Authors: Ciaran Carson
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First published in 2009 by Blackstaff Press
This edition published in 2012 by
4c Heron Wharf, Sydenham Business Park
with the assistance of The Arts Council of Northern Ireland
© Ciaran Carson, 2009
All rights reserved
Ciaran Carson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
Cover design by Dunbar Design
Produced by Blackstaff Press
catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Ciaran Carson was born in Belfast in 1948. He is the author of four prose works:
Last Night’s Fun, The Star Factory, Fishing for Amber
, which was long-listed for the Booker Prize. He is the author of ten collections of poetry, including
, which won the
/Aer Lingus Award for Irish Poetry, the Ewart-Biggs Prize, the Irish Book Award and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize;
, which won the T.S. Eliot Prize; and
, which won the Forward Poetry Prize.
was published in 2008, and a book of verse translations of Rimbaud’s prose poems,
In the Light Of
, in 2012.
, his translation of the Old Irish epic, was published in 2007. Carson lives in Belfast and is the director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University. He is a member of Aosdána.
Praise for Ciaran Carson
This man writes like an angel.
Carson has already done for poetry in Ireland what he is now doing for fiction, changing its contours, extending its borders.
Carson is a conjurer with language . . . His eye lights on an astonishing miscellany of fact and fantasy, but remains sharply focused throughout.
ERICA WAGNER, THE TIMES
For Patricia Craig
and Jeffrey Morgan
It’s been a long time
Your postcard came like a bolt from the blue, and it was the spur that drove me to begin writing again. After my father died in 1998 – did you know he was dead? – I took early retirement from my position in the Municipal Gallery, partly to devote myself to writing a book about his involvement with Esperanto, the international auxiliary language devised by Ludwig Zamenhof. I had long been familiar with the salient details of Zamenhof’s life. He was born in 1859 in Bialystok, in the Polish district of Podlasia, once part of the Duchy of Lithuania, and then of the Russian Empire. I began studying the history of the region, hoping to gain a better understanding of what made Zamenhof Zamenhof, without which it was impossible to imagine my father. I began to discover that Poland, and hence Polish Lithuania, had been partitioned and repartitioned by a series of treaties between Prussia and Russia, behind which lay such a series of insurrections, strikes, pogroms, feuds, plots, wars, commercial enterprises and business transactions, that I realised it would take me years to unravel the particular circumstances of the town which had brought Zamenhof into being, let alone how my father had come to learn Zamenhof’s invented language.
I began to think of myself as an angler fishing a stretch of canal in the shadow of a dark semi-derelict factory leaking steam from a rusted exoskeleton of piping, who, after hours of inaction, feels his line bite, and, his excitement mounting, begins to reel in as his rod is bent by the gravity of what must be an enormous catch – a pike perhaps, glutted by its meal of barbel, perch, or one of the plump rats that scuttle through the soot-encrusted weeds of the canal banks – when to his consternation he finds he has snagged a smoothing-iron, which he discovers to be only the precursor of a series resembling an enormous charm bracelet dripping green-black beards and tendrils of slime, as the iron is followed by an iron kettle, pots and pans, a bicycle, a kitchen sink complete with taps, a pram, a harrow, a plough, forks and rakes, a gamut of broken looms, winding machines and spinning jennies, a string of dead horses, rotting straps and rusted buckles, tumbrils, wagons, engine tenders, locomotives, tanks, flat-bed trucks and howitzers, a crocodile of sunken barges, lighters, tugs, launches, cutters, gunships, battleships, amphibians and submarines sucked from the reluctant mud, the whole gargantuan juggernaut flying in midair for a second, as the angler’s rod whips back, before collapsing all about him with an almighty thunderclap; and I would wake sweating and exhausted from my nocturnal Herculean labour. My book ground to a halt before it even properly began.
I realised that even my knowledge of my father was fragmentary and incomplete. I did not know, for instance, what he looked like as a child. Cameras were not readily available when he was growing up, at least not to his milieu; and whatever studio photographs might have been taken, for his First Communion, say, or Confirmation, have not survived. The earliest photograph of him is at the age of eighteen or nineteen, when his features had been fully formed. And yet, perhaps it is possible retrospectively to build an Identikit childhood portrait where none exists.
