Books: Red hands and dancing feet

Belfast's abundantly gifted bard is having subversive fun with Irish myths. The Twelfth of Never by Ciaran Carson Picador, pounds 6.99, 91pp; The Ballad of HMS Belfast by Ciaran Carson Picador, pounds 6.99, 119pp
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The Independent Culture
AMONG THE traditional modes in 18th-century Irish poetry was the celebration of abundance - the over-brimming trout streams, over-laden apple trees, endless creamy milk - which arose in tantalising counterpoint to the poverty and deprivation prevailing over much of the country. Ciaran Carson's marvellous new collection, The Twelfth of Never, which takes account of many pungent traditions, is equally caught up with abundance. In this case, it's an abundance of emblem and imagery, in which every rag-tag credo is overturned and every slogan playfully recharged.

The title phrase lends itself to the world of the imagination, to riddling and subversion and paradox. And, because this is a collection by an Irish poet, Ireland's most cherished myths and symbols are taken to pieces and exuberantly reassembled.

However, the book does not have an exclusively Irish orientation. Modern Japan, 18th-century France and Russia get a look in, along with Keats and Coleridge, Red Riding Hood and the land of the Jabberwock. This is not in any sense an insular undertaking.

Running through it, you do find certain recurring indigenous motifs, like "the hand cut off and thrown to the Ulster shore" - the original red hand, the emblem of Ulster. As the legend has it, the earliest colonisers of the northern part of Ireland were approaching the coast at top speed, having settled that the land should belong to whoever touched it first. As it came within reach, the most determined hacked off his hand and flung it at the shore.

There is, indeed, a straightforward link between this first heraldic hand, the terrorist's Bloody Hand (in another Carson poem), and being caught red-handed - implicated in nationalist fantasies of one sort or another. But, in Carson's hands, this striking image is absorbed into the compelling interplay between myth and reality, between steadiness of vision and colourful derangement.

One thing, as Carson's poems outstandingly demonstrate, leads on to another. So the red of Ulster's bloody hand modulates into the red shoes of the fairy tale, not to mention a vibrant poppy-red - another versatile symbol whether attached to peace, to Flanders Fields, or to the Opium Wars. Every item in this sonnet sequence is deftly slotted into the whole complicated superstructure, which itself is balanced by Carson's ease of manner and parodic impulse:

As down by the glenside I met an old colleen,

She stung me with the gaze of her nettle-green eyes.

She urged me to go out and revolutionise

Hibernia, and not to fear the guillotine.

The effect is riveting, even for readers unfamiliar with every local nuance, those unequipped to identify the old song behind the new sonnet "The Bold Fenian Men" (in the verse quoted above) or the 18th-century "Churchyard of Creggan": the Gaelic aisling written by Art McCooey, which crops up elsewhere. Allusiveness isn't everything. You don't have to know that Carson's "The Lily Rally", which begins "The Papists stole me and tried to make me play/Their Fenian music", is a branching-out from that most amiable of Orange ballads, "The Oul' Orange Flute"; or that "1795" harks back to Florence M Wilson's verses about Thomas Russell, a United Irishman hanged at Downpatrick Gaol in 1803.

It isn't necessary to know these facts to appreciate the verve and idiosyncrasy of The Twelfth of Never. The game of spot-the-allusion only amounts to a surface gloss on a collection which encompasses all kinds of resonances. The whole heady assembly (77 sonnets in all) displays to the full the author's expertise when it comes to creative adaptation or appropriation.

Carson is a Belfast-born poet, and a good deal of his work has concerned itself with mythologies of the city's streets and landmarks. The Ballad of HMS Belfast brings together his Belfast poems, many engendered while his birthplace "tore itself apart and patched things up again".

The city-as-palimpsest is one motif, but Carson's strongest subject is more diffuse. It has to do with the hallucinatory effect when various kinds of murderousness and destructiveness are superimposed on top of everyday life.

But he's also by nature a storyteller, a joker and an ironist, so that even the most unsettling poems here - "Night Patrol" or "Queen's Gambit" - carry an up-beat astringency. Belfast is at the same time close to Eliot's "unreal city", and only too appallingly real - a place of psychic distinctiveness, and a kind of harrowing glamour.

Patricia Craig edited `The Oxford Book of Ireland"