Ciaran Carson’s Still Life: courage and joy, miraculous, ordinary, tender and true
Gail McConnell’s speech at last night’s posthumous launch of Ciaran Carson’s Still Life
Ciaran Carson: an extraordinary, utterly fearless and unsentimental capacity to stand in the sight of death and not look away. Photograph: Manus Carson.
Good evening. To be with you this evening to introduce Still Life at Ciaran’s request is an honour impossible to describe.
This is a day of celebration.
Today we celebrate Deirdre and Ciaran’s anniversary – a day, a date, a time, a memory, a moment, a lifetime Ciaran writes into the third chapter of Fishing for Amber. It is the C chapter – C for Clepsydra, the water-clock – in which we read, “I was married to Deirdre Shannon on the 16th of October 1982, in St Comgall’s Church in Antrim town. The reception was held at the Cranfield Inn some few miles away, on the shores of Lough Neagh.” The story takes a turn from here, to water-lore, the story having begun, of course, many years before, when Deirdre and Ciaran met, playing tunes, as they would go on to play and to make an extraordinary music together over the decades to come.
And today we celebrate the publication of this precious book – this late, great book of poems by Ciaran Carson, Still Life. Which is, first and foremost, a book of love poems – a book of poems about how love happens, moment to moment, frame to frame, year to year.
On the book’s cover, we see Hare Bowl, the still life painted by his friend Jeffrey Morgan. It shows, Ciaran’s poem tells us, ‘them two hares / At full stretch running off to the right on the curve of the bowl’. When I saw Ciaran last, he lifted down this painting from the wall and bid me hold it to the light. ‘We’re the hares’, he said with a grin, ‘me and Deirdre. At least I like to think so.’
Ciaran, alas, is not here.
Ciaran is nowhere else.
Tonight we will hear three poems from Still Life, read by three people whose lives, whose writing, whose habits of mind, (I would hazard) have been fundamentally formed by Ciaran’s presence and pages. As is true, indeed, for so many of us gathered here.
In a few moments I’ll invite Stephen Connolly, Alice Lyons and Scott McKendry to read three of Ciaran’s poems for us.
First, I’d like to say a few words about Still Life. (More specifically, about cells, love, lemons and stanzaic landscapes.)
Over the course of the past 10 days, I’ve found myself thinking about a sentence Ciaran wrote and gifted to me for the back of my first pamphlet of poems. It is this:
As the great French poet Francis Ponge has it in his Mollusc, “The least cell of our body clings as tightly to language, as language has us in its grip.”
That mutual grasp – us holding language; language holding us – was of endless interest and excitement to Ciaran, as it became for so many of us who knew the pleasure of his friendship. That mutual grasp and the transformations it makes possible.
‘Cell’ was a word we often spoke of, gripped by its various implications: a simple structure; a storeroom; a chamber for sleeping or writing; the small back room he liked so much, where the music of what happens happens; a compartment in the brain; the hexagon in a honeycomb; a room in a prison; a nucleus of political activity; the body’s tissue; a cavity; and, to quote the OED 15a, as Ciaran would have me do: ‘The fundamental, usually microscopic, structural and functional unit of all living organisms’.
Ciaran has always been attentive to the world at the cellular level. Nothing escapes his eye and ear – the paintings of Vermeer, the Muji pen, the texture of the yarn, the pallor of a ping-pong ball, the trembling of the window, after the explosion - the bits of text that stay.
To all of it he gives fundamental, microscopic attention, finding and composing new structures with each extraordinary new book. Attending not just to the word within a phrase, but to its very cells: the single letter within the alphabet; the punctuation marks. This is just one part of his genius.
Still Life contains some of the best poems he has written; some of the best poems in the language. It comes as no surprise that here Ciaran is attentive, too, to the cells of his own body and what they may hold.
In the first poem: ‘You listen to the body talking, exfoliating itself cell after cell.’
In the second: ‘See-through cellophane’
In the third, even more embedded now, ‘par excellence’ in the ‘cellar’
Also ‘celluloid’ which takes me back to ‘the celluloid diminuendo’ of his extraordinary poem Snow.
And lastly, in the unbearably good poem, ‘Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake, 1648: we find ‘little cells of people on the very/ Verge of legibility, but never insignificant.’
In its fearless look at death, and its careful weighing of what can truly be said in its sight, Still Life exists ‘on the very/ Verge of legibility’. (A phrase broken by a line break: ‘very/ verge’)
From the first poem on, legibility is one of its concerns: handwriting and print in pencil or ink that is clear, readable. We see Ciaran in the act of writing and in the act of reading. Picking up a retractable pencil made in 1931, looking for a Biro, finding a Bic, asking for a Muji pen and, from his nurse’s needle, musing on the cannula, ‘the Latin for a little reed’, through which flows the needed ink. And we see him in what he liked to call ‘the ekphrasis factory’, looking at paintings and reading art criticism – work by James Elkins, Tom Lubbock, and, the book that most profoundly informs Still Life, TJ Clark’s The Sight of Death.
Ciaran and I shared a love of Clark’s book. We spoke about it often over the years. Simple in design, complex in its way of seeing, it’s a book in which Clark contemplates two paintings by Poussin – Landscape with a Calm; and Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake. Subtitled ‘an experiment in art writing’, the book is written as a series of diary entries, with details from the paintings shown in high resolution images on almost every pair of pages – clusters of cells from the canvas.
I’ve been reading it again these last few days.