I was reminded of this when I got your card this morning, because it occurred to me that we read handwriting as we do faces, and yours – your handwriting, I mean – had changed little, even though it was over twenty years since we had last met, and parted. Not that I believed it was yours at first; for if seeing is believing, sometimes we look and do not see; and sometimes we only see what we want to see, or what we want to believe. And now, reading your brief message for the umpteenth time – It’s been a
, you wrote, that was all, and left it unsigned, knowing the gesture of your writing would be signature enough – I find it difficult, in retrospect, to understand my initial hesitation as to its provenance. Even when we purposely change the way we write, some ineradicable loop or slant, an identifiable arpeggio, betrays us. When we meet someone we have not seen for years, and it takes us a while to put a name to the face, we say, But you haven’t changed at all. And even when we fail to know the person, when provided with the name, we see him then, we see her then, and say, Of course, how could I not have known you? For now the evidence is unmistakeable, and we read the face like invisible writing that blooms to the surface when exposed to heat. So, even in this brief flourish I recognised the character of your handwriting; I knew its physiognomy. As you would have anticipated. The words are written in fountain pen, and in blue ink, the colour of eternity. You knew I would remember that a fountain pen had first brought us together, all those years ago.
I picture myself sitting in the old
Café, in Fountain Street as it happens, on a Saturday in May 1982. The day before I had bought a nice 1950s jacket in the Friday Market, lightweight grey Donegal salt-and-pepper tweed with heathery flecks, little hints of purple, blue and mauve that flicker in the sunlight. I’m wearing it with a pale blue soft-collared cotton shirt and white duck trousers, so when you appear through the door in a navy check box jacket over a high-necked cream broderie anglaise blouse and a flax-coloured maxi-skirt, like Bonnie of Bonnie & Clyde, I find myself indulging in a little scenario where we go well together, such a nice-looking couple, people would say. You sit down a table away from me and order some tea and biscuits, and when they come I watch you out of the corner of my eye as you dunk a biscuit into the tea, a gesture I think at first doesn’t quite suit your style, but then I tell myself it reveals some character, it shows you’re not afraid of what people think. Against the cream blouse I notice a little pendant cylindrical jewel, some kind of étui or lipstick-holder, I think. It’s done in beautiful red and black marble swirls that show off the red highlights in your Cleopatra-cut black hair and it hangs from a lanyard that is itself beautiful, interwoven greens and reds and mauves that have the sheen of silk. You toy with it from time to time with one hand as the other manages the business of the tea and biscuits. Then you reach for it with both hands and you unclip it from the lanyard, you rummage in your handbag and take out a notebook, you unscrew the little étui, and when I see the gleam of a gold nib I realise it is a diminutive fountain pen.
You were poised to write when you caught me looking at you. You looked back. I must have blushed. Lovely pen, I said. You smiled. Yes, you said, it’s what they call a Dinkie, Conway Stewart used to make them. A lot of people comment on it, you said, I suppose it’s what you might call a conversation piece. Or lethal weapon, and you held it up briefly between thumb and four fingers like a dart. Its length was not much more than the breadth of your hand. Well, I said, I used to have a Conway Stewart, but I’ve never seen one like that. My father gave it to me, I said, I think it must have been the first fountain pen I ever had. It was a family joke of sorts, because our name is Conway, and my mother’s maiden name was Stewart. So you might say I’m a Conway-Stewart myself. Gabriel Conway, I said, and I extended my hand awkwardly across the intervening table, and you moved to take it, and we ended up sharing the empty table. You did not offer me your name at first. Oh, you said, when eventually I asked, it’s a very ordinary name, probably so ordinary you wouldn’t guess. You paused, and smiled. So what do you think I might be called? you said. Oh, I said, looking you up and down, you look like an Iris to me. You laughed. Yes, you said, Iris, of course, how did you know? I was slightly taken aback; I’d been joking, and you didn’t look at all like what I imagined an Iris to be. But I was flattered, too, that I had guessed right, and thought myself like the girl who discovers the name of Rumpelstiltskin. Iris what? I said. Iris Bowyer, you said.
It’s been a long time. Such a lot has happened. My father, as I’ve said, died seven years ago. Some eighteen months ago, I was forcibly reminded of his aura – and of yours – when I was browsing in an annex of the Empire Auction Rooms. Amongst a job lot of odds and ends – a box of Veritas gas mantles, a dozen mismatched bone-handled knives, two battered brass candlesticks, a chess set missing the Black Queen – I saw a Conway Stewart. It was almost identical to my first fountain pen, an 84 model, my father’s pen, iridescent green marble laced with gold veins, though somewhat muted by a layer of grime, but when I rubbed its barrel with the wetted ball of my thumb I could feel the raised imprint of the logo even before it became visible. It was indeed an 84. I unscrewed the cap and posted it on to the barrel end. It felt good in my hand as I wrote on the air, the gold nib shining in the gloom of the annex. I won the lot for a few pounds.
