Thursday, 12 April 2012

Belfast Confetti

This poem explores a conflict which, unlike 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' or 'The Yellow Palm' took place actually in the UK, and in recent times, though it links to both of these poems in interesting ways. The author, Ciaran Carson (you can hear him reading his poem here, and find out more about him as well) is from Northern Ireland, and the poem recounts the experience if being caught up in the civil war--the 'troubles' between Loyalist and Republican forces in Belfast. Like many fine Irish poets, this experience has haunted him, and here it is as though it has a literal effect on his poetry--the punctuation with which he writes is fragmented like the pieces of a nail bomb through the poem to enact his confusion. Carson says about his conflict poetry '…I see those poems as being very much just as if I were an eye on the scene. As if I were alert to the sounds of the time and what was going on at the exact time.’ You can read some interesting information about the background to the troubles on this site

The title of the poem seems at first to be confusing--what should be special about Belfast confetti?--but its meaning, did you not already know, is made clear almost immediately. Belfast Confetti is a slang name for the contents of a home-made nail bomb, an ironic name for a vicious thing. Ordinary confetti is a shower of paper or flower petals, sometimes in 'romantic' shapes, traditionally thrown over a bride and groom for good luck as they come out of the church after a wedding. It is fragile, bio-degradable, and a symbol of good luck and friendship. Belfast confetti is something utterly different, it is the small hard objects thrown by rioters at the forces of authority. Carson reports:

‘-if there was a riot in the shipyard they would assemble the collective nuts and bolts, iron bits for this and that and the other thing… ‘For we’ll throw some Belfast Confetti on them and see how they will be getting on with that.’-and the accent comes across…‘Belfast Confetti’…it’s not nice.’

In this case, the idea seems perhaps to have been extended to include the shrapnel from an explosion (mentioned in l.4), which may reference the use of a nail bomb. With this kind of bomb, around the explosive charge of a bomb is packed any number of metal objects--traditionally nails, but as in this poem nuts, bolts, screws, (indeed it imagines how effective metal type would be) or whatever will do damage. As the bomb explodes all these metal pieces are fired out as shrapnel and cause huge damage to people.

The shape of the poem on the page is interesting. Initially, it looks like a poem which has longer lines which have not been able to fit on the page, so that a couple of words from each go on the line below. But looking at the lineation, and at other copies of the poem, it is clear that the poet intended these alternating long and short lines. What they do is crate a fragmented feel-because of the tiny pause at the end of a line, when there is enjambement across several lines, the thought seems fragmented, as in 'And/ the explosion/ itself'. This means that the poem enacts its meaning to some extent: 'it kept / stuttering' actually sounds like a stutter. There is a jerky feel to the poem that seems to match well with the confused thoughts expressed by the speaker. As the second stanza is shorter than the first, this also adds to the feeling of incompleteness.

One of the central images of the poem seems to me to be drawn from cartoons--the ways in which in the work of Roy Litchenstein, for instance, or the early marvel comics, action was shown through large exclamation marks and bursts of colour. Here the 'exclamation marks' that seem to be raining down on the speaker indicate the surprise of these small objects coming at you from the sky, and links to the idea of 'a fount of broken type'. Here, Carson is surely wryly playing with the word 'font', used to indicate typeface, as well as indicating how the bits of metal are showering around. The explosion itself is seen in terms of how it would be represented on paper--as 'an asterisk on the map'--with gunfire a 'hyphenated line' (this reminds me of the start of 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' with the 'stuttering rifle's rapid rattle'--it seems to have something of the same feel to it, perhaps because of the use of 'stuttering in l.8). The speaker is 'trying to complete a sentence in my head' (reminiscent of the process of poetic composition), but it is fragmented, as though his thoughts are as fragmented as the bomb, or as the little bits of metal showering around. The image of metal type here is built into an extended metaphor that runs through the rest of the poem.

Metal moveable type
The punctuation marks that are used for writing now become part of the imagery used of the explosion. The routes of escape from violence seem to be 'blocked with stops and colons', as though punctuation marks instead of signs are blocking up the streets. In the second stanza, the speaker asks himself--or us--'I know this labyrinth so well...why can't I escape?' The 'labyrinth' that he speaks of here seems to be something more than just a literal maze of streets, it is a way of thinking. He knows the way out, but can't manage to use his knowledge. Perhaps Carson is thinking here (as Heaney thought before him) that Poetry itself represents a means of escape from violence, a way out of the small neighbourhood in which he feels trapped. Of course at the same time he is literally trapped by the riot police and their reaction to the violence.

Saracen armoured cars in Northern Ireland
The street names that he lists--the list, without the use of 'and' is an example of asyndeton, which adds to the sense of the streets going on and on--are drawn from famous British army battles (you might recognise Balaklava from 'The Charge of the Light Brigade') and remind us of the colonial position of the British in Northern Ireland. By referencing 'Crimea Street. /Dead end again', Carson may be suggesting that the British are re-fighting old battles in a new way, the use of enjambement here reinforcing that sense of a 'dead end' in more than one way-- 'every move is punctuated'. Here 'punctuation' has a double meaning, and suggests control--the speaker is being moved about like a word on a page, controlled and told when to stop and go by the forces of the riot police. The mention of the 'Saracen' armoured car creates another threatening image. the riot police have become literally faceless in 'Makrolon face-shields' and 'mesh', surrounding him in the 'labyrinth' of streets from which he needs to escape.

The final shower of questions in the last two lines is described as a 'fusillade'--meaning an organised round of gunfire from many guns. The speaker is apparently being asked by the police who he is and what he is doing at the site of the riot and the explosion, being treated like a suspect. Normal procedure would indeed be to barricade off the vicinity and question those seeking to leave the area. But here we see the point of view of the innocent bystander being treated like a terrorist. For all we know from the poem he may be one--but what comes out is his confusion and uncertainty. The questions seem as violent as bullets, partly because they seem to disorientate him. The poem would link, for this reason to 'The Right Word' or 'The Yellow Palm', as well as having the obvious link to 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'

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