Francisca Fernández-Arce
Universidad de Chile | Published: 17 March, 2023
ISSUE 18 | Pages: 79-93 | PDF | DOAJ |

Creative Commons 4.0 2023 by Francisca Fernández-Arce | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Despite the publication of three books directly addressing the intersection between text and visual artworks — Fishing for Amber (1999), Shamrock Tea (2001), Still Life (2019) — Ciaran Carson’s work has not been given significant attention in terms of his contribution to the subject of ekphrastic poetry in Irish literature. Several texts, on the other hand, have been devoted to discussing his work in relation to the spatial, place-bound quality of his poetry and prose. This article seeks to bridge this gap by reframing the ekphrastic mode as the intimate but illusory coming into contact between author, reader, and work. Using the dual role of the ‘study’ as both a practice drawing and a private room, this paper argues Ciaran Carson’s final collection, Still Life, represents a new interpretation of how intimate connections in domestic spaces can be portrayed in Northern Irish literature.

A pesar de la publicación de tres libros refiriéndose directamente a la intersección entre texto y obras visuales — Fishing for Amber (1999), Shamrock Tea (2001), Still Life (2019) — la obra de Ciaran Carson no ha recibido considerable atención con respecto a su contribución al tema de la poesía ecfrástica en la literatura irlandesa. Varios textos, por el otro lado, se han dedicado a la discusión de la calidad territorial y espacial de su poesía y prosa. Este artículo busca acortar la distancia entre ambos campos replanteando el modo ecfrástico como la aproximación de un contacto íntimo pero ilusorio entre autor, lector, y texto. Usando el papel doble del ‘estudio,’ entendido tanto como un dibujo de práctica y una habitación privada, este artículo argumenta que la colección final de Ciaran Carson, Still Life, representa una nueva interpretación de cómo las conexiones íntimas en espacios domésticos pueden ser presentadas en la literatura norirlandesa.

Ciaran Carson; écfrasis; intimidad; literatura norirlandesa; espacios domésticos


Although a large quantity of work has been written in relation to the ekphrastic tradition in Irish poetry, the figure of Ciaran Carson has not been given significant attention in relation to this subject.[1] Much has been discussed, on the other hand, regarding the spatial, place-bound, and geographical aspects of his work. Having lived in Belfast throughout his life, a prevailing aspect of this discussion has been the influential presence urban and local landscapes have had in both his poetry and prose works.[2] Nonetheless, it is possible to find a common ground between such concerns with physical spaces and Carson’s ekphrastic poetry. Still Life, his final collection first published in 2019, centres every poem around a specific work of visual art, ranging across time and space from Nicolas Poussin and virtual galleries to more contemporary, Belfast-based artists like James Allen whose print of Carson’s former flat in the city he owned. Upon its release, several critics have remarked on how these poems showcase a form of close contact between author and painting that invites the reader to participate in the making of the text. Ross Moore, for instance, explains how each poem is imbued with a “convincing and beguiling” immediacy which is directly connected to “Carson’s heightened intimacy of tone” as well as his attention to “his home and near surroundings” while T. J. Clark states: “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” (2019: 2020). Likewise, in his speech upon its publication day, Gail McConnell not only describes Still Life as a book of ordinary joy and pleasure, “of cherished things; of intimacies; of marvels; and these in the sight of death” but highlights the implications behind Carson’s attention to detailed language at its cellular level. As he lists, a cell can be understood as

a simple structure; a storeroom; a chamber for sleeping or writing; the small back room he liked so much, where the music of what happens, happens; a compartment in the brain; the hexagon in a honeycomb; a room in a prison; a nucleus of political activity; the body’s tissue; a cavity; and, to quote the OED 15a, as Ciaran would have me do: ‘The fundamental, usually microscopic, structural and functional unit of all living organisms’ (2019).

