As someone who was in the Territorial Army from 1977 to 1980, I consider myself fortunate that I was never called on to go to Belfast and take part in the controlling of the nation there in what we now call “The Troubles.” Northern Ireland, for such a long time, had so many issues to work through that I am glad I did not have to share in the pain and the heartache, the conflict that took place. So when I see poems from that country that tell tales of a time within the conflict between Catholic and Protestant, the Free Irish and the English Crown, I am immensely interested.
This poem shares the story of the aftermath of a “blast,” something that happened where people’s lives were lost and roads were then closed down by the armed forces. On the page, as you see it for the first time you are put off it a little because of the structure. It appears to be an odd conjunction of words, where there is a line and then two words, another line and one word; in a way, confusing for the reader. You have to look closely at the punctuation to see where you would normally take a breath. But then again, this is about the after effects of a bomb blast somewhere in Belfast, so just as much as wood and glass, bone and blood would have been spread everywhere, so too are his words on the page. If this is intentional, then one has to consider the elements of intentional fallacy [look it up please] to wonder if his intent is to cause the same confusion as was felt after the bomb had gone off.
When you then begin reading, using the commas at the end of lines and the enjambement [nothing at the end of line so you carry on reading the next line immediately] to take your pauses and breathe, you suddenly see something remarkable; a stylish poem that mirrors or reflects the after effects so well. For example, the use of the words “riot squad” and the sound that is associated with it become the first thing you imagine in your head. As it happens it is “raining exclamation marks” which is a bit of an odd description but in as much as things like nail bombs were used, the picture of flying shrapnel is mirrored by these exclamation marks. It could also mean that when we shout something, or are angry, we do so, in writing, using exclamation marks, so this could be a form of expressive description being used.
Then we see in the mind’s eye the things that are being thrown all over the place; “nuts, bolts, nails, car keys.” It is therefore, a scene of carnage. This is not just conflict, this is terrorism, which then links into the carefully worded poem The Right Word, where the issue of labelling using words like “terrorist” are discussed. The explosion has caused all this and is, technically speaking, and historically speaking, “an asterisk on the map” where something terrible has happened. The line has been drawn now in that city, because someone has stepped over the mark into the world of mayhem.
The line in the poem is “hyphenated,” and linked with the idea that there is “a burst of rapid fire,” one sees the rat tat tat sound that a machine gun will make but also the sensation after a blast where the hearing is confused and is taking its time to come back to normal. Film makers tend to show this aftermath in terms of a buzzing sound, but others more recently have muffled their sound and slowly brought it back to normal. This is what is happening in the blast radius of this bomb, with the “burst of rapid-fire” being things said or shouted as people flee for their safety. The poet relates how he is “trying to complete a sentence is [his] head” which shows us he is thinking his way through the event at the time, trying to make sense of it, but he is in the first throes of shock and so his “common sense” is not making sense, or “stuttering” and all “the alleyways and side streets” which he would use to escape are now “blocked,” but not with soldiers. He interjects the words “stops and colons,” which sounds a little odd and ironic, but the intention is there for all to see; as his mind is slowly making sense of what has just happened and the shock is taking hold, his brain and his mind have been scrambled temporarily, causing him to not be able to make sense of things. A colon and a full stop are pauses in a sentence, so one can now see his mind pausing and stopping as he tries to make sense of things around him.
In the final verse, as oddly as it is put together, reflecting the confusion in his and everyone else’s mind, we then are shown a list of street names, in Belfast, but there is an obvious link to previous conflicts where bombs and bomb blasts; shell shock and PTSD have existed. Places like “Balaclava” and “Odessa” are infamous now for their pain inflicted on humanity, but these are now street names and he asks the question why he cannot escape. The answer is that every move he makes is “punctuated.” Again, we have here a linguistic term, a technique used in writing where we punctuate a sentence to make it slow down, to make it easier to read and make sense of. So his mind, in like fashion, is beginning to make sense of what has just happened. The irony of “Crimea Street” being a “dead end again” is massive, because the Crimean War was something that was fought in the mid 1850s that caused massive loss of life and heartache for the families of those who fell.
This is where the focus comes back for him as he sees a “Saracen,” along with “face shields” and “walkie-talkies,” reflections of reality as the armed forces take control of the situation. As they do so he is left thinking one thing; what is his name? There is a “fusillade of question marks” that follow, as would be the case after a blast you have just survived. It is in this time when the senses come back to normal that you begin to check things out; am I safe? Is everything intact? Who am I and where am I? The urge to run has subsided and the need to find solace has taken over. This is why this is such a powerful piece of writing. It takes the reader through the effects of a bomb blast in a way that no other piece of writing can do. It shows the reader just what the human mind is capable of and it is, in essence, a very powerful memory indeed.