Still Life

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Carson’s great gift is to reveal the mind as it moves and processes elusive experience and admits the fictiveness of our deepest-held certainties: time, history, language, and memory. — Maria Johnston, Poetry Ireland Review

Ciaran Carson is simply one of the great writers of our time. There are few better books than his Collected Poems. Hot on the heels of From There to Here: Selected Poems and Translations (2018) comes Still Life, a dazzling collection written in six months of this year. Each of these poems begins with a painting (Canaletto, Poussin, Cézanne, Monet and Velázquez as well as contemporary Irish artists).

By contemplating it, or by looking closely or remembering carefully, his mind roams, embracing parts of his days and, often, observations in the course of a daily walk with his wife, Deirdre, near their home in Belfast. Following his diagnosis with incurable lung cancer in March of this year Still Life stares mortality in the face. A book of uncommon bravery, it is a hymn to art and to the ordinary beauties of a blessed life.

Modern Ekphrasis

The late Ciaran Carson (1948-2019) was a prodigiously talented as well as prolific poet, a restlessly inventive linguistic virtuoso, with an insatiable appetite for metamorphosis. His incorrigibly plural books include poetry, memoir, and fiction as well as many works of poetic translation (The Tain, Dante’s Inferno, Rimbaud, Jean Follain, and many other – mainly French – poets) as well as elaborate baroque sequences of serial variations, such as Letters from the Alphabet and Opera, built respectively around alphabetic order and the radio operator’s code, or the cryptic topographical Troubles poems of Belfast Confetti. They all involve translation, moving exhilaratingly between the topography of his native Belfast and a vertiginous phantasmagoric Borgesian Elsewhere. The effect is to turn Belfast into an uncanny magical realist’s arcadia, which seems always en route to somewhere else, as in his Ballad of H.M. Belfast, or turning into a palimpsest of other forms and places. It is one of the great paradoxes of modern Irish poetry that the conflict-riven terrain of Northern Ireland should have produced in the work of Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian, and Ciaran Carson, a poetry of such international range, omnivorous curiosity and polymorphous linguistic virtuosity.

Still Life is very much a last book, written in the face of terminal illness, but it shows no flagging of his protean inventiveness in the face of the complexities of the world of Belfast, deepened as it is by a ruefully humorous acknowledgement of his own mortality. The slenderness of his hold on life in his last months seems to have deepened and strengthened his sense of both life and art (and the two are never really separable for Carson, who was a gifted and sociable musician as well as erudite and virtuosic poet, and as alive to the complexities of the arts of conversation and Irish popular music as to that of Dante or Baudelaire). In one of the poems, Carson says ‘Much on my mind/ regarding paintings,’ and in Still Life, the art explicitly addressed across all the poems is plastic or pictorial. In fact, each poem takes its title from a painting, from the opening ‘Claude Monet, Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil, 1880’ to the finale called ‘Jim Allen, The House with Palm Trees, c.1979’, titles that name places as well as paintings, signalling that Carson is as interested in dwelling in and on place as much as dwelling on paintings and their role in mediating both particular places and the world we inhabit. The result is a wonderfully probing as well as movingly self-conscious contribution to the modern ekphrastic tradition, and in particular the productive intermedial dialogue between poetry and the visual arts exemplified in the USA by poets like Ashbery, O’Hara, and Jorie Graham, and in Ireland by the poetry of Derek Mahon, Medbh McGuckian, Paul Durcan, Paul Muldoon, Caitriona O’Reilly, among others.

