I love Ciaran Carson’s work. I have loved it since my junior year of undergrad, when I was studying abroad in Scotland and took a course on contemporary Scottish and Irish literature. We read The Ballad of the HMS Belfast: A Compendium of Belfast Poems, and something in Carson’s depictions of his beloved, troubled city hooked itself deep inside me. I have never forgotten the closing lines of his poem “Smithfield Market”:
Since everything went up in smoke, no entrances, no exits.
But as the charred beams hissed and flickered, I glimpsed a map of Belfast
In the ruins: obliterated streets, the faint impression of a key.
Something many-toothed, elaborate, stirred briefly in the labyrinth.
Carson lived almost his entire life in Belfast, and came of age during the Troubles. As a member of the city’s Catholic minority, he felt the conflict and the oppression closely, and responded by writing; his early poetry was often lacerating in its anger over the indignities suffered by Belfast Catholics (as well as the violence wrought by the IRA), and he wrestled over the extent to which poets could dare to aestheticize atrocity. His early work was marked for its long lines, in particular, but as Carson grew older, he experimented with short, cryptic poems that defied his early style. He did considerable translation work, too, and directed the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University Belfast. In short, his contributions to literature have been rich and varied.
And then, in 2019, Ciaran Carson died of lung cancer at age 70. And then, in 2020, his final poetry collection, Still Life, was released.
How strange it is to be lying here listening to whatever it is is going on.
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. (“Claude Monet, ‘The Artist’s Garden at Vetheuil,’ 1880”)
It’s impossible to miss the fact that Carson knew he was writing his last book. He alludes often to the hospital, to his chemotherapy, to the slow, weary walks he takes in his neighborhood with his wife of nearly forty years, Deirdre. And it’s impossible to miss his care in deciding exactly what his last words, his last impression on the world, would be, and what he wants us to know is that he loved Belfast, he loved art, he loved writing, and he loved Deirdre. Fin.
Each of the poems in this collection is an ekphrastic poem, which is to say each is about, or inspired by, a particular work of art. Carson’s taste is decidedly omnivorous, ranging from Basil Blackshaw’s post-expressionist Windows I-V to several paintings by Nicholas Poussin to Joachim Patinir’s Landscape with Saint Jerome to Angela Hackett’s 2013 Lemons on a Moorish Plate. But the purpose of each work of art is not merely to describe the work itself; instead, each of them leads Carson through a meditation on his present-day life, or perhaps his looming death, or perhaps to the Belfast of the past–or some blend of of these. Each is also written in Carson’s characteristic long lines, which he had seemingly abandoned in his other books of the 2010s: a return to form, and also, as he acknowledges, a return to writing: “Before the diagnosis,” he admits, while describing an antique mechanical pencil, “I’d written nothing publishable for four years, but when I took / The pencil up it seemed to set me free.”
The poems, while independent pieces, also speak to one another in quiet, subtle ways. The lemons that Carson mentions buying in “Angela Hackett, Lemons on a Moorish Plate, 2013″ to see how long it takes a lemon to turn, reappear in “Jeffrey Morgan, Hare Bowl, 2008,” where they are still firm and bright in the eponymous bowl, which in turn leads Carson to wonder:
…how Jeffrey got that illusionistic craquelure effect. So I email him;
He emails back. ‘With the surface all wet and with a small Winsor & Newton
No. 7 sable brush (these are still licked into shape by old women–what happens when
They die–that’s it) I paint the craquelure directly into the wet paint, then
Go to eat and watch Newsnight–it takes a week to dry.”
The human touch that Morgan describes on his pottery is all over these final poems, and Carson is almost frantically attentive to it, perhaps because he is so aware of the limited number of moments remaining to him. These moments, he wants us to realize, are vital and precious, we orient ourselves by them a hundred times a day without realizing, and art offers him a particular way to discuss it:
And so we came to talk of how we take our bearings from the moment
Of a painting, where everything is at a standstill. Poussin’s Calm. For some time past
The landscape of the Waterworks had made me think of his. His lake, our pond.
… The more you looked
The more there was to see to know exactly what there was, and what was not.
The Troubles that dominated so much of Carson’s early poetry do linger around the edges of some of these poems, particularly “Yves Klein, IKB 79, 1959” and “Basil Blackshaw, Windows I-V, 2001,” reminding readers that Carson, like many others in Belfast, still bears the emotional scars of those years, but ultimately his vision is more hopeful than perhaps even he in those years might have expected. The final poem closes emphatically on love:
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 bluebirds anti clockwise spiraling 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 world beyond.
In his own final moments, Carson too reminds us what is to thrill to this world, in all its heartache and fragile splendor. The only sorrow we have in this book is knowing that there will be, alas, no more to follow it, but I’m so grateful for his body of work, and that he felt he could, at the last, end on love.