I explore this joining of intimate contact, craftsmanship, and spatiality in Carson’s ekphrastic poems through a similar figure to the cell, the study. By centring on its inherent conditionality – being the practice drawing preceding the making of a painting – and its sense of privacy – understood as the room devoted to the quiet work of artists – I argue Ciaran Carson uses these elements to reconfigure the encounter between beholder and aesthetic object within ekphrastic poetry in terms of intimacy as involvement and immediacy. By replicating his creative process in real time through his writing, I discuss how Ciaran Carson establishes a form of illusion which presents the ekphrastic poem as a communal space where both lyric speaker and reader engage in mutual contemplation and connection. Even more so, by discussing Carson’s Still Life as a radical form of reciprocity that highlights the intimate contact that emerges between author, reader, and work, I propose to introduce a new perspective into the relationship between subject and place in a post-Troubles Northern Ireland in direct contrast to the “dominant critical paradigm” focused on “the discussion of trauma” and the “fissures of unresolved conflict” which has begun to be challenged by authors like Caroline Magennis (2017a: pa. 8).

Ekphrasis as Illusion and Delusion

Ekphrasis has usually been considered the means through which the poet can bridge the gap between the visual and the textual. Through the ekphrastic mode, the author shifts across different dialogues established between the work and a lyric voice that alternates between the roles of beholder and speaker. A significant element of this transformation and interconnection is the consideration of ekphrastic poetry as an active, authorial process. Michael Davidson’s criticism of Murray Krieger’s seminal essay “Ekphrasis and the Still Movement of Poetry,” for example, hinges on Krieger’s emphasis on “the ‘still’ elements of plastic form”; by effectively presenting the poem as a plastic object, Davidson argues, Krieger’s conception only removes the sense of human contingency from the work itself (1967: 4). Davidson’s definition instead highlights the formal strategies behind paintings within the poet’s own reading of the visual space. Ekphrasis, accordingly, undergoes a performative turn where the poet reconfigures his interpretation of another work of art in the same way “the reader of the poem participates among the various codes of the text to generate his own readings” (1983: 72; 77). James A. W. Heffernan echoes this view in his work Museum of Words, as he describes such poetry as being “about works of art” as well as “to and for them” (1994: 7). Seen as the product of the poet beholding the painting as much as the act of writing the poem itself, ekphrastic poetry depicts a work constituted by its content while still representing a commentary on its own form.

Several contemporary readings have highlighted this active, meta discursive nature of the ekphrastic mode. In Shahar Bram’s account, ekphrasis acts as a defensive mechanism deployed by the poet against the traditional view of the subjugation of visual into textual representation. Such a notion of domination, to see ekphrasis as a struggle to be solved within the ‘sister’ arts, is clearly represented in the first Western example of the mode: Homer’s Achilles’ shield. According to Bram, Homer’s description of the piece of armour depicts the mimetic principle of security and protection for, “[a]s a shield, a palladium, art secures the soldier (reader) in his separateness” (2006: 374). Ekphrasis appears here as both the illusion of safety and the delusion of artistry; by simulating the apparent dichotomies of visual/temporal and textual/spatial elements, it protects the reader from the passing of time and, in consequence, the arrival of death. In her chapter on ekphrasis as a form of art criticism, Bernadette Fort also refers to the ekphrastic mode as a form of delusion. “[T]o attempt to represent an art object for a reader as vividly as that object speaks to a beholder,” she explains, “requires from the writer a virtuosity which borders on trickery, or is seen as a sleight of hand” (1996: 62). Here, both Bram and Fort present a dual perspective where ekphrasis works as the source of the reader’s delusion, “creat[ing] a reality that ensures us a deceitful separateness”, whilst simultaneously highlighting the poet’s craftsmanship. The ekphrastic mode, Bram concludes, with its play on make-believe to see the written and the painted as “spatial object[s] … permanent, stable, and present,” becomes a type of performance conducted by the poet (2006: 377). Similarly, Fort’s definition of ekphrasis as deception, brought in relation to Diderot’s critique of Fragonard’s Coresus and Callirhoe, refers to the use of literary ekphrastic conventions in order to inform on the aesthetic conception and technical execution behind the painting. Fort’s ‘sleight of hand’ alludes here to Diderot’s written emulation of the painter’s technique in his own writing and his use of subjectivity, affect, and narrative. Diderot’s text, she argues, exemplifies a movement away from traditional ekphrastic reception, normally focused on reconstructing the aesthetic response of the beholder into a text, by proposing a view where the free transmission of the “sensations or feelings” caused by said piece can be seen as both an affective response and a type of technique (1996: 65).

