Books: Literary Equivalent of a Platypus ; Marina Warner on a Compendium of Science That Bursts Dazzlingly from a Poet's Imagination; Fishing for Amber: A Long Story by Ciaran Carson Granta Pounds 12.99

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The Northern Irish poet Ciaran Carson has dedicated this exuberant, idiosyncratic and bravura performance, Fishing For Amber, to his father, William Carson/ Liam Mac Carrain, a Belfast postman who joined the Esperanto movement. Esperanto must be the most benign of utopian, universalising endeavours, and it inspires his son Ciaran to write some of the tenderest and funniest passages in this book. But the dream of a synthetic discourse and of universal harmony underlies Ciaran Carson's achievement here in another way. Fishing for Amber is local, provincial, and ethnic in the strongest and best sense, but wildly cosmopolitan in its polymathic excursuses on disciplines and stores of knowledge far and wide.

Carson remembers his father's Irish storytelling, his yarns about red- herring fishing fleets and Dutch dairy farmers sailing to the moon "in argosies of hot-air drifters, there to mine the lunar cheese deposits". His book often echoes this kind of madcap blarney, but it lays it down in a multi-track, polyphonic babel of storytelling voices, drawn from Celtic legends of the Sidhe or fairy folk, Greek and Latin metamorphoses, natural science, optics, botany, hagiography - in short from a lifetime's reading. It's also an extended, vibrant piece of writing - a prose poem, rattled off at high speed but sharply detailed, with every word chosen for its spring, echo, texture, and the whole glowing (amber-like) from a pervasive mood of delight at the variety of the world. Meditating on the sources of argot, or thieves' cant, Ciaran Carson lists the cast in a kind of delirium: "Picture the roads and the inns thronged with tinkers, tooth-drawers, pedlars, ostlers, carters, porters, horse- gelders and horse- leeches, idiots, apple-squires, broomsmen, bawds, chive-fencers, kinchen- coves, soothsayers and sow-gelders ..." and so it goes on, irrepressibly, through "vampers", "waste-butts" and "bosom-buddy bugger-lugs".

Chapter headings from "Antipodes" to "Zoetrope" by way of "Ergot" and "Foxglove" and "Nemesis" and "Opium", give the dictionary flavour of Carson's browsing; the book is even ornamented with vignettes from a l927 illustrated encyclopaedia. Amber itself doesn't have a chapter to itself, but studs the text throughout, a string of beads told off at intervals: we learn that "electricity" comes from the Greek for amber, elektrum, because the Greeks noticed it produces static when rubbed; that one Demonstratus declared lynxes pissed amber, the males the tawny variety, the females more lemony. In one of his typical fugues, Carson whirls us from the use of amber as a prized varnish for paintings, then, via vernis (French) and berniz (Spanish) to Queen Berenice who cut off her golden hair (her amber hair) and offered it to the temple in return for her husband's safe return, whence it was transformed into a constellation to honour her faithfulness, the Coma Berenices. "So, when a hair strays from the stock of an artist's brush to flaw the application of paint or varnish, it is known as a berenice". And all this in one short paragraph.

In the wake of Tales from Ovid, several myths of rape and shape- shifting are quite solemnly retold here; but then by leaps of imagination, surrealist happenstance, and oblique chains of association, Carson can't sustain the earnestness, and he keys the classics into a much more arcane body of lore: his chapter on Jacinth, or the properties and associations of the bluebell, opens with Hyacinthus, the youth whom Apollo loved - and killed by mistake while playing discus together (like frisbee champions on Muscle Beach in Venice, California); it then weaves to St Hyacinthus, who began life as Jacko Odravag, was converted when he witnessed St Dominic resurrect a rider who'd been thrown from his horse, and became the most ardent of proselytising Inquisitors, ranging from Muscovy to Tibet and back again. …