In Still Life, Ciaran Carson guides us through centuries of art and around the Belfast Waterworks where he walks with his wife, Deirdre; into the chemo ward; into memory of his mind, always bidding us to look carefully at the details of a painter's canvas, as well as the sunlight of day.
Still Life is a book written in full cognizance of the approach of death, and as such cannot help but wear a testamentary air. Yet freshness and surprise are central to its success ... With Still Life, Carson has achieved the remarkable feat of closing his oeuvre with a book that recapitulates his previous creative chapters, while at the same time striking out in a new direction. It emerges from a lifelong passion for art, and a deep engagement with other ekphrastic poems across the Irish, British, American and French traditions ... In the even-tempered poems of Still Life it is, perhaps surprisingly, flourishes of despair that are in short supply ... An unexpected central role in Still Life goes to the vintage onyx pencil used by Carson to write his poems. Like Beckett’s Malone, Carson will often move between descriptions of his everyday routines and descriptions of the pencil as it commits them to paper. Sometimes, again in Beckettian style, this throws up narrative paradoxes, as when a poem in the present tense describes the breaking of a pencil nib, but the poem presses on regardless ... Still Life is among Carson’s very best work, and anglophone poetry is immeasurably the poorer for his passing.
Throughout his poetry collections and in each prose work, Carson has consistently reinvented his forms and techniques ... Each poem contemplates a painting, an object which anchors the poems to their present moment, including the reality of Carson’s terminal diagnosis of lung cancer, which he faced during the writing of these poems ... By contemplating images in familiar surroundings, and by leaving the poems open to the incidentals surrounding these moments of engagement, the poems of Still Life manage to relay the textures of his life palpably ... The moment of reading and the moment of writing are so adeptly intertwined by Carson, with his use of tense and perfectly timed digressions, that the poems appear, at times, to be forming as they are read. The convincing and beguiling immediacy of these poems also seems related to Carson’s heightened intimacy of tone, with attention focused on his home and near surroundings: the combined effect has these poems appear utterly of the moment ... This is a vital collection, brimming with life ... Still Life, incredibly, contains some of his finest work.
Still Life is very much a last book, written in the face of terminal illness, but it shows no flagging of his protean inventiveness in the face of the complexities of the world of Belfast, deepened as it is by a ruefully humorous acknowledgement of his own mortality. The slenderness of his hold on life in his last months seems to have deepened and strengthened his sense of both life and art ... The result is a wonderfully probing as well as movingly self-conscious contribution to the modern ekphrastic tradition ... It is as fine as anything this wonderfully inventive poet has written, leaving us with a complex series of intricately interwoven ‘living mechanisms’ that is both a joyful affirmation of the vitality of the aesthetic and an admirably resourceful intellectual response to the intimations of mortality gleaned during his last months on the planet.