Unseen Responses

‘Belfast Confetti’ vs ‘The Civil Servant (Wreaths)’

Alexandra Marie T. Valenzuela and Jasmine Alicia Wangko’s comparative analyses of Ciaran Carson’s ‘Belfast Confetti’ and Michael Longley’s ‘The Civil Servant’ — poems about the Troubles in Northern Ireland — explore the sectarian violence and tensions portrayed in the language and imagery of these evocative pieces. Both Alexandra and Jasmine centre their approach around the theme of violence and space: Alexandra employs a systematic, meticulous approach, exploring how shifts of perspective and subject effectively portray the riots’ grievous impacts, while Jasmine employs a psychological approach, spotlighting attitudes, voice and lived experience. Through reading these competing critical voices in tandem, we incorporate these distinct views towards forming our own unique interpretations

Alexandra Marie T. Valenzuela

Both poems reflect each poet’s portrayal of the riots that occurred in Northern Ireland, and employ different literary techniques to do so. They reflect the theme of suddenness of violence, but differ in their portrayal of the violent nature of death. At the same time, they convey different sentiments despite a similar use of metaphors. The two poems are generally more similar than they are different, in that both revolve around the main idea of the brutal effects of the riots, and highlight the different aspects that this violence affected – the individual and the individual’s loved ones. As a whole, both poems mainly reflect the nature of violence and death in this time period, be it openly, as portrayed in ‘Belfast Confetti’, or concentrated within a domestic space, as portrayed in ‘The Civil Servant (Wreaths)’.

Firstly, both poems foreground the suddenness of violence. This theme is portrayed in ‘Belfast Confetti’, where the poet employs asyndeton to illustrate the fast-paced nature of death and havoc during the riots. Similarly, this theme is also portrayed in ‘The Civil Servant (Wreaths)’, but through the use of juxtaposition, to bring about the sudden shift from mundanity to that of a sudden, jarring nature. The usage of asyndeton that highlights how ‘nuts, bolts, nails, (and) car keys’ were flying everywhere due to an explosion speeds up the pace of ‘Belfast Confetti’. This reflects how the havoc and chaos was unfolding in a very fast manner, such that one would be unable to fully comprehend the gravity of the situation. The poem also emphasises the sudden nature of death, as the persona appears unprepared for the explosion. Without the conjunctions in the sentence, the sentence is effectively shortened and has an abrupt, staccato rhythm. Since the items are simply listed out, and the words are only one syllable each, the four segments in the line are very abrupt. Likewise, in ‘The Civil Servant (Wreaths)’, the poet employs the use of juxtaposition between the persona ‘preparing an Ulster fry’ and him being ‘shot’ in the second line. This juxtaposition is jarring to the reader as the mundane and uneventful first line is abruptly interrupted by such a significant and violent act of getting shot. Thus, both poems effectively portray and highlight the abruptness of war violence.

However, the two poems are different in their portrayal of the violent nature of death. ‘Belfast Confetti’ does not reveal to the reader the gravity of the riots, a comment on how the world has trivialised the situation and is not concerned with the conflict as much as it should be. Contrasting with this is ‘The Civil Servant’ which clearly shows the extent of the brutal violence through the use of grotesque imagery. In ‘Belfast Confetti’, the poet uses the punctuation to replace and illustrate the explosions and gunfire. He does this by using a ‘hyphenated line’ to illustrate ‘a burst of rapid fire’ and an ‘asterisk’ to symbolize an ‘explosion’, which masks the intensity of those acts, as they are replaced by nothing more than symbols on a page. This simplification of the brutality that occurred thus covers up the reality of the situation, downplaying its violence. This could be the poet’s way of highlighting the lack of concern for this issue, considering the fact that he has likened large, extravagant events to punctuation which often get passed over in texts. Also, it could be a coping mechanism, helping the poet to simplify and articulate the issue.  This is in contrast with the use of violent imagery in ‘The Civil Servant (Wreaths)’ that highlights the details of the gunshot, where the ‘bullet entered (the persona’s) mouth and pierced his skull’. This image blatantly lays out the result of the brutal violence that occurred, and does not mask it in any way. Aside from the use of language, the titles of the poems also illustrate the contrast in the portrayal of the violent nature of the death. ‘Confetti’ itself is ironic, as confetti is typically used in parties or celebration, but in this case may just symbolize ‘raining’ bullets. Given such a title, the reader does not expect the poem to be of such a violent and sombre nature, which therefore contributes to the notion of hiding the true nature of the violence that happened. This could again relate to how the poet may be trying to lighten the subject matter, either to mask the violence or to make a point about how this violence was trivialised. This is then contrasted with ‘The Civil Servant’. Since the persona goes unnamed, this ‘civil servant’ could be a representative for all citizens who were also gunned down in such a ruthless manner, which implies the prevalence of this issue, and how this violence was widespread. This is therefore made apparent to the reader, as he realizes the true brutal nature of the violence. Thus, both poems are different their portrayal of the violent nature of death. Where ‘Belfast Confetti’ trivialises it ironically to draw more attention to the event, ‘The Civil Servant’ is more explicit in foregrounding the effects of war.