I bought ink on the way home. Miraculously, the pen still wrote, though the nib was a little scratchy. Again I thought of my father. At the beginning his pen, too, had snagged a little when I put it to paper. Everyone holds a pen differently, and the nib had taken on the quirks of his hand, but not irremediably so: the more I wrote with it, the more its path was smoothed as I wore away his influence and imposed my hand on his. Now, writing with its sibling, feeling the drag of the nib on the fibres of the paper, breathing the antique smell of bottled ink, I felt a powerful nostalgia steal over me, which led me, in the months that followed, to become a collector of vintage fountain pens. I haunted auction rooms, antique shops, the bric-a-brac stalls of Smithfield Market and the Friday Market. Before, I had been familiar with names that are still current: Parker, Waterman, Sheaffer, Mont Blanc. I had no idea of how many makes there were I’d never heard of: Mentmore, Swan, Condor, Miracle, Esterbrook, Packard, Fineline, Royal, Venus, Eagle, Stratford, Senator, Conklin, Avon, Merlin, Wing-Flow: pens as varied as their names, their companies defunct, their premises abandoned to other trades, or long since demolished. When I pick one up from a stall I touch the past.
I experienced a special frisson when I acquired a Dinkie, a 540 model like yours, though in a violet and ivory swirl instead of your red and black.
Le Rouge et le Noir
. I thought for a moment I might write this letter with it; but, looking at your card again, I decided on the Wearever de Luxe, made in North Bergen, New Jersey, in 1939. Not a luxury pen, despite its name; at the time, it was advertised as the Dollar Pen. Nevertheless, the Wearever has a beautiful casing of jazzy intermittent lanes of shimmering green on black, like strips of emerald laid into ebony, and when I first uncapped it I was struck by the Art Deco double-take of its nib, a gold open point overlaid by a stainless steel brace with a diamond-shaped aperture. It put me in mind of the Chrysler Building, and I visualised the steel ziggurat of its superstructure radiating a wintry light, and us together in New York. And here is your postcard of New York, a reproduction of a black-and-white photograph by Acme Photo Service,
Lightning striking the tip of the Empire State Building, July 9th 1945
, in which the lightning-bolt appears a luminous scribble on the dark lowering sky; one can almost picture the traffic moving like corpuscles through the bloodstream of New York, beeping longingly through the murk. And, as I write with the Wearever, the words borne forward in this flow of ink, I picture us in a thunderstorm in New York, laughing and running for shelter as the heavens open and pour down on us, and wonder what ulterior message lies behind your few words.
I turn the card over: I hadn’t noticed the British stamp until now, nor that it was postmarked York, not New York, and your faint Yorkshire accent came back to me, how charmingly it had struck my ear when first I heard it, in the
Café in Belfast in 1982. And then I remembered what I have often tried to forget, that your farewell letter came on 9th July 1984, the day that York Minster was struck by lightning, and its South Transept destroyed by the subsequent fire. I kept the letter for some weeks, reading and rereading it disbelievingly until at last, believing it, I burned it, together with all your other letters.
When inked paper is burned, the metallic components of the ink endure longer than the paper, and for a few brief moments I saw whole sentences stand out bold and clear on their silvery white leaves, before I poked at the ashes and watched them snow upwards into the grey July sky, and I breathed those ashes as your thousands of smouldering and dying words entered my bloodstream. It has been computed that with every breath we take we breathe some molecule of Caesar’s last breath, and I wonder if I now breathe some minute fragment of those ashes, if sufficient time has passed for their particulate matter so to be diffused into the atmosphere that it too is breathed by everyone who breathes. Perhaps I am breathing what was your breath yesterday as I look at your words today and inhale them as I write my words. I put my face to the card and I smell the ink that was wet as you breathed on your words and perhaps whispered them or said them silently. At the very least you must have thought them. And when I trace the forms of the characters with my fingers I touch a substance that once flowed within centimetres of your pulse. The blue vein in your wrist. There’s something else, a trace of perfume. What was it,
L’Air du Temps
? When I leaned over to you that day in the
Café, I caught a faint bouquet, a hint of violet and musk-rose underlaid by sandalwood, a perfume that was nameless to me then.
Iris Bowyer. I didn’t know then that in Greek mythology Iris was a sister of the Harpies. Iris personifies the rainbow, hence the iris of the eye. Iris is the messenger of the gods, for the rainbow unites heaven and earth. Iris conducts the souls of dead women to the underworld, just as Hermes does the souls of dead men. As for the flower known as the iris, the Ancient Egyptians considered it to be a symbol of eloquence, and placed an iris on the brow of the Sphinx. And Iris – only lately did I learn this – gives her name to iridium, the super-hard metal with which the gold nibs of fountain pens are tipped, because when dissolved in acid, iridium produces an array of colours like those in an oil slick, or the iridescent feathers of an exotic bird.