Shared Solitudes: The Mother House by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Still Life by Ciaran Carson

Jacquelyn Pope
| Reviews


We are positioned, in time and in the poet’s memory, but also on the page and among other arts, other ways of seeing. Carson is not really a flâneur, as his desire is to see the city rather than to be seen in it. If his circumstances have changed, he will roam the streets of his imagination, memory, and aesthetic affinities. And he explores the landscape of pages and paragraphs, “Of the poem as a verbal suite / of interconnecting rooms”; “I’ve been thinking of the stanza as an ample room I want to wander in.” In so doing, the poet absorbs the physicality of painting, where lines and stanzas take the place of objects, and where arrangement is subtly re-emphasized. In “Canaletto, The Stonemason’s Yard, c. 1725,” Carson commences at a waste ground, where the fencing and ghost chimneys give rise to ruminations on the work of painters who used print as a basis for getting started (“an area of brickwork” or “repeated prepositions”) and through this kaleidoscopic palimpsest the poem proceeds—via Venice—to the hospital where Carson undergoes chemo. Once the treatment session is done, the poem exits the hospital, returns through Venice, then to the same waste yard:

…looking though the green

chain-link fencing

At the big yellow JCB. And as for what they’re going to build

there, we can’t wait to see.

Art is made to last, and does, Carson shows, through illness, and even death. Still Life is not really still—it brims with the activity of memory and exults in passionate appreciation of human-made things: vocabulary, paint colors, typewriters, gardens, windows. Beyond these there is passionate notice of the natural world, its cloud formations, wind, the relative size and speed of various types of raindrops, and the language of birds (“trees reverberant with trills and warbles”; a “cacophony of panic-stricken shrieks / And squeals”). The abundance of textures and details in these poems reinforce the idea that attention is in fact life, and is powerful enough to overcome the boundaries of isolation and death.

Jacquelyn Pope is a writer and translator whose books include Watermark, Dreamboat, and Hungerpots: Selected Poems of Hester Knibbe.

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