Ultimately the two poems have different focal points in their reflections on war – ‘Belfast Confetti’ expresses disarray while ‘The Civil Servant’ expresses grief. They do this through the difference between the perspectives which the two poems take on; ‘Belfast Confetti’ highlights the effect of the violence on the individual, while ‘The Civil Servant’ highlights the effect of the violence on the family members on the victim. The conceit of punctuation in ‘Belfast Confetti’ masks the true violent nature of the riots, while the use of metaphors in ‘The Civil Servant’ reference and highlight the idea of grief. The image of the civil servant’s ‘widow (taking) a hammer and chisel and (removing) the black the keys from his piano’ can be seen as a metaphor for loss. The metaphor highlights grief, as the widow ‘(removing) the black keys’ renders the piano incomplete, which could be a reflection of the brokenness of the family, caused by the loss of her husband. The fact that she takes ‘a hammer and chisel’ could highlight the forceful removal of a complete body, reflecting how the family unit is also forcefully destroyed. Meanwhile, ‘Belfast Confetti’ shows the personal effect of the violence, where the persona asks himself a barrage of questions, like ‘my name? Where am I coming from?’ These questions highlight the disorienting effects of the riots on the individual. With the play on perspectives and the different usage of metaphors, ‘Belfast Confetti’ highlights disarray, while ‘The Civil Servant’ focuses on presenting grief.

In conclusion, through the usage of figurative language and the contrasts in structure and rhythm between the poems, the differences and similarities between the two poems are highlighted, contributing to each poet’s portrayal of the Northern Ireland riots.

Jasmine Alicia Wangko

The poems by Carson and Longley are similar as they portray the common theme of violence. However, they convey different attitudes towards the violence and the spaces  that they are located in. Hence, while both poems address similar concerns surrounding the riots in Ireland, such as the varied ways violence affects the personas, they are ultimately more different than similar. This is because the poems present different responses the personas have towards the violence, as well as how violence is experienced in different spaces.

Both poems by Carson and Longley portray the common theme of violence through several devices. ‘Belfast Confetti’ shows the effects of a riot on a person through a first-person description of the riot while the ‘The Civil Servant’ simply shows the happenings of the riot from a third-person perspective. In ‘Belfast Confetti’, the first-person perspective creates a greater understanding of the persona’s feelings as the riot is conveyed with the personal input and opinions of the persona involved, which forces the reader to view riots through the lens of the persona – a subjective point of view – and thus sympathise with the persona’s confusion and misery as he asks “What is // my name? Where am I coming from? Where am I going?”. The questions presented make little sense as the answers should be obvious to him, especially when the persona demonstrate self-awareness of who he is and where he comes from, expressing that he “knows this labyrinth well”.  The repeated questioning and unstated answer, running contrary to the earlier familiarity he demonstrates, makes the persona’s flustered mind even more apparent to the reader. This therefore reveals how the riots cause innocent civilians to be bewildered and shaken, bringing about the theme of violence as it affects even those not directly involved in the rioting. In ‘The Civil Servant’, the entire riot is described from a third-person perspective, allowing for a comprehensive and broad view of the whole situation. There is use of sibilance in “pierced his skull” where the ‘s’ sound is repeated, producing a sharp, shrill hissing sound. This auditory effect exacerbates the excruciating pain produced by the bullet piercing the skull through the means of. Silence and sadness are suggested in the poem because of the death that has occurred, stirring up the natural emotional reaction in response to the tragedy. This causes the reader to pity the person shot in the poem as a way of compensating for the lack of feelings expressed towards the death in the poem itself. The gory description of the skull being pierced brings out the merciless, brutal nature of the riot as readers are shocked by the frank way in which the cruel act has been described. This shows how murder is cold-blooded in the riot where it is done easily without hesitation. In this way, both poems ultimately emphasize the horrific and pervasive nature of violence of the riots.

