Most days you will find this pair reclining on the waste ground
Between Electric Street and Hemp Street, sharing a bottle of Drawbridge
British Wine. They stare at isolated clouds, or puffs of steam which leak out
From the broken pipes and vents at the back of the Franklin Laundry …
They converse in snarls and giggles, and they understand each other perfectly.
Just now they have entered the giggling phase, though what there is
To laugh at, who knows. Unless it was this momentary ray of sunlight
That glanced across their patch of crushed coke, broken glass and cinders;
And the bottle which had seemed half-empty until then is now half-full.
From “The Ballad of HMS Belfast” (Picador, 2014) © Ciaran Carson.
Once, someone who had been sleeping rough for several years told me that the worst thing about homelessness wasn’t the constant cold, or sleeplessness, or the lack of access to water and other facilities. Obviously those things were awful as well. But the worst thing for him was having people walk past day after day, as if they couldn’t see him. Sometimes when he spoke he wondered if his voice had even come out at all – because it felt, literally, as though no one could hear him. To me it sounded like the start of a horror film. Imagine if you were the only person who could hear your own voice. Imagine if every sound you made, whether you were speaking or sneezing or screaming, didn’t even ripple the outside world. (‘In the ears of the town / snow falls.’)
In this poem, Ciaran Carson throws his gaze onto ‘two winos’ – a pair of alcoholics who drink their days away on some waste industrial ground. That’s a sight than we’ve all seen, and usually our observation ends there. Just two winos. But it is the duty of a poet to go beyond that – to observe the things that nobody else deems worthy of observation, to see beyond what we usually see. So what happens when Carson observes these two men, and makes them worthy of poetry? In this first stanza we get a touching view of the broken intimacy between these two men, who are – after all – together in their decay: ‘They converse in snarls and giggles, and they understand each other perfectly’. Our narrator, however, is still distanced from them and their primitive language. What really lifts this poem off the page is its final sentence: when Carson collapses that distance between the narratorial voice and the two subjects of the poem, by imagining what they might be laughing at. It is a transient moment of beauty (‘this momentary ray of sunlight’) and it cuts across the most hopeless landscape (‘their patch of crushed coke, broken glass and cinders’) – a subtle gesture towards what might have driven these men to this life.
It’s just over a year since Carson’s death (6 October 2019). In addition to being a great poet, I’ve heard he was a thoughtful and witty man, fond of a drink. He must have been well aware of alcohol’s ability to lift us away from the drudgery and desolation of normal life. I wonder if that’s what’s responsible for the stunning collapse of that final sentence. It is a poem which shows us the magic of what can happen when we pay attention to what we usually turn away from. It is a poem that grants some understanding to the people we ignore.
All my love,