Casting a warm eye on life and death: Ciaran Carson’s Still Life and Inferno
His unique gift was for seamless association, a crucial feature of poetry often forgotten in the focus on images and sounds
Ciaran Carson: his associations have the extra gift of seeming to be the product not of self-conscious literary connecting, as with some poets, but genuine thought processes. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Poetry is the art of surprise but few poets are surprising in person. Ciaran Carson was an exception. I knew him only slightly and we met rarely and briefly but every encounter was memorable.
On the last occasion he surprised me by revealing that he was a snappy dresser, a fastidious dandy who rejected current fashions and scoured eBay for retro clothes. He displayed his vintage tweed jacket as an example and then launched into a typically passionate speech on side and back vents in men’s jackets, one really stylish and the other an abomination, though, alas, I can’t now remember which was which.
Such pedantic obsession with minor detail was characteristic, and always slightly tongue in cheek, as in this deadpan footnote to his poetry: “I am grateful to Harry Bradley for pointing out to me that the great Sligo flute player Peter Horan customarily follows the jig ‘Wallop the Spot’ with another which he calls ‘Spot the Wallop’.”
Ciaran was himself a flute player and I wanted to ask if he played traditional music gigs in his favourite outfit of trilby hat, shirt and tie and jacket with folded handkerchief in the breast pocket. But he was now surprising me even more by explaining his modus operandi. He could write, he explained, only by smoking dope late in the evening and then working through the night, but major heart surgery had ruled out smoking so he was concerned about drying up.
I was sure that mere dope deprivation would not halt the outpouring of books, and loved to think of the Proust of Belfast mining memory into the wee small hours but, unlike Marcel the Mournful, cackling with manic glee as the city slept. And it turned out that not even a diagnosis of incurable lung cancer could silence him. In his last six months he produced the full collection, Still Life.
In this book he returns to the long lines and longish poems that made his name in The Irish For No. Freewheeling at length brought out the best in him because he did not seduce with striking adjectives, memorable images or quotable lines, but by a flow that seized you from the start and swept you along, mesmerised, in a torrent of associations, digressions, memories, anecdotes, etymological analyses, quotations, jokes and obsessive attention to the kind of details no one else would ever notice.
Like other poets of drive and flow, Whitman and Browning for example, he needed space to build the overwhelming momentum.
His unique gift was for seamless association, a crucial feature of poetry often forgotten in the focus on images and sounds. Eliot understood this: “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”
Association is important for all original thinking, not just poetry, by linking what is usually unrelated, and everyone can benefit from being reminded that everything is connected and everything flows. And Ciaran’s associations have the extra gift of seeming to be the product not of self-conscious literary connecting, as with some poets, but genuine thought processes. Once the challenge for poetry was to sound like ordinary speech, now the challenge is to sound like ordinary thought.
But Ciaran was too restless to stick with his early style, and it was a sort of unsurprising surprise when he produced a book of short poems with short lines, many of only a single word. And when he produced a book of sonnets I chortled again. Of course free-range Ciaran would want to do a book of sonnets. But nothing prepared me for a translation of Dante’s Inferno in the original terza rima, a fiendishly difficult rhyme scheme. This has just been reissued by Head of Zeus, possibly as a tribute, but it is not one of Ciaran’s successes.
Rhyme succeeds only if seems natural, inevitable, almost accidental, certainly effortless, and it fails if the strain shows in language obviously distorted to get the rhyme words. Ciaran’s version has all the usual distortions – redundant words, inappropriate words, awkward line breaks and inversions. He justifies these by writing his terza rima in the style of the Hiberno-English ballad, “commonly known as the ‘come-all-ye’”. This only compounds the problems.
The jaunty, rollicking tone of the balladeer does not suit Dante’s high moral seriousness, nor his vindictiveness, nor his authoritarian Christianity. In fact Dante in any style would be a hard sell nowadays. When I first read the Inferno (in the CH Sisson unrhymed verse translation) what shocked me was not the vengeful punishments but that Dante regarded disloyalty as the worst sin of all, and put Brutus in the lowest circle of Hell where Satan uses him as eternal chewing gum. The modern sensibility would not regard Brutus as one of the worst villains in history – and reading Ciaran’s Inferno reminded me that Dante also consigned homosexuals to eternal punishment.