Simon Goldhill presents a similar vision of ekphrasis as a form of destabilisation imposed on the viewer’s senses that can be subdued through an awareness of its own process. Analysing rhetorical theory manuals and Hellenistic ekphrastic epigrams, he uses the topos of phantasia – an impression or illusion – to exemplify a connection between the act of viewing (“the moment of looking”) and producing (“a practice of interpreting”) (Goldhill 2007: 1). By creating the scenario through which the beholder encounters the work of art, ekphrasis appears here as not only the unveiling of the visual work but the creation of the viewer itself. It is this creation that Goldhill defines as a source of disruption: the process of visualisation appears as a form of description which “make[s] the listener think he was there” while also being “dazzl[ed]” (2007: 3). This account of the ekphrastic as a form of illusory creation supposes in turn an understanding of this poetic mode as the product of a sense of familiarity between all actors involved in its making.

In his book The Ekphrastic Encounter in Contemporary British Poetry and Elsewhere, David Kennedy approaches ekphrasis as part of a historical correlation of present, past, and future meanings that interrogates not only what can be turned into poetry but also, what role we assume when reading it. Described as “tangible historical facts” which can only be rendered meaningful through the “addition of voices, opinions, and fictions,” ekphrastic poems for Kennedy background history in favour of contemporary concerns with the past (2016: 15). The lyric voice’s dual position as spectator and commentator is thus dependent on his recognition of the object itself: “If we know the object work of an ekphrasis then we are reading that as well as reading the poem” (Kennedy 2016: 14). Acquaintanceship with the artwork brings together a twofold reading of ekphrasis, one being the traditional encounter between two different mediums and the other, a reading “against our knowledge of its object work” (Kennedy 2016: 12-3). Familiarity establishes a form of intimacy with not only the original visual piece but with the conscious act of writing and craftsmanship behind the finished written product.

This concern for the newfound proximity between artworks and spectators is one directly connected to the emergence and availability of digital archives. In “Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with a Calm, 1650-51,” Ciaran Carson mentions the several instances through which he has come into contact with Poussin’s titular piece – “Reproductions, images from books, the internet” – that have allowed him to declare: “The more you looked / The more there was to see to know exactly what there was, and what was not” (2020e: 30). In his account of his own poetic work with the visual arts “Hide and Seek: Mimesis and Narrative in Ekphrasis as Translation,” David Kinloch refers to how this transition beyond gallery-based settings has transformed the aesthetic encounter between subject and object from a form of “looking at” into a “living with” it (2014: 159). Bethany J. Smith, along these lines, argues Eavan Boland centres her poetry on the excavation of new meanings detached from the gallery setting which prioritises “value formed by individual aesthetic contemplation” (2013: 213). The encounters between Boland’s lyric voices and the artworks selected in her collection Domestic Violence are thus directly influenced by the interrelationship between authenticity and reproduction, the “dynamic relationship between art and context” brought by the possibility of mechanical replication (Smith 2013: 219). It is the removal of the artwork from its traditional environment into a more personal interiority which highlights the relevance of the author’ and reader’s familiarity with the visual work at the moment of writing and reading ekphrastic poetry. Boland herself explains: “I felt the interior of the poem could only be changed by changing where the poet stood in the poem” (cited in Smith 2013: 218). As such a statement suggests, the location of the speaker within the poem reflects a form of interiority which can be understood in terms of the poem’s form and spatial features.

To read ekphrasis in terms of familiarity and proximity supposes a further dichotomy within its conception for it becomes necessary to balance an apparent informed understanding of the visual work and the sense of immediacy elicited by the voice’s affective response in the text. This knowledge of how the poem has been written further consolidates the recognition between speaker and reader by metaphorically placing them within the same instance of contemplation. In the poem “Basil Blackshaw, Windows I-V, 2001,” Carson compares a painting with an “open window through which the subject to be painted is seen,” a reflective quality which is further problematised when “the subject to be painted is a windo[w]” (2020e: 65). Contemplation here appears as both an inner and outer activity which Carson includes within the body of his poem; these “abstracted windows,” regardless of their composition as either “[p]aintings of light, or paintings of paint,” can still represent “real windows” for “everything we look at is conditioned by the eye of memory” (2020e: 66). Such memory works constitute the structuring line of the poem as Carson consistently centres his lyric voice within a moment of recollection-as-creation; phrases such as “when it was I first set eyes on them seventeen years ago,” “I’m writing this,” and “I shut my eyes the better to visualize Windows I and V” places his continued viewing of Blackshaw’s work as an experience to be shared with his reader as it occurs (2020e: 64; 66; 67). Ekphrasis for Carson conveys an illusory nature to recreate and construct a joint moment in time and space where viewing and reading act as one.

