Belfast-born poet Ciaran Carson is one of the most accomplished wordsmiths to be found amongst the current generation of writers. Born in 1948, he has published over 29 volumes of poetry, prose and translations from Irish. Carson’s indefatigable flair for witty, convoluted, memorable story-telling is cemented in his 2008 volume, For All We Know. This is an absolutely beautiful and emotive novelistic sequence of not-quite-sonnets which retell the lives – and losses – of two lovers who meet just after a bomb goes off in 1970s Belfast. The sequence is narrated by one of the lovers, a Northern Irish writer who is recalling significant points in his relationship with the French woman (Nina).
The first poem is called ‘The Second Time Round’ and is a retelling of the lovers’ anniversary. Food is at the centre of their celebration. The poem’s opening lines describe the ‘stretch’ and ‘elasticity’ of baguettes and the crack as a baton is broken. The bread is described with a few, deftly-chosen and alliterative words which convey the sensory detail of the moment. When you eat or make a fresh baguette (the recipe is below), take a pause to crack it open so that you can indulge in the warm, freshly-baked scent of homemade bread. I absolutely love that moment.
With his usual attention to minute detail, Carson homes in on the air-holes within the baguette. Metaphorically, these are also the holes within the book’s disjointed storyline. These gaps and silences are as essential to the structure of the book as air-holes are to the structure of the perfect loaf of bread. At first, the reason for the elegiac undertone of ‘The Second Time Round’ is unclear. The identity of the lovers, the importance of the French words, and the significance of the patchwork quilt are equally inexplicable on a first reading of the sequence’s opening poem. These holes provide the narrative drive, as curiosity spurs the reader to piece together this splintered story and to find the most elusive of things – the truth which the narrator (and poet) is trying to communicate. For the protagonist, words are deceptive and truth resides only in what is known by the immediate experience of the senses. This is, perhaps, the reason for the intense description of the baguette at the very beginning of this story.
Half a century of violence lies behind the narrator’s inability to believe in anything beyond his own senses. The Second World War and the ‘Troubles’ (the euphemistic name for a period of sectarian violence in late twentieth-century Northern Ireland) loom large over the book. The breaking of the baguette in the opening poem delicately foreshadows the broken histories which unfold as the patchwork narrative progresses.
The appearance of a French baguette in a Northern Irish poem is indicative of a major theme in the work of Carson and many of his contemporary poets: the points of connection (or divergence) between cultures. Contemporary Irish poets have placed literary stepping stones across the world: one can travel to France with Derek Mahon, then to Russia with Tom Paulin, and on to China and Japan in the pages of Sinead Morrissey. These poets often seem to seek new and liberating perspectives by looking beyond the disputed borders of Ireland/Northern Ireland/Ulster/the UK and the tangled history of their own land. Such globe-trotting is indeed refreshing after decades of Irish and Northern Irish poems focussed mainly on home and the matter of Ireland.
To summarise: Carson is an amazing poet and this book comes with my (Amy’s) passionate recommendation. His narratives are compelling and his control of poetic form is consummate. And if you wish to recreate Carson’s emphasis on the senses in your own kitchen, have a go at making the recipe below. If you haven’t made bread before, it might take a few times to get it right. I certainly had a few disasters at the start! (And I still do.)
- 500g strong white bread flour
- 350ml warm water
- 1 tsp/7g instant dried yeast
- 1 tsp salt
- A couple of tablespoons oil OR about 25g butter
- Mix the flour, yeast and salt in a large bowl. Rub in the butter or stir in the oil.
- Add 300ml water and mix until the mixture starts to come together.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes. Add the remaining water as you knead the bread. It is quite a wet dough, so you may want to do this for 5 minutes if you have a dough hook and an electric mixer.
- Return the dough to the bowl and leave to rise for about an hour (or until doubled in size) in a warm place. Cover it with a wet teatowel or clingfilm. I sometimes turn the oven on for a few minutes (and then turn it off!!) and put the dough in there.
- Turn the dough out on your kneading surface and knock the air out. Knead for a few minutes.
- Shape the dough into 2-4 baguettes (depending on your desired size) and put them on a greased baking tray. Cover again and leave for a further hour, or until doubled in size.
- Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade and put a dish full of water in the oven (the resultant steam will help the bread form a good crust).
- Uncover the baguettes and, using a pair of scissors or a sharp knife, carefully slash the top of each three times.
- Put in the oven for 25-30 minutes (depending on the size). They are best eaten immediately, but can be kept until the next day or frozen.