Shamrock Tea

by Ciaran Carson, is number two of the verse novels I’m looking at (and, yes, probably number six in The Big Pile Of Books I Am Reading At The Same Time). It has 101 short chapters, each named for a color, and I’m at 24.

The best way I can think of to describe its form is by evoking one of those photo-portraits that are made up – when you zoom in and in and in — of hundreds of other individual portraits. A tapestry/mosaic form, with lots and lots of zoom-inable detail in each stitch of the tapestry, each tiny square of the mosaic. A behold the particular, and therefore the general sort of worldview.

So far, there seem to be three overall focal points — a 15th century painting (the Arnolfini Portrait), its subjects and colors, by Jan Van Eyck; Catholic saints, their devoutness, their reported miracles and their feast days; and the deductive reasoning method of Sherlock Holmes. The chapters are tightly-written and each labeled with the name of a particular color. They link to each other, and within themselves, in myriad ways — the whole thing is a continuous flow of word-association, color-association, thought-association, concept-association, date-association — in a knitting, reaching kind of way that links lives and feelings across centuries, from the Middle Ages to the present day, looking askance at received notions of space and time. So far the present day “action” is taking place in relation to and through the prism of the Arnolfini portrait (which sounds magical/miraculous, which it is — there’s quite a bit of that in Shamrock Tea).

So far, anyhow. The “verse” part is prose-poem rather than free or formal stanzas, by the way. (Bizarre to be reading Barret-Browning in blank verse and this colorful poetic-prose in the same breath, as it were.)

I am reminded almost continuously  in reading Carson of Annie Dillard (Holy the Firm and For The Time Being, but also Pilgrim at Tinker Creek). Although Carson’s focus is narrower and more specific, they share the same penchant for weaving historical, sociological, religious “trivia” into commentary that spans the ages and ends always in the present day. (No-one asked, but I have to say Dillard’s language and her “reach” win hands down for me….)

Here are three extracts:

From Ch 4: Scarlet – “For my twelfth birthday [my Uncle Celestine] gave me an omnibus edition of the Sherlock Holmes stories. To a great mind, says Holmes in A Study in Scarlet, nothing is little; and from a drop of water, he maintained, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara, without having seen or heard of one or the other; for all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known when we are shown a single link of it.”

From Ch 14: Raven – “Although he was occasionally mistaken for a wild animal by passing shepherds, Benedict’s reputation for sanctity and wisdom eventually became such that he was importuned to descend from his desolate cavern. He established a community of monks at Subiaco; about the year 530, he withdrew from thence to Monte Cassino, near Naples, where he founded the greatest monastery the world has ever known.

As recorded by his hagiographer, St. Gregory, the life of Benedict abounds in miracles. Standing one night, praying by his window, he experienced a vision whereby the whole world seemed to be gathered in one sunbeam, and brought thus before his eyes; for to him who is granted the light of eternity, all things are that light; and therefore every point in the universe can be visited from every other point.

St Benedict’s emblem is a raven.”

Ch 21: Permanent Black: “Van Eyck duplicated with the brush the work of goldsmiths in metal and gems, recapturing that glow which seemed to reflect the radiance of the Divine, the superessential light. For viewed in that eternal light, all things are equal, from the glint of a nail in the wooden floor of a burgher’s house, to the glittering spires of the New Jerusalem.”

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4 thoughts on “Shamrock Tea

  1. msbaroque says:

    Nic, I love Ciaran Carson. From the “single drop” of these extracts I can infer the whole book: he will be doing something comprehensive and thrilling…

    Do you know The Twelfth of Never? Too weird even to describe, except that it is all in alexandrine sonnets, drawing on Irish myth and lore and Japanese imagery.

  2. I don’t know The Twelfth of Never, but will keep an eye out for it. Whatever else he does, he makes you think, and not just with your head.

  3. WestPADad says:

    Thanks for your review. I’m not a regular verse reader (probably too simple minded). I decided to try and read novel in verse form and read about Shamrock Tea on another website. I just got the book from the Library and was confused because to my layman’s eye it looked like a bunch of little essays. Your description helps a lot — I think I’ll keep reading…

  4. Glad to hear it – thanks for stopping by!

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