Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work. No 24: Ciaran Carson
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CARSON IS an Irish musician and Irish-language scholar. Like Heaney and like his own contemporary Paul Muldoon (Sunday Poem no. 7, appointed last week as Oxford Professor of Poetry), Carson is a Northern Irish Catholic educated in Belfast at Queen's University. He has the same intellectual playfulness couched in eclectic language as Muldoon - both can be at once dead playful and dead serious - but the way they go about things is very different. Carson's second collection The Irish For No established him as a major poet long before he became the first winner of the T S Eliot Prize. It also introduced everyone to his long, reeling, liberating line, wonderfully musical and teeming with tumultuous anecdote, history, observation, humour and passion. Five collections plus a book on Irish music.

Carson seems driven by a unique vision of words' relationship to things which is philosophical, musical and violent all at once. Irish was his first language; he treats English words as if they were physical, animate beings who wriggle with delight when he treats them as Irish. This poem comes from a sequence based on letters of the alphabet, and key words are playfully chosen for the O in them (cloth, bobbles, oracle, vowel, fedoras, cool, noon, shadowless, sombrero, know), but they are also the vehicle for a precise - and angrily sorrowful - movement of thought. The fortune-telling granny reminds you of the fortune of children in Belfast for 25 years of Troubles; the poem shows how menace stalks children despite white tablecloths and the dreamlike removal of violence far from home to a shadowless Hollywood Western and its exotic-sounding hats.

These rhymed couplets, with the ghost of Irish song in them, have roughly eight stresses. Each stanza has criss-crossing assonant couplings within it: perfect and exactly; sipped and lip; steaming and leaving; centrifugal, bobble, vowel and oracle; china and interior; cool, dudes, and noon; inadvertently and identity. Assonances across the stanzas - table and palatable, glazed and blaze, shadowless and pressed - weld the poem together musically. The vision, the controlling image, turns on two ways of seeing O. O is a rim, a circular stain like a cup or hat-brim (fedora, sombrero), but also the space inside. The cup's interior, the vulnerable head inside a hat - like the boy's head, threatened with being blown apart at the end of the poem.

The first two stanzas, the rim of the thought, introduce the O as circumference: the circular stain you can exactly cover. The inner, central stanza concentrates on the centre of O, the enormous china which the boy sees as the inside of that very inexact thing, the Delphic oracle. Without "the", Delphic is not an adjective from the place (Delphi, where the oracle was), but the adjective which means "unknowable" or "riddlingly ambiguous" - because the historical oracle famously foretold the future in a way you would not understand till your fate was clear. Delphi was supposedly the centre of the world. Above its future-telling temple was written "Know Thyself" - a request for you to know your own identity, which this boy does not until, like that oracle's historical clients, he is up against it: with a gun at his head. The boy sees tiny flaws in the china cup, the inner oracle - which presage the explosive destruction of the whole. These flaws are centrifugal, literally "centre-fleeing": like buildings, when bombed. You think of Yeats's vision of war. "The Second Coming," begins with a falcon "widening" its circles in a rotating "gyre". "Things fall apart: the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." Carson's poem may kick off with tea and white damask, but the white has a stain which is not removed even if you cover it up with tea-cups, and this tea is sipped in a city at war where boys get stopped by armed men and granny's tea-leaf readings are as much use as Delphi, so remote in time and place. Neither granny nor Delphi foretell what is lying in wait at the end of the poem.

When the boy yawns, mimicking the yawn of the blankly oracular china, he enters another exotic removed world, as if Delphi had magicked him onto the set of High Noon. The incandescent blaze of O - the O in the middle of vowel, the yawning interior of the white cup-oracle - becomes the empty blazing street in that famous scene where Gary Cooper waits alone in a shuttered town for the approaching gunman. ("He made a vow while in state prison / Vowed it would be your life or his'n" goes the title-track.) But just as Delphi echoed granny's fortune-telling, so the Hollywood dudes in black mirror the streets of Belfast, where trigger- fingered violence comes in black stockinged hoods instead of sombreros.

The final scene develops the end of another well-known Irish poem with circles and Os in it. In Muldoon's "The Sightseers", on a family Sunday outing to view a roundabout, "the first in mid-Ulster", an uncle describes Protestant gunmen holding "a pistol so hard against his forehead, / there was still the mark of an O when he got home." In Muldoon, the uncle escapes the gun's O, but carries its mark home. In Carson, that O becomes a catalyst for knowing yourself, for understanding the identity which Delphi always asked of you. Asked for your identity, you only know yourself at gunpoint. The final O is almost a surprised realisation, an "O - that is who I am" exhalation. With all its linguistic play, this poem is about discovering your own identity as you grow up in the centre of war, a town centre of tiny flaws which might blow everything, buildings and people, centrifugally apart any minute. Where centres cannot hold, and gyres widen. Like Muldoon's uncle, boys in that city carry home the mark of that O and come to know themselves, not through the mouth of a Delphic priestess or granny's cups of tea, but through the mouth of a gun.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

`O' is taken from `Opera Et Cetera', Bloodaxe