On the Night Watch


Few books of poems in our time have been as well received as Ciaran Carson’s For All We Know, its haunting power acknowledged by a host of welcoming readers and judges. Now, just one year on (and following the publication also of Collected Poems), this ever protean writer weaves a slower, subtler spell with a profusion of spare, sinuous, riddling shards of memory and insight.

In three interlinked movements On the Night Watch fathoms the depths of a well and a mine to discover what can and cannot be said. Exploring the very grammar of English, it remains alert to all that stays unspoken. Exposed to the anxieties of circumstance — a ‘siege of sickness’ — the poems trace the storms and calms of waiting, not knowing, from fear to the reprieve from fears, and find in the small hours the chink of birdsong and chinks of light.

As ‘the falling leaves / fall on / the fallen leaves // the rain beats / on the rain’ these poems accumulate in a work of characteristically brave adventure.


Only last year, the Belfast poet Ciaran Carson published For All We Know, a book-length poem inviting readers to assemble from two enigmatic pieces the story of a relationship conducted in an atmosphere of danger and paranoia. With On the Night Watch he goes a stage further, daring another elaborate experiment recalling some kinds of minimalist verse (by Americans such as Robert Creeley) written in the 1950s.

There are three “movements”, adding up to 126 poems. Each has 14 lines (seven couplets) of rarely more than five syllables each, and the final line of every third example supplies the title of a subsequent poem. Thus, one that ends “We do not know/how all this//came to be/nor how we stand//dazzled in/this field of eyebright” recurs in the title This Field of Eyebright three pages later. There is no obvious plot line, only mysterious, elusive images, and the effect is nevertheless riveting. “Eyebright” is one of various repeated words, and since eyebright is a medicinal herb there is an impression of an emergency medical context. With this sequence of tiny, haunting poems Carson — venturesome as ever — may be wanting us less to read in the conventional sense than “to watch//what never seems/to alter” as you run frame after frame of a film reel through your fingers.

Alan Brownjohn The Sunday Times

Year Published: 2009
Details: 144pp
ISBN PBK: 978 1 85235 465 7
ISBN HBK: 978 1 85235 466 4

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