Understanding the Poem Belfast Confetti – Ciaran Carson

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TITLE OF POEM: Ciaran Carson’s poem may sound a bit odd to those who where not around to witness ‘The Troubles’ in Ireland that ran from the 1960s to the 1980s. Carson lived through those troublesome times when there were clashes between Irish Nationalists (IRA) who basically wanted the British out of their land (Northern Ireland). These public riots often took place on huge streets and would go on for days. They involved the public against British armed forces and police. The name ‘Belfast Confetti’ was basically slang for the homemade hand grenades put together by the Irish opposition in Belfast that were filled with leftover pieces of nuts, bolts and other small metal items.

It was called ‘confetti’ because of the resemblance of shrapnel falling on people when a grenade explodes. It is ironic how a celebratory term is being used to describe what was essentially the complete opposite.

THE POEM:
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.

SPEAKER, TONE AND ATTITUDE

The speaker (person speaking to us from the poem) is someone caught in the sudden clash between the two factions. We could say it is Carson himself telling us how it felt to be caught up in the conflict on the streets of Belfast. The tone of the poem is indicative of someone who is bewildered. Notice the very short sentences for effect, and the multitude of question marks “fusillade” in this case showing someone not being sure of what to do or where to go. This reveals the shock and panic of a person trying to find a way out. In the first stanza we have a hasty list “nuts, bolts nails, car keys” which speeds up the pace of the poem, adding a feverish atmosphere. The objects themselves and the things that are the very ‘confetti’ that the poem is named after, but here they are raining down on the speaker’s head like bullets. 

These supposedly safe, household objects turn hostile, adding a certain horror to the situation. The objects are used for a strange Which probably aims to highlight how Ireland itself (home) to both sides, has become an alien environment to live in. Neighbourhoods which should symbolise calm and friendliness have now become a battleground. This is jarring to the viewer, as the things and places they once knew as ‘safe’ have taken on a sinister, deadly role. 

SEMANTIC FIELD/ WORD CHOICE OF POET

Carson uses a specific semantic field when describing the conflict on the street: punctuation. Punctuation marks come to symbolise the violence on the streets. It is important to also note that this is an extended metaphor as all the way through the poem punctuation is a metaphor for violence. In some instances it it the appearance of it that he uses to illustrate the destruction of a mine “the explosion itself, an asterisk on the map”. If we take the analogy of the asterisk as an explosion, we can read further into this – what do we use asterisks for? How can this apply to the explosion on the map? 

My students have remarked how an asterisks is often used to indicate an addendum (extra information that sheds more light onto an issue in a text), so they interpreted the asterisk as Carson’s way of hinting that there is far more going on in the conflict that meets the eye. The ‘troubles’ themselves have a complex history, and my pupils raised the issue that it could be possible that these rioters may have even forgotten why they are fighting, or what they are fighiting for.

IDENTITY

In any case, this could be supported by the fact that there is also a loss of identity emerging towards the end of stanza 2, where the speakers states “what is my name?” In the same way that punctuation makrs help us make sense of a written piece of work, here they seem to be causing havoc. There is a break down of communication (which causes most wars and conflicts), therefore we could argue that Carson is trying to convey how this may sometimes give way to a loss of ‘self’ and especially with our own conscience. 

War dehumanises people. Is Carson conveying this to us? Could the “Makronlon face-shields” be testament to this loss of hmanity and identity? What of the walkie-talkies? I think it is very telling, that the punctuation and imagery here is highlighting the  aggressive, brutal language of war. 

LANGUAGE

We have already established the importance of language, or rather the degeneration of it. The stuttering of a sentence in the head resembles a machine gun report. The alleyways are blocked by hostile stops and colons in the form of road blocks. Carson is using the only thing he knows to portray the nonsensical violence of what is happening around him: language. 

STRUCTURE: There is much to say about the way the pem structured. There is frequent use of caesura to indicate communication being cut off, either geographically or in the literal meaning of the word. This is reflected also in the semantic field. 

There are two stanzas, 7 lines each. Yet each line is different lengths indicating how the streets are cut off and are irregular lengths. The enjambment is also testament to this, where we get a sense of how the speaker is trying to run away, but isn’t able to. Paying attention to lines like ‘what is my name?’ is especially telling, as the phrase is literally cut in half, a bit like the rioters. The people of Ireland are divided and no longer feel like united. 

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