From the opening poem, where the poet is in bed at home listening to ‘the tick of my mechanical aortic valve’, the poetry is anchored in Carson’s immediate world in Belfast, recording his ‘little front garden’ and the ‘muted whoosh of cars on the Antrim Road’ as well as the nearby ‘corner shop’ torched thirty years ago. Here, musing on flowers and colours (‘So many shades of yellow when you look at them. Gorse. Lemon. Mustard’), he finds himself recalling James Elkins’ book What Painting Is, noting ‘I have it before me, open at this colour plate, jotting notes,’ before going on to enter Elkins’s painterly prose about a detail of Monet which is ‘a graveyard of scattered brush hairs / And other detritus’ and cross it with Poussin’s remark that a ‘handful of porphyry / Is Rome’ and reflections on a Poussin painting. With its winding spiralling long-lined paragraphs, the poem self-consciously sets out to mirror Elkin’s account of Monet’s art as being full of ‘fleeting momentary awareness of what the hand might do next’. Matching the claim that ‘everything gets into the painting, wood-smoke from the studio stove, / The high pollen count of a high summer’s day en plein air by the Seine’, Carson’s poetry captures his own attempt to record ‘whatever it is is going on’ both in his own drastically fore-shortened life, where he writes (with in turn a Lady Patricia pencil, a bic biro and laptop) in between walks and trips with his wife Deidre to the park or to the local hospital for chemo. The first poem closes with the soberly understated observation that ‘The days are getting longer now, however many of them I have left. / And the pencil I am writing this with, old as it is, will easily outlast their end.’

As these lines show, Carson seeks to offer the textual equivalent of Elkins’s account of Monet’s compositional practice as he reflects on a series of visual artworks while foregrounding his own practice of writing and writing materials in the light of his sense of aesthetic experience and mortality, as when he says in a poem about Poussin that ‘Before the diagnosis I’d written nothing publishable for four years, but when I took / The pencil up it seemed to set me free.’ The entire sequence of 17 poems about paintings is written in the spirit of T. J. Clarke’s The View of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (2006), a revelatory account of the art historian’s unfolding reactions to paintings by Poussin, including two of the three Poussins tackled by Carson: ‘Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion’ and ‘Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake’. The Snake poem begins ‘Never mind the death in the foreground, for months I’ve been pondering the miniature / Figures in the distance, composed of hardly more than a couple of strokes or dots / Of paint’. The Phocion poem draws not only on Clarke but quotes words by Tom Lubbock and Richard Verdi on Poussin as well as words of Poussin himself (in translation) and Wittgenstein’s remark that ‘What can be shown, cannot be said.’ This makes Carson’s multi-directional inter-textual sequence about what can be said about what is shown both ekphrastic and meta-ekphrastic. It also offers a deeply self-reflexive and moving account of his own writing about looking at multiply-mediated reproductions of paintings: ‘For all the painter draws, the viewer draws conclusions / repro / After Reproduction of the Ashes, seeing things in them perhaps not there at all, perhaps not / Seeing what there is, not ever having seen the thing itself.’ As that final Kantian twist shows, Carson’s complex syntax and syncopated rhythms enable him to generate a sense of the process of both viewing the painting and the composition of the poem – ‘I take a closer look, and take my pencil up to jot a note when drat! The lead / Just broke’ – giving a dynamic autobiographical sense of the viewing experience (‘At last I’m on the threshold’) comparable to Elizabeth Bishop’s in her great ekphrastic exploration in ‘Poem’ (‘Heavens, I recognize the place!’).

