The Broken Word, by Adam Foulds; Mandeville, by Matthew Francis; For All We Know, by Ciaran Carson (review)


Adam Foulds       The Broken Word        Jonathan Cape  £9

Matthew Francis  Mandeville           Faber £9.99

Ciaran Carson      For All We Know         The Gallery Press   £10.95


          The Broken Word is Adam Foulds’ first published poetry (he has written a well-regarded novel). It shows us a young man, Tom, fresh from ‘the bark/ and whine and snivel/ and brag’ of school, plunged into service against the 1950s ‘Mau Mau’ uprising in Kenya. The blurb explains this – a pity, because Foulds lets us find out decade, place, and bloody context by degrees. The poem quietly initiates readers, like Tom, into casual brutality. In a blur, we see the ‘red wet gust’ of blood, witness a rape, see vicious punishments meted out. Tom can only define them in inadequate terms: cowboys and Indians; cricket pavilions. Of three men buried up to their necks for a minor infraction, he notes that their heads stick up ‘like croquet hoops’. Of castrated men, we are told they have been ‘heavily edited’.

          Such images punctuate the poem, and there’s no doubt that Foulds has genuine talent as a miniaturist. Nevertheless, The Broken Word isn’t an unqualified success. There are many explanatory passages in which rhythms dull, in which lines break for almost no reason, telling us what’s happening  and moving perilously close to prose: ‘Tom sat at his place at one/ of the English tables in the mess,/ eating beef in gravy, tightening the vice/ of his molars until the meat’s/ staunch fibres gave way.’ Those line-breaks seem suspect, arbitrary. That this passage is followed by a truly brilliant image of a settler eating sponge pudding, and ‘making sure that each spoonful/ wore a thick sneer of custard’ signals Foulds’ perfect control of verbal snapshots. The elliptical structure of the poem is expert; but within each section, there is more work to be done.

          Matthew Francis has already proved his dexterity and invention, not only with individual poems, but with short sequences in Blizzard and in Dragons. His third collection, Mandeville, is based on the strange, fourteenth century account of the travelling knight, Sir John Mandeville – actually a compendium of other accounts, forged together by an unknown scholar. Its accounts of the Holy Land, India, Russia, China and the Far East were believed by contemporary readers. Francis has followed the original far from slavishly – using Mandeville’s travels lets him mine for strange and amazing metaphors, creating a palimpsest through which the original is occasionally visible. In particular, Francis’s forty poems draw together recurrent ideas from the original thirty-six chapters, rather than following its itinerary. Mandeville works as a springboard for Francis’s originality; it doesn’t quite act as a window into fourteenth-century thought. The poetic alchemy is what matters, as in this well-crafted account of The Dead Sea: ‘The sea has sulked so long it has forgotten wetness... Sometimes it dreams itself full of blood, or remembers/ what it was like to be fished and, convulsing itself,/ coughs up a gob of sticky black the size of a horse./ The beach is smirched with them...’ In fact, one feature Francis has retained, the repetitive, faintly laconic tone – achieved by devising every single poem of tercets, each made up of rough pentameters – works against him. It gives Mandeville a unity which Francis might better have fragmented.

          Ciaran Carson’s For All We Know also has a formal unity: all its poems have fourteen lines, or, for mathematical reasons I don’t fathom, multiples of fourteen (the remembrance of the sonnet form vanishes in longer pieces). Each poem consists of unrhymed, sinewy and colloquial hexameters, paired. It is a stupendous sequence, based on a Glenn Gould definition of a fugue - offered as the book’s epigraph, but also, slightly edited, insinuated into one of the poems: ‘Fugue must perform its frequent stealthy work with continuously shifting melodic fragments that remain, in the ‘tune’ sense, perpetually unfinished.’

          True to this, Carson gives us a couple who first meet in a clothes shop in the 1970s, just as a bomb goes off. Both are bilingual. The sequence gives us their emotional communiqués, set in a series of European cities, whether alone or together. The inexactness of the reference points in the sequence makes it a really engaging challenge – the poems are studded with references to the Cold War and its aftermath, and a repeated analogy is drawn between the ‘real’ identity of the lovers and the world of the double agent. Using poetry to explore the nature of language and identity is not unusual, but I can’t think of such an eloquent example of the debate. These seventy poems are active echo-chambers, with images constantly re-surfacing – of a hovering helicopter; a patchwork quilt; untrustworthy clocks and watches; expensive pens; the music of Bach; the texture and implication of clothes, of style; a French song. Bewildering: as a sequence needs to be, to stretch the reader’s imagination.

          But the real pleasure of Carson’s sequence is in more than the intelligent mystery it fosters: it lies in the perfection of the rhythm. For All We Know cries out to be read aloud, so that every syllable can be savoured. Not a foot wrong, in the metrical or any other sense. If there’s a better sequence this decade, it had better look sharp.

From The Independent