Ciaran Carson, who died last year, was a prolific poet, prose writer, and translator, and a keen chronicler of his native Belfast. Still Life is a departure from his previous work: each poem takes a painting as its ostensible subject. The paintings are arranged in rough art-historical order, but Carson’s views of them are related through his own memories and associations, and as he walks with his wife, Dierdre, around the Belfast waterworks. Carson began composing the poems just after he received a diagnosis of lung cancer, and the book was published shortly after his death in 2019.
Poems composed in such circumstances might be expected to convey urgency, even fury. Instead, Carson takes his time, as if wandering through the paintings and recollections of his life, his city and its history. The companionship of his wife is constantly addressed. This atmosphere of intimacy extends to the casual way one memory or reference or painting will jog an exploration of another. The interaction between art and viewer, and the conscious placement of the poems in time and at specific points in the city, is the energetic pulse of the book, and it produces a profound sense of connection. The book is a steady celebration of aesthetic pleasure and the meaning it brings to life.
Although the settings are quotidian and the tone of the poems is relaxed, alarms and emergencies are studded throughout the book. They are almost tossed off, in a way that brings home the extent and frequency of violence in Troubles-era Belfast:
It’s 1973, and I’m pushing a pen in Family Income Supplements behind the City Hall.
The IRA were bombing downtown shops and offices on a weekly basis
It seems. My dreams are filled with wavering buildings avalanches of astonished
Glass. Now and then an alarm would sound and orderly the clerks would proceed
Into the ordinary, glad cacophony of screeching jeeps and klaxons wailing,
Freed for the day.
—“Diego Velázquez, Old Woman Cooking Eggs, 1618”