Several conclusions can be drawn from this discussion and my working definition of the ekphrastic mode. To begin with, ekphrasis deals simultaneously with the act of beholding and addressing said beholding in the text itself; it constitutes, accordingly, both an illusion created by the poet and a delusion sustained by the reader. This form of correspondence is directly connected to a sense of familiarity with the original visual artwork, nowadays more and more accessible due to the move away from exclusive gallery-based settings to more personal and domestic spaces such as digital portfolios. In a similar light to how ekphrastic poems create the impression of shared contemplation between reader and author, intimacy between beholder and beheld object extends itself to a newfound relationship between reader, visual work, and poet where the poem acts as a mutual space of interaction. The reader visits the intimate space of contemplation created by the lyric voice in the same way the guest enters the domestic privacy of the host. It is this mutual place of contact blurring the boundaries between private and public spheres which determines Ciaran Carson’s representation of intimacy in Still Life: being intimate implies an affective reciprocity and openness which contrasts with the traditional view of Northern Irish literature defined by an emphasis on sectarian violence and lingering trauma.

Reading and Interior Spaces

To better understand this reading of poetry as shared contemplation and dwelling in Ciaran Carson’s collection, it is necessary to consider the particular elements that define the concepts of ‘house’ and ‘home’ in Northern Irish literature. As Adam Hanna explains in Northern Irish Poetry and Domestic Space, the role the house plays is a contentious one, usually seen as a politicised space. As a consequence of the house expulsions and attacks on Catholic neighbourhoods during the Troubles, the intimate nature of the house shifted from being an “escape from the ideas of public conflict” to the product of a certain “awareness of their political resonances” (Hanna 2015: 10). In his hybrid memoir-cum-exploration of the city of Belfast The Star Factory, Carson describes the looming presence of the IRA across the city – seemingly existing only “by rumour or osmosis,” invisible yet present – as he recollects his family’s move to the Falls neighbourhood: “our footsteps rang on the bare pine boards of the floor, sounding out its underlying hollow of dimension, where an IRA man could be concealed when on the run, reclining like a temporary mummy in his ideal otherworld of imminent republic” (2019d: 151). In Carson’s view, the threat of paramilitary violence is inextricably linked to the intrusion of the domestic interior; houses become points where privacy and public politics are interchangeable from one another, disturbing the traditional view of them as places of privileged exclusivity. Instead of a shelter from violence, the house in Carson’s Belfast appears as what Bryonie Reid characterises as “the frontline of violent struggle,” the distinction between public and private violence having collapsed within “private family homes” (2007: 935). Inhabitants, Reid states, have been “made full participants in the public world in ways specific to the province’s history and politics” (2007: 935). Such a sense of forced participation in the public world further opens the doors of the domestic realm to the reciprocal gaze of those not allowed in.

This intrusive reciprocity supposes a form of surveillance and scrutiny which directly affects the relationship between the subject and those around him. The house in Northern Irish poetry, according to Hanna, is a direct result of the uncertain relationships emerging between its occupants and the outside world. During a simple house call, for example, “[t]he host and the guest” undergo a power struggle “that would not have existed had they met on neutral ground” (Hanna 2015: 12). In his chapter on the Irish house in Our House: The Representation of Domestic Space in Modern Culture, Shane Alcobia-Murphy discusses this shift from domestic idyll to a form of scrutinised privacy. More than an indication of traditional “sheltered domesticity,” he explains, the house in the North of Ireland bears the weight of the “all-pervasive gaze of neighbours, the police, and the opposing community” (Alcobia-Murphy 2006: 115). Echoing Rachel Whitehead’s ground-breaking House sculpture from 1994 where homeliness equalled utter, concrete display of a practically uninhabitable space, the Irish house illustrates a vulnerable openness that goes beyond its material enclosure. In his poem “Intelligence,” Carson refers to this conception of the house as a vulnerable shelter as he lists the “peep-holes, one-way mirrors, security cameras … this helicopter chainsaw[ing] overheard” that constitute the outside of the city attempting to look in (1989b: 78). Similarly, in “Last Orders,” he intertwines a sense of paranoia and scepticism within the idiosyncratic dynamics of Belfast: “you never know for sure who’s who, or what / You’re walking into. I, for instance, could be anybody. Though I’m told / Taig’s written on my face. See me, would I trust appearances?” (original emphasis) (1989b: 46). The lyric voice appears to confront the reader’s ability to distinguish and determine what is true from what can be seen, destabilising the relation between beholder and reality enclosed in a world constantly being intruded upon.

