FISHING FOR AMBER by Ciaran Carson

reviewed by Paul McRandle

CIARAN CARSON is the sort of smoker R. J. Reynolds could only dream of owning–a poet who turns the act of lighting a cigarette into a sacramental gesture. Tobacco is his kink, appearing in all of his books of essays and at least as frequently as his father. It is the medium and means of punctuation, the cinder which glows brightly between sentences and draws tracings in the air to illustrate an anecdote. The weed works well for him, producing this pipe dream of a book which rambles over so much territory it is impossible to summarize in any meaningful way. Posing as an alphabetic primer, its twenty-six chapters run from Antipodes to Zoetrope.  

Ciaran Carson 


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In them, without any niggling worries for narrative order, Carson tells us the origins of meerschaum, produces lives of saints, wanders through Vermeer’s paintings, and lets his father pop in on occasion to add more tales to Jack the Lad’s roundelay. He ranges from ancient Rome to the shores of Lithuania, where the Amber Lords and their Beach Masters strung up anyone unlucky enough to find a pebble of the petrified resin without their go ahead. He occupies a hallucinatory world of ergotic visions where “swirling chains of dancers accompanied by stricken pipers lurched through medieval squares in twisting sarabandes and tarantellas, dancing unto death, for they could not stop to sleep, nor eat, nor drink.” Who could fault him for smoking in such circumstances?
Carson pauses often during his tales to add some other note, follow up a tangential thought as fruitful as the original. His stories interweave, diving beneath the surface of the narrative to rise again, vanish again, and appear somewhere else. It’s a game to show how many things might be interconnected and what odd characteristics they share–the inventor of Esperanto pausing in the Amber Room to admire a green eyed mermaid figurine who happens to be a version of St. Veronica.
Carson is quite practical as well: he provides a Quince Jelly Recipe and he tells us how to prepare calf’s skin to make vellum. There’s a pleasing nuttiness to his sensibility. Perhaps the smoke, the anecdotes, and the humor, are there, as at a wake, to make up for loss: Carson’s father died in March of 1998. In his other books of essays, Last Night’s Fun and The Star Factory, his father appears as a postman with a gift for yarning, careful to speak in Irish at home with his children, a fan of science fiction. Here, Dad tells stories then seems to take a step back, as if granting his son the room to continue them. Yet the book is lighter than a tribute or an elegy, and the amber of its title, charged with electricity but dredged from the sea, is a fitting emblem for this work’s fragmentary shape, the rarities within it, and the beauty of its surface.
To give some indication of the breadth of interest and magpie assortment to Fishing For Amber, I have included an index I devised for my own reference while reviewing this work:

A Very Partial Index to Fishing For Amber

Amber 44, 125, 177, 185
Amber Lords (Teutonic Knights) 230
Amber Room 238, 247, 296
Bergson, Emile 345
Beaumont, Sir John 104
“The Metamorphosis of Tobacco”
Bees, Chinese 181
Boreel’s Middelburg 87
Borges, Jorge Luis 265
Browne, Sir Thomas 44
Delft 41-2
Dutch Art:
de Witte, Emmanuel 190-1
Horizon (4 sorts) 187+
Kalf, Willem 197
Meegeren, Han van (forger) 302
Steen, Jan 154
Tale of the Mermaid Painter 141
Vaudoyer on Vermeer’s Blood 328
Vermeer 93, 95, 100, 319, 327, 348
Vuur stoof 99, 101, 156
Esperanto (1st Intn’l Congress) 242
Fabritius 94
George V 345
Goldsmith, Oliver 148
Illuminations, Animalculic 48-9
Io (moon) 112
Jack the Lad’s Tales:
Mr. Fix-My-Tooth 32
The Knight-at-Arms in Stone 64
The One-Eyed Girl 113
Pat the Lad 158
Earl Minor 217
The Mermaid 273
Sally Gardens 331
Jonah 98
Keats, John 103, 146, 206
Lough Neagh 26
Language & Codes 257
Laurel 232
Meerschaum 41
Mongol Invasion of Russia 127
New York Public Library 297
O Riordain, Sean 201
Marigold, properties of 167+
Master of Lubeck (rosary artisan) 234-8
Atalanta 212
Athene & Ariadne 207+
Autolycus 59
Cyparissus & his Deer 80
Hermes’ Lyre 12
Hippolytus 287
Orpheus 76
Phaeton 172+
Syrinx 110
Ox-man 205
Pebbles 5, 15
Pentimento 11
Phi Phenomenon 342
Proust & Bergson on Insomnia 349
Proust’s sense of smell 325
Proverbs, Dutch 155
Quince Jelly Recipe 216
Rosary, varieties of 232
Rose names 18-19, scents 18
Rug Hallucination 195
Saints Tales:
St. Anthony, Temptation of 52
Odravag, Jacko 124
St. Dominic 124
Jurate-Veronica 182, 248
Hippolytus 287
St. Cassian
St. Veronica 290
St. Venice 292
St. Bartholomew, his relics 293
Scientists & Inventors:
Albinus 149
Drebbel, Cornelius 252
Fulton, Robert 270
Holland, John Phillip
(submarine inventor) 267-73, 282-7
Leeuwenhoek 92, 95, 102, 188
Spinoza, Baruch 199
Sudre, Francois (inventor of Solresol language) 259
Swim Two Birds 137
Tea varieties 140
Telescope, invention of 82
Time, Platonic 39-40
Tobacco, properties of192
Tobacco (drunk) 98, 103, 151
Tower of Winds 40
Translation 202+
Tulipomania 19-24, 153
Varnish 17
Vellum & Quills 46
Verne, Jules 271-262
Vocations, medieval 58-9
Whale 97
Wilkins, John (inventor of philosophic language) 254
Winter’s Tale, The  60, 168
Zamenhof, Ludwig (father of Esperanto) 246
Zeno’s Arrow Paradox 344

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