All ekphrasis is a form of translation, and in his meta-textual response to ‘Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877’ Carson, who is the author of a dazzling translation of the prose poetry of Rimbaud’s Illuminations into rhymed verse in In the Light Of (2012), offers a luminous verse translation of a prose poem by Francis Ponge called ‘Pluie’, the first of his war- time Le Parti pris des choses, a text which had no affiliation to Caillebotte’s Parisian street- scene until Carson’s intervention, and in which: ‘The whole ensemble pulses like a complicated, living mechanism, as precise as it is / Erratic, like a store of clocks whose springs depend on the weight of a given mass of / Constantly condensing vapour.’ The same could be said of the ‘complicated, living mechanism’ of Still Life as a whole, with its palimpsest-like layering of texts, pictures, places and experiences, playing out in a dialogue between poet and artist, poem and painting, a painting by Poussin of ‘the strange entanglement of man and snake in the dark bed of a stream’ in a classical landscape with a ‘sunlit city of Platonic cylinders and cubes’ and the Belfast of Hopefield Avenue with its ‘big yellow JCB in the middle of it’ and ‘three-foot-long pike . . . body glistening and fading in the late May sun.’ Still Life responds to the stilled life of still lives and landscapes, seen in the light of the experience of someone who is still alive but who might not be for much longer. Like the paintings they respond to, Carson’s poems are meditations on place that are still alive to the life that is ‘going on’ around him in the domestic and urban world of contemporary Belfast, not only poems about paintings, like Paul Durcan’s Take Me by the Hand but intimate painterly records of place, each one dated 2019. This memorable collection makes a wonderful finale to Carson’s protean career, a last bow carried off with his usual dandyish flair and a new sense of the ‘still sad music of humanity.’ It is as fine as anything this wonderfully inventive poet has written, leaving us with a complex series of intricately interwoven ‘living mechanisms’ that is both a joyful affirmation of the vitality of the aesthetic and an admirably resourceful intellectual response to the intimations of mortality gleaned during his last months on the planet. With its sense of both death and the Arcadian dream of the artist, the book evokes both senses of the epitaphic inscription in Poussin’s painting of shepherds deciphering a tomb. It could have been sub- entitled, ‘Ciaran Carson, Et in Arcadia Ego, 2019.’

— Hugh Haughton, Scottish Poetry Library

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Final testimony to the power of art. 

This posthumous collection shines with the sense of inevitability that we experience with all great art

This posthumous collection of poems by Ciaran Carson confirms his reputation as one of the poets without whom we cannot make sense of our era. As the punning title suggests, the book is a testimony both to the power of art (particularly the ekphrastic art of poetry on, or about, painting), and the indomitability of the human spirit.

With regard to the first, Carson has long been an admirer of John Keats, the author of one of the best-known works of ekphrasis, Ode on a Grecian Urn, and Keats may be said to be the major model for these mind-bogglingly dense yet heart-breakingly direct poems. Each of the seventeen poems takes the form of a musing upon a piece by Caillebotte or Canaletto or Cezanne or Constable, say, or a local talent such as James Allen, Basil Blackshaw, Gerard Dillon, Angela Hackett, or Jeffrey Morgan and his “Hare Bowl,” in the course of which we read:

“As for the lemon,
It’s ever so slightly beginning to shrink and wizen,
but still holding firm after
Three weeks – firmer in fact than fresh.”

The lemon in question has been set out by Carson and his wife, Deirdre, as part of a tongue-in-cheek experiment into “how long does it take… for a lemon/to completely rot.” The “holding firm” of Carson’s talismanic lemon ushers in the second reading of the title, Still Life, this having to do with a regard for the vital in the face of vicissitude, for the assiduous in the face of adversity, which these poems so handily, and hauntingly, embody. For just as “everything gets into the painting, “so everything, including Carson’s keen sense of impending death from lung cancer, gets into these poems:

“Before the diagnosis I’d written nothing
publishable for four years, but when I took
The pencil up it seemed to set me free.”

This odd freedom derives largely from Ciaran Carson’s ability to range far and wide while sticking very close to the purview of the painting in hand. I believe that even Philip Larkin, who once deplored the “myth-kitty” and “casual allusions in poems to other poems or poets”, might find a place in his heart for Ciaran Carson, just as Ciaran Carson seems to have found a place for him:

“And I loved the big windows and whatever I could
see through them, be it cloudy or clear,
And the way they trembled and thrilled to the
sound of the world beyond.”

When Larkin made his “myth-kitty” remark, in 1955, he was coming to the end of a comparatively happy five years working in the library at Queen’s University, Belfast. It was the same year Bert Hardy took that remarkable series of photographs for Picture Post in which some aspects of the city seem to have changed very little from 1855 – I’m thinking of the high number of horses on the streets. It was also the same year in which Ciaran Carson himself was 7 years of age, the age at which a child begins to see that some words have more than one meaning. According to many psychologists, this realisation helps the child understand jokes and puns and start verbally expressing a sense of humour. In Carson’s case, he would draw on that capacity to telling effect for the rest of his life:

“Etymologies present themselves, like daffodil
From asphodel – who knows where the d came from? – the flower
Of the underworld.”