So much of what Clark sees in Poussin’s paintings is true of Ciaran’s Still Life. Above all, an extraordinary, utterly fearless and unsentimental capacity to stand in the sight of death and not look away. What both of these great artists offer us is a dialectical account of life and death – a way of being in contraries, (the kind WB Yeats learned from William Blake). A stance, a stanza, a space for Keats’s negative capability – ‘a capacity for being in uncertainties, mysteries and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’. In the poem after Poussin’s Landscape with a Calm, Ciaran turns to Keats’s great poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn – music, animation and love figured in what he calls ‘the stock-still moment’ of the work of art. Ciaran inhabits the Grecian Urn’s paradoxical condition: living and writing with balance, poise and grace in the knowledge of death and time’s passage. We hear and see this stilling and fusing of contraries in the book’s title.
Still Life places us in the sight of death, yes. And it does so in an elaborate, symphonic, abundant celebration of beauty. With cellular attention to lemons, for a start. And lemon scents and lemon hues, in a poem after Angela Hackett’s Lemons on a Moorish Plate, 2013. To my ear, this is one of the finest poems in the language. I can’t begin to elaborate why – you’ll hear it shortly.
But to list just a few things I admire in the poem:
its basis in intimate talk – the conversations shared by Ciaran and Deirdre across the decades - and its casual asides (‘You know how lemons…’);
I love its nimble drift – its shuttlings in time and memory from present, past and future;
its ways of ‘summoning up the names of yesteryear’ in significantly branded lists: ‘Yardley’s April Violets’ - which takes us back to older poems, like Calvin Klein’s Obsession;
there are its loving modes of dating – the first date entrusted to us is Deirdre’s birthday: December the 18th; and its marking of the present moment of writing
its way of seeing life – in ‘degrees… of ripeness or decay’;
its loving, local geographies - not only of Ciaran and Deirdre’s home on Glandore Avenue, but of their bedroom, where the painting hangs;
its careful weighing up of form and matter – husk and flesh;
its fearless contemplation of the life cycle;
and its final, joyous exclamation: ‘How clean and fresh and green are the newly sprung leaves of the chestnut tree!’
All of Ciaran’s poems are ‘for Deirdre’ – she was, he said, the only audience he needed. But this poem is even more explicit in its dedication ‘for Deirdre’.
As for the form, continuity and innovation. Still variations on the sonnet form - here we have 3 x 14 line stanzas, with a noticeable turn after the eighth line in the final stanza in particular (a turn to the sight of death) and still the long lines Ciaran began to spin in The Irish for No (1987). It’s a mode of composition he reflects on in Still Life:
Back in the 80s I measured my verse by the width of an A4 page.
For whatever reason
I’ve gone back to that arbitrary rule that turns your thinking
Necessarily it turns out differently when printed in a book.
The parameters are
Narrower. The line breaks change, and drop a hemistich. So
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
‘Arboreal’ stanzas with ‘a dense central trunk’. This is the great innovation of Still Life. As we might expect, it is both continuity and departure. For though the lines are long, as they were in Belfast Confetti, First Language and many other books, they are broken anew – broken with intention; broken with a more pronounced indentation than in any of Ciaran’s books to date. What appears to be the latter part of the long first line indented on the second to signify its continuity with the first, is now indented with a gap from the left margin three or four times the width of the gap in all the other books.
What this design invites is a vertical as well as horizontal reading of the poem. The indented lines attain a new legibility. Connecting them by reading every other line down the page, we discover new things hidden in the landscapes of the poems. There are secrets in the trees. Reading Still Life by moving down the page rather than across it we see, in one poem, ‘apertures began/ a new significance’; and, in another, ‘the landscape of his miracles/ in the same frame, here’.
Reading Lemons on a Moorish Plate from left to right, we find ‘A blackbird sings/ From a blackthorn bush.’ But reading the indented lines, ‘A blackbird sings from the Antrim Road of the chestnut tree!’ And so we hear anew the song of Belfast’s own blackbird. The timeless song of the bird of Belfast Lough, and of our blackbird of Glandore.
Thus we see the golden ratio at work. And something of Poussin’s careful spatial composition in the extraordinary stanzaic geometry of Ciaran’s Still Life.
As in Poussin’s paintings, the weave of the canvas is in places palpable. As indeed in Hackett’s painting – unfinished as it was, when Ciaran bought it – the lemons glowing all the more for this. And as with Clark’s book and Poussin’s landscape, there is a politics and an ethics to this cellular attention to contrary states.
Still Life is a book rich with correspondences and echoes for the eye and ear. ‘The lemons – three of them’ are ‘Proceeding in an anticlockwise swirl from pale lemon to a darker yellow/ To an almost orange, tinged with green’. In the final poem and last lines of the book, we see Ciaran ‘admiring/ The blue birds anticlockwise spiralling around the interior of the toilet bowl.’ If these swirling, spiralling movements are Yeatsian gyres, they are perning in the bathroom of a Belfast flat. (Located, as it happens, just across the road from the Seamus Heaney Centre.)
Describing his involvement with the work of Dante, Rimbaud and Follain, Ciaran called his poems translations, adaptions and adoptions. Still Life may be all of these, but it is, above all, a book of transformations. A book of cherished things; of intimacies; of marvels; and these in the sight of death. The courage of all this, and the tenderness and joy in its pages, is almost impossible to fathom. Miraculous, ordinary, tender, true.
These remarks were given at the launch of Ciaran Carson’s posthumous publication, Still Life, published by Gallery Press, on October 16th, 2019 at the Great Hall of Queen’s University Belfast by Dr Gail McConnell.