John Goodby refers to the presence of surveillance states in Carson’s work as a subject “he attempts to ambiguate and elude” through the use of “remembering … remapping” and speculating (2009: 79). It is the lack of certainty Carson declares in “Last Orders” which, up to a certain point, informs his depictions of the outside world from an intimate perspective; as he explains in an interview with Rand Brandes, “[t]here’s no final way of telling a story, or explaining the totality of whatever it was that happened at any given time. Your account of what we’re doing here right now might be very different from mine” (1990c: 84). The same occurrences and memories are reframed and rehashed multiple times across his titles: a visit to Milltown Cemetery recounted in The Star Factory, The Irish for No, and Belfast Confetti, for instance, is seen by Goodby as an example of Carson’s play on narrative and infiltration as the panoramic view described by his father in The Irish for No with its clear “landmarks [like] Gallaher’s tobacco-factory, / Clonard Monastery, the invisible speck of our house” becomes undetermined in his Belfast Confetti version as the “smoke obscures / The panorama from the Mountain Loney spring” (1987a: 59; 1989b: 27). It is this lack of certainty and play between memory and family history which Goodby defines as Carson’s “resistance to … the panoptic vision of surveillance” as he grounds his vision on “walking, local observation, the intimate, ground-level view, constructed by [a] non-invasive, provisional, self-questioning narrative” (2009: 80). The looming threat of outside violence becomes in Carson’s writing an opportunity for rediscovery and playful interrogations of the boundaries between appearances and meanings. The previous allusion to IRA members infiltrating the crevices of a new home in The Star Factory is thus succinctly followed by a reference to “the narrative ballad of Sherwood” and how these “double agents lying parallel under the floorboards, or hidden in an attic” were no different from “the Merry Band ha[ving] dug camouflaged pit-falls … never to get out except when given a sporting hand by Robin Lockesley and his band of key cronies” (2019d: 151).

Interior spaces in Carson’s Still Life embody a sense of comfort and familiarity that extends beyond the threat of intrusion. A “vandal” who has “upended the terracotta pot of daffodils / In our little front garden” in “Claude Monet, Artist’s Garden at Vetheuil, 1880” thus becomes an opportunity to analyse and dissect the “many shades of yellow” of those “tossed daffodils” before moving towards a sequence of etymological associations from “daffodil” to “asphodel’ to “a buttercup” to, finally, “the tall sunflowers” in the titular painting (2020e: 9; 10; 11). Monet’s work, in turn, leads the lyric voice toward James Elkins’ study What Painting Is, which, in return, leads the reader to the initial moment when “the vandal struck” and “I looked out / The bay window to see a figure scarpering off down the street to the interface” (2020e: 11). Carson’s musings in this poem create multiple perspectives of a single moment as the reader is invited to picture different visual planes within a single text: the lyric voice’s front garden, Monet’s artwork, Elkins’ text, and Carson’s own poem comprising all three previous ones. To read here supposes a shared experience where the reader must fill in the gaps of Carson’s various visual and intertextual references which interrupt and suspend the act itself; akin more to participants in the construction of the text than readers, those who encounter Carson’s poems in Still Life are required to “stand in,” like Graham Harman explains in Art and Objects, “for the missing object and support the qualities that were only half-plausibly assigned to it” (2018: 69). Harman’s statement, in relation to Carson’s work, implies two different understandings of what constitutes the meeting between subject and object: first, the notion of the original work is in fact the illusion of a finished object as its aesthetic qualities have only been ‘half-plausibly’ determined by its creator while, secondly, cooperation and familiarity are implicit within this aesthetic encounter for “the artwork exists only as a hybrid of work and beholder … on whose interior they exist” (Harman 2018: 70).

Similar to the negotiations required at the moment of allowing guests inside one’s home, a form of socially accepted intrusion which