Review of Still Life (Ciaran Carson) by Jo Burns

Growing up in the pre-Good Friday Agreement landscape of Northern Ireland, I didn’t encounter the poetry of Ciaran Carson as a teenager at school.  Despite studying English Literature, syllabus material was ultimately filtered by segregated schools and their respective teachers. My school focussed heavily on English poets.  

I discovered living, breathing, on-my-doorstep poets such as Carson only years later when Belfast Confetti took my breath away. I cursed the educational system that apparently held us at a distance from our local poets, restricting us to one side of history, literature and language.  

Carson’s bilingualism and years of translating consistently set him apart as both a local safekeeper of Belfast imagery but also as an outward looking European poet. Babel is a word often found when reading about Carson but he additionally does not shy away from Babbel. His conversational style and lack of fear to use the vernacular when needed, interspersed with foreign phrases and casual remarks to the reader, make Carson’s lines a glorious, meandering adventure.  

In  ‘Joachim Patinir, Landscape with Saint Jerome’,  Carson describes Jerome (the patron saint of translators), and perhaps himself too, as follows:  

I fancy his head is full of verbal murmuration. Sometimes 
                innumerable birds 
Settle in his tree to sing. Sometimes they bring themselves 
                into the realm 
Where rock and sky collaborate, to vanish in a cloud 
                of porphyry.  

Carson’s own images seem to nest, like the oft-mentioned blackbird, in the branches of his tree shaped poems: 

                 the landscape 
Format of the stanza radically changes shape, becoming 
                 more like a tree 
Or a shrub with a dense central trunk – arboreal, in other 
                 words, like these 

Which you are viewing now, which I have written only now  

Still Life is a long sequence of individual poems, intricately woven with echoes of each throughout the whole. Each poem, addressed to Carson’s wife Deirdre, is taut yet delving in and out of his chosen paintings, balancing craft, density and imagery. As he drifts in and out of poems and between poems in the collection, each line pushes imagery and its own length, or life, to the limit, packed with allusions and memories. Periodically he brings us to the hospital bedside and the challenges of chemo and radiotherapy, facing the end of his own life:  

An almost inaudible murmur I imagine measuring the chemo 
                 trickling down… 
Dozing a little I hear it entering my ear canal… cannula, cannula, 
                 Canaletto, Canaletto..  

Still life is akin to being in an art gallery full of mirrors, equipped with a magnifying lens. Each painting expands into intricate details, personal experiences to always ultimately zoom back to Carson himself, at the end of his life, contemplating the painting in front of him. We are taken on a journey through his consciousness, intermittently focussing in on one particular detail to return again to the whole.  

Carson writes freely and yet the skill of his craft never leaves him. In the worlds of art, marriage, poetry, music we regularly take tours through his immediate Belfast landscape; Glandore, the Antrim Road etc. Wandering through the area and his art collection, he reveals multiple associations and meaningful repeated images throughout: Clouds and shadows, chiaroscuro, windows, lemons, anticlockwise swirls. This is a collection that rewards several readings. 

Although the poems are addressed to Deirdre, Carson’s occasional reference to the act of writing itself, makes the reader feel included as part of the process. Lines often cast us in the role of observing the poems creation, such as:  

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.  

In the current political climate, the weight of Carson’s pencil outlasting his days, is a thought that saddens but ultimately reassures. His records of Belfast outlive him, serving as necessary reminders. The importance of these records in current times cannot be overlooked.  

In Still Life, images of the troubles weave in and out. In the poem ´Yves Kleins, IKB 79, 1959` expansive meditations on not only the painting but also Yves Klein’s deep reactions to Hiroshima, bring us back to Carson lying in his garden watching the clouds, visited by flashbacks of Bloody Sunday scenes.  In the last lines his breathless structure changes to three double spaced lines, forcing the reader to read, breathe and digest the horror: 

Grainy black-and-white, flickering dismembered shapes and shades 
                  of things 
As mountain becomes cloud, and buildings rubble, cars and buses 
                  scrap, some of the dead… 

The people who set the bombs apologised in empty language.  

Firemen shovelled into body bags the unspeakable remains of the day. 

In ‘Basil Blackshaw, Windows I-V, 2001’ Carson recollects: 

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. 

 In the final poem ‘James Allen, The House with the Palm Trees’ Carson revisits that ceiling rose and other images that have scattered throughout the collection:  

How I loved that old delapidated flat! And I its denizen at ease below 
                  the peeling ceiling rose…. 
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 

In his stunning final collection, Ciaran Carson pulls each image, and aspect of his life, together to end on a remarkable and brave final exultation of love, to life itself.