ukraine’s freedom has not yet perished, not has her glory,’

    I hope you don’t mind my occasional interruptions.

    And thank you for Ossianification. Samuel Johnson’s retort on being asked about MacPherson’s work,
    “But Doctor Johnson, do you really believe that any man today could write such poetry?”

    “Yes. Many men. Many women. And many children.”

    But you probably knew that.

  54. No, I didn’t know that, Sipu … nor the first line of the Ukrainian national anthem, so thank you. 🙂

    They are not interruptions … please feel free to comment at any time.

    Are you being affected much by the World Cup?

  55. Sipu

    ‘Are you being affected much by the World Cup?’

    Yes and no. I don know whether you know anything about the geography of Cape Town. The original settlement is on Atlantic seaboard, facing North West. Table Mountain rises up behind it dominating the city. This is where the docks are, where parliament sits and where the heart of the city lies. On the other side of the mountain are the winelands of Constantia which have evolved in the more salubrious (I use that word with hesitation given the levels of crime throughout the city) area known as the Southern Suburbs. That is where I live. It is very beautiful here and less busy. Foreigners who come to this side of the mountain tend to be older and wealthier people who rent/own cottages/houses for the summer months. They are known as ‘swallows’, though some of the more enthusiastic hedonists amongst them are referred to as ‘gulps’.

    The City side is much more frenetic and is where the real tourists tend to stay. There are lots of sights, hotels, lodges, clubs, restaurants and shops to visit. The Waterfront is a relatively new development built round some of the old docks housing hundreds of shops, bars and restaurants. 5 star hotels and expensive apartments surround the marina where massive yachts are moored.

    The Cape Town Stadium is not far from the Waterfront – a 15 minute walk.

    It is winter here, so one can expect the weather to be cold and wet and very windy. This place is not called the Cape of Storms for nothing. However, the weather is and has been fabulous of late.

    On the night of the England Algeria game I met with some friends at the Waterfront where we had a few beers amongst crowds of good natured English fans. The atmosphere was very good and lots of fun. The fans with tickets went to the game and we moved up to Somerset Road, a main thoroughfare lined with bars adjacent to the stadium. It was t-shirt weather and so we were able to watch the game on TV sitting on the veranda and later, when the match had ended, drink our beers in the street as the disappointed English and ecstatic Algerian fans left the stadium.

    Back home, there has been very little evidence of visitors to the city. I have only heard a couple of foreign accents. Many of the bars are far less busy than one would have expected and their owners hoped. The thing that makes one know for sure that the World Cup is on, is the huge number of flags being flown from the roofs of cars. That and the constant media attention.

    Otherwise, it has had very little effect. The traffic is fine,(it is the school holidays) and life goes on as normal. So much so that despite Boris Johnson claiming that crime was down in South Africa, my house was burgled yesterday morning. My tenants lost 5 bicycles. He is a journalist for a cycling magazine. And this morning, a neighbour told me that another house was burgled just up the road from where I am now, and the owner woke up to find intruders in the bedroom. Same road, incidentally as Wilbur Smith’s. So as I said, no change.

  56. Cymbeline

    Good God, Sipu. Interruptions?

    I am a guest on this blog, as you are. I very much doubt that Brendano wants his blog to become the Brendano/Cymbeline exchanges on folklore and language.

    I am sorry if I write too much.

    • Sipu

      Cymbers, you do not write too much. You do not write enough. I enjoy your discussions with Brendano. Sadly never having had a proper education myself, I am not usually able to participate with same level of eloquence or erudition.

      • Cymbeline

        You must be taking the piss, Sipu. I have always considered you to be both brilliant and educated, and even more importantly – a free thinker. Not many free thinkers around the place.

      • All who comment here in good faith are certainly very welcome.

        I’m not sure whether your self-deprecation is meant to be ironic, Sipu, but I think it’s misplaced in any case. 🙂

        Talking to Cymbeline is always a pleasure.

      • Sipu

        No irony intended. I failed my A’levels and never made it to university. I have always considered myself academically inadequate.

      • Sipu

        “Talking to Cymbeline is always a pleasure.”

        I agree.

  57. This make me feel like in belfast again, but not the actual real belfast, only the one that I imagine from a dark past. I’m brazilian and lived in belfast for about a year, lovely place, but I read all the past and situations that you had to deal with to have a lovely city nowadays. Hope to be back there soon!

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