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Paul Muldoon on Still Life by Ciaran Carson: Final testimony to the power of art

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

Still Life
Still Life
Author: Ciaran Carson
ISBN-13: 9781911337836
Publisher: Gallery Press
Guideline Price: €18.5

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.