Ciaran Carson would also draw on his own photographic sense of Belfast in the 1950s for a template against which to test developments and deviations and disasters that would mark succeeding decades. He sees Belfast the way a Disney animator sees though a stack of celluloid sheets:

“So different now from thirty years ago, the corner shop at the interface
Torched and the roadway strewn with broken glass and rubble.”

Ciaran Carson himself stands at the interface between the William Gass of On Being Blue and the Gallaher’s Blues cigarettes that partly contributed to his demise, the Black Mountain that hangs over Belfast and the Black Mountain school of Olson, Creely and Duncan who believed, with Edward Dahlberg, that “one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception.” Ciaran Carson’s method derives somewhat from this Black Mountain idea of “composition by field” and accounts partly for his trademark rambling lines that here mimetically describe both his mental ruminations and his roving out each day to walk by the Belfast Waterworks, the Westlink, to and from his home on Glandore Avenue, a place-name that will go down in the annals of Irish literature as surely as Glanmore Cottage or Gleann na nGealt.

As to “where the d came from,” it comes surely from the initial letter of the name Deirdre, no less a character than himself in Ciaran Carson’s life and poems. His own resignation and resolution are answered by hers to such an extent that, apart from its other virtues, Still Life will be remembered as one of the great testimonies to married love.

The steadfastness so admired in the matter of difficulties and death is a first cousin of the kind of intransigence that marked much of the sociopolitical events of Ciaran Carson’s life. These poems now see him writing to devastating effect of the devastation wrought on Belfast:

“Sometimes thinking of the day that weeks after The Club Bar bombing, the ceiling of my bedroom –
Ornamental rose and all – collapsed with an
almighty crash of inches-thick Victorian
Lath and plaster
as if it only then remembered the event.”

The built-in delay in Carson’s response to the Troubles is surely very timely, given our present precarious position. Ciaran Carson doesn’t shy away from a proper contempt for the perpetrators of the Bloody Friday massacre on July 21st, 1972, any more than he shies away from the nitty-gritty of:

“Here comes the nurse with the cannula trolley. She ties the ligature, palps my lower arm to find a vein,
Then, head down, that look of utter concentration – Vermeer’s Lacemaker –
As delicately, slowly, she works the needle in.”

It’s at a moment such as this that the ekphrastic method of Still Life, which runs the risk of being debt-ridden and dutiful, shines through with the sense of inevitability that we experience with all great art.

— Paul Muldoon, The Irish Times


‘What Writers are Reading’, The Irish Times ‘Books of the Year 2019′

The most bitter-sweet wonder of the year is Ciaran Carson’s last, late windfall of poems, Still Life. The knowing pun of the title captures the quiet delight of being not dead yet that shines out in moments of tenderness and radiance. The long lines he handles so deftly are lifelines that keep him connected to the land of the living and remind us how lucky we are to inhabit it. And to have been around for such an astonishing time in Irish poetry.

— Fintan O’Toole,The Irish Times ‘Books of the Year’


In poetry, I enjoyed the . . . sheer beauty, in Ciaran Carson’s Still Life. 

— Colm Tóibín, The Irish Times ‘Books of the Year’


The late Ciaran Carson’s final collection of poems, the poignantly titled Still Life, is a sustained and typically jaunty meditation on beauty and mortality, and a myriad other topics, through considerations of individual paintings by artists from Velázquez to Basil Blackwell. Carson writes in long, sinuous lines that allow his imagination a last, great flourishing. Wry, witty and brave, this work is Carson at his finest. A heartbreaking and heart-restoring book.

— John Banville,The Irish Times ‘Books of the Year’

Year Published: 2019
Details: 80pp
ISBN PBK: 978 1 91133 782 9
ISBN HBK: 978 1 91133 783 6

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