Although both poems depict the brutality of the riots, the attitudes and responses shown towards the violence are different. In ‘Belfast Confetti’, there is fear and uncertainty, while ‘The Civil Servant’ displays indifference towards the violence. The use of enjambment in almost all the lines of ‘Belfast Confetti’ stops in the continuity of the poem, creating a cut in the readers’ flow of thought by interrupting the reading flow of the readers. Where readers are supposed to read a line of the poem to arrive at a final point, the enjambment creates an unnatural pause in the line just before the point is delivered. This can be seen in “it was raining// exclamation marks”. The break in thought that readers experience with the use of enjambment reflect the persona’s fragmented recount and accentuates the persona’s disorganised state of mind, causing readers to better empathise with his suffering. The enjambment also causes emphasis to be put on specific words and phrases like “explosion”, “of rapid fire” and “stuttering”, making them stand out in the description of the riot, further amplifying the violence of the riot. Towards the end, the sentences become shorter and as a result increase the pace of the poem, also showing the increasing panic felt by the persona bringing about a tone of fear and dread towards the riot. This depicts the effect of the riot on the persona, as he struggles to make sense of his surroundings.

In ‘The Civil Servant’, the use of third-person perspective and apathetic tone creates a detached and almost indifferent response to the riot. The description of “They rolled him up like a carpet and left” shows the appearance of an absence of pity felt for the victim, as it is described in a factual manner. However, with further reading, the detached tone of the poem shows the possibility of how the persona might have been numbed by the violence he experiences regularly, such that he expresses nonchalance the killing of the civil servant, thus showing a numbed attitude towards rioting as compared to ‘Belfast Confetti’, where there is obvious fear. As a result, the two poems present very distinct  responses towards riots and the accompanying violence.

Finally, the riots occur in different spaces in the two poems. In ‘Belfast Confetti’, the riot takes place in the open, possibly in the persona’s mind, while the riot takes place in a house in ‘The Civil Servant’, bringing about differing presentations of the reach of violence. In ‘Belfast Confetti’, the riot is happening in the streets with “alleyways and sidestreets”. This gives one the sense that the riot is happening in the open, which is juxtaposed to the persona’s feeling of entrapment, especially when he questions “why can’t I escape?” from the “labyrinth” he knows well. This highlights the struggles of the persona. Although seemingly set outside, the poem could have been recounted in the mind of the persona as well. When the persona states that he “know[s] this labyrinth so well”, it suggests that the persona is lost in his own thoughts and thus feels confused because it is his own mind that traps him. Towards the end where the sentences are mere factual statements or reports like “Crimea street. Dead end again.” and “Makrolon face-shields. Walkie-talkies.”, there is almost no link between them. These suggest flashes of scenes that make up the fractured version of original memories that he had, which actually occurs in the moment he claims he “know[s] this labyrinth well”, but due to the trauma he has experienced, he no longer recognizes it, and he questions why he cannot escape it. The change from past tense to present tense also shows an initial attempt at recounting the incident which is then overtaken by traumatising scenes in the memories of the persona. Therefore, the persona has witnessed the riot in real life and the poem occurs in his nightmares, as evidenced via the references to how all this is happening in his mind, with phrases like “in my head”, “I know this” and the series of rhetorical questions that are about remembering things, highlighting the riot as an event that haunts him even after time has passed.

In ‘The Civil Servant’, the riot takes place in the civil servant’s home. The seizure of space “when someone walked into the kitchen and shot him” happened effortlessly, as if it was not private space in which the murder occurred. This suggests how the home, which is supposed to be a place of security and familial warmth, can be so easily invaded by effects of the riots. The poem is written in an unemotional fashion, and it is incredibly sad as the life of a man and his personal space was invaded like it meant nothing. “They dusted the dresser for fingerprints… and left”. The idea that the private space of the civil servant and his life and potential were not respected and realized is offensive and brings out tragedy of his death in the poem. Hence, while ‘Belfast Confetti’ shows how the pervasive nature of violence attacks the psychological space of the persona, ‘The Civil Servant’ especially shows the insecurity of the home, where its safety could be easily invaded by violence.

All in all, although both poems are similar in the theme of violence, they portray different situations and responses towards it, making them more different than similar. Where both poems demonstrate the magnitude and far-reaching effects of the riots in Ireland, the varied ways violence affects the personas, the different responses the personas have toward the violence, and how violence is experienced in different spaces, show that both poems are actually different in their interpretations of the violence resulting from the clash between the Protestants and Catholics of Ireland.

Alexandra Marie T. Valenzuela is a bright-eyed and out-spoken 17 year old student, currently reveling in the literary, historical and whatever adjective one uses to describe Economics in Tampines Junior College. She was born in the Philippines but grew up in the concrete jungle of Singapore. She feels that this diaspora she experienced helps her to understand the Other in the literary.

Jasmine Alicia Wangko is a JC1 student at Tampines Junior College. She loves to learn about the behaviour of people in other cultures and is absolutely addicted to reading. She loves literary characters that have no names as the nameless person can go on a journey of discovering oneself without being afraid of change or being burdened by the need for identity.

 photo credit: vectorportal


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