Ciaran’s best translations are of the French poet Jean Follain. I like to believe that I had a hand in this. Another Ciaran characteristic was his relentless search, his hunger, for excellence. He needed fuel to feed his fizzing energy. All writers … all people … should be constantly seeking such fuel but not many do, and indeed many patronise enthusiasm as naïve.
Ciaran liked some translations I had done of Francis Ponge and asked if I knew of any other interesting French poets. I mentioned Follain, and shortly after had an email requesting a list of Follain translators. I passed on the daunting trio of David Gascoyne, Christopher Middleton and WS Merwin but, needless to say, Ciaran was already on the case, had read the second two and was entirely undaunted.
It was no surprise when, shortly after that again, a fat book of Ciaran’s Follain arrived in the post. The two were a perfect match because the key to Follain’s poetry is also association, except that Follain omits the usual connectors, the “this is like” and “which reminds me of”. His poems simply present a few apparently unrelated images, which by some poetic sorcery become a mysterious unity. Ciaran really got this, in fact got it so well that half of the book is pastiche Follain indistinguishable from the real thing. Here is his translation, Furrows, of Follain’s Entailles:
A furrowed school table
roads get into a muddle
around the granite building
a Great Dane barks
in the shadows vegetation withers
I am old
his hand bears the same veins
as in childhood
loaded with goods a ship leaves
the city to its rubble.
And here is Ciaran impersonating Follain in Missing:
Mushroom after seeming
mushroom leads the seeker ever
deeper than he has
been into the woods
two days gone
sounds of helicopter, dog, jeep,
by night thronged
shouts and horns
as for the difference
what would life be
What indeed? And what has the helicopter to do with the mushrooms, the goods ship with the old school table? Poetry is the surprise that remains a surprise. And did I say Ciaran couldn’t make short lines swing?
Still Life is also surprising. It seems at first to be a collection of unrelated poems about paintings, but worked into these is the record of a daily routine of hospital visits and walks round the Waterworks Park (which should now be renamed Ciaran Carson Park). This strand is his most personal work and reminds me of James Schuyler’s long poems about humdrum daily life, The Morning of the Poem and A Few Days. I would love to check if Ciaran knew these but there is no email reception in the void.
On a first reading of Still Life the mundane details seem to have no special significance but rereading discloses much more. The first poem begins with a broken pot of daffodils that draws attention to the flowers – and this broken pot is the body broken by illness and the flowers are the gorgeousness of the world revealed by imminent loss.
Then the daily walks feature pauses to look at a building site, which, by the last poem, displays a foundation and five courses of breezeblocks. “Significant development!” Ciaran enthuses, and the significance is that the breezeblocks represent the ceaseless renewal of the world, and its beguiling oddity, as in the very word breezeblock, “What a lovely oxymoron of a word is ‘breezeblock’.’’
And what a lovely way to celebrate renewal and regrowth, not in nature but in the apparently ugly urban world. So now his heart with pleasure fills but dances with the breezeblocks not the daffodils. And where is this site of renewal? On Hopefield Avenue.
There is no anger in this delightful, moving book, no rage against the dying of the light but only the tenderest cherishing of its fade. And did I say that Ciaran was not one for memorable images and quotable lines? He signs off with a beautiful passage, whose last two lines, coming after “I loved” and “I loved” and “I loved”, a triple declaration of love, are worthy of a poet’s headstone:
How I loved that old dilapidated flat! And I its denizen at ease
below the peeling ceiling rose,
Luxuriating in the bathroom with its emerald frog and
water-lily ‘shot silk’ wallpaper, admiring
The blue birds anticlockwise spiralling around the interior
of the toilet bowl.
And I loved the buzz of the one-bar electric heater as a bus
or a truck passed by,
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