Ciaran Carson’s Still Life reviewed by Jo Burns
Still Life by Ciaran Carson. The Gallery Press. £10.50. ISBN: 978-1-911337829
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
Settle in his tree to sing. Sometimes they bring themselves
xxxxxxxxinto the realm
Where rock and sky collaborate, to vanish in a cloud
Carson’s own images seem to nest, like the oft-mentioned blackbird, in the branches of his tree shaped poems:
Format of the stanza radically changes shape, becoming
xxxxxxxxmore like a tree
Or a shrub with a dense central trunk – arboreal, in other
xxxxxxxxwords, 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
Dozing a little I hear it entering my ear canal… cannula, cannula,
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
xxxxxxxxI have left.
And the pencil I am writing this with, old as it is, will easily
xxxxxxxxoutlast 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
As mountain becomes cloud, and buildings rubble, cars and buses
xxxxxxxxscrap, 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
xxxxxxxxbombing, the ceiling of my bedroom –
Ornamental rose and all – collapsed with an almighty crash of inches-
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
xxxxxxxxthe peeling ceiling rose….
And I loved the big windows and whatever I could see through them,
xxxxxxxxbe 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.
Jo Burns was born Born in Mid Ulster, Northern Ireland in 1976. She now lives in Germany. Jo’s poetry has been published in The Interpreter’s House, and Southword and is forthcoming in Acumen and Oxford Poetry. A Pushcart Prize nominee, her debut pamphlet will be published in March by Eyewear Publishing. In 2017 she won the Irish Writers Los Gatos Festival, CA, Shirley McClure Poetry Prize. She occasionally tweets @joburnspoems
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s The Mother House reviewed by Derek Coyle
The Mother House by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. The Gallery Press. €11.95. ISBN: 978-91133-771-3
You are struck by a remarkable consonance of context with the personal life when you read the latest collection from one of Ireland’s foremost contemporary poets, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Her maturity, an ageing body with an agile mind, the loss of parents and loved ones, teachers and mentors, family members, her husband, has been paralleled by the decline of the institutional church in Irish public life. Both factors feature in this collection. She recalls family members who were nuns, just as she recalls her deceased mother and family in touching elegiac poems like ‘Sister Marina’, ‘Hofstetter’s Serenade’, ‘To the Mother House’, and ‘Resemblances’.
As she observes in this last poem, ‘like everything that I deal with now the room/has a double, a frill of light surrounding it.’ In this poem we find her at home contemplating a portrait of her mother in the hall at the end of the night before she goes to bed. The poet finds herself searching for connections: does she look like her, and noting that she is older now than her mother was when she died. How very human is this, how we all think about parallels and dissonances between our lives and those connected to us, in that ongoing silent conversation with ourselves. We can thank the art of poetry for bringing such realities into the light. How the dead live on in objects too, the mother’s portrait, but also her aunt’s ‘complicated sideboard’ which sits on the poet’s landing. She sees her books rearranged – a doubling with its frill of light – in the sideboard’s ‘bevelled glass.’ And her books are present in the screen of her laptop, a ghostly revenant, a haunting. And so the poet manages to skilfully convey her theme, presence and absence. How lives gone can haunt our lives, and with the sure knowledge that in a not too distant time she too will join the shades.
These days, when I’m reading a new poetry collection, I mark off poems that particularly strike me, poems I find interesting formally or thematically, poems I consider worth revisiting. I see I have marked off nearly half the poems in this collection. That’s not bad going. Poems like ‘Love‘, ‘Maria Edgeworth in 1847’, and ‘The Morandi Bridge’.
I think ‘Love’ one of the finest poems in the book, humble as it is in its way. You could describe it as an observational poem. The poem is set in Clara train station in the often overlooked midlands. The poet is on her way to somewhere else. Still, in this place, ‘the view from the train is better than a dream.’ This is a killer first line. From her vantage point in the train the poet observes a man ‘gazing down his lines of beetroot’, a tractor at a level crossing, a doll ‘fallen into the gloom of the hedge,/her frilly skirt still white.’ She observes a parent waiting for ‘the noisy gang’ just about to alight onto the platform. But it is the considered local effects, deft delicate touches that lift this poem. The striking verb ‘gloom’, phrasing like the description of the cars vibrating in the car park, ‘harmonizing the hum of love’, with its delicate consonance, alliteration and assonance – a virtual hum across the line. And then, the last line, ‘the wheels are slowing and finally slide and stand’, with the rhythm of the phrase ‘slide and stand’ capturing the halting, the movement of the train’s pulling up.
There is much to enjoy about this collection. We find the poet in elegiac mode for much of it, but she is never sombre or nostalgic. The sense is like that of an afterglow, of presences flickering in and out of our line of sight. In vision, then almost disappearing; here, then gone. This is no mean conjuring trick for a poet. In the end we are left with what has been seen and felt, here and there, in this poet’s lifetime, as observed, as recalled, in well-crafted line after well-crafted line, poem after poem. We can be thankful that so many of them are resonant presences across the page.
Derek Coyle has published poems in The Irish Times, Irish Pages, The Texas Literary Review, The Honest Ulsterman, Orbis, Skylight 47, Assaracus, and The Stony Thursday Book. He is a founding member of the Carlow Writers’ Co-Operative. He lectures in Carlow College/St Patrick’s. His first collection, Reading John Ashbery in Costa Coffee Carlow, was published in a dual-language edition in Sweden in April 2019