PRINT December 2020


Ciaran Carson's Still Life

Photo: Brian Green

The poet Ciaran Carson, who died of lung cancer in October 2019, was master of the long line, and chronicler of his hometown’s civil war. Books like Belfast Confetti (1989) will survive. Still Life, whose title is similarly painful, was published in Ireland in the month of Carson’s death, and in the US this past February (Wake Forest). It bids farewell to life in a sequence of seventeen poems about paintings and prints, all of them treasured, one or two of them—a still life of a bowl by Jeffrey Morgan, a print by James Allen—in the poet’s possession.

Many poets write poems about paintings; few, I think, have cared more for the art than Carson, and found a stronger, simpler way of saying so. Every poem in the book is infused with the prospect of the poet’s death. None is maudlin.

Today I just thought I’d take a lie-down, and drift. So here I am
Listening to the tick of my mechanical aortic valve—
          overhearing, rather, the way
It flits in and out of consciousness.

But very soon, the tick of mortality is overtaken by the memory of a vandal, the day before, upending a pot of daffodils in the front garden, and by two strands of Monet’s hair, stuck in a passage of malachite green, which Carson was looking at in a book the moment the vandal struck. “Everything gets into a painting”: That’s why Carson likes it.

There are poems in Still Life about Velázquez and Poussin, but don’t worry, the book isn’t bent on telling you that the old masters were never wrong about suffering. It’s as good on Yves Klein’s IKB 79 as on Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion, and it’s the Klein that precipitates the memory of the Troubles. Paintings kept Carson in the world. The last poem of Still Life’s seventeen, on Allen’s print of a house the poet once lived in (the print is easily found on the internet, and looks beautiful), ends thus:

How I loved that old dilapidated flat! . . .
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.

T. J. Clark is professor emeritus of art history at the University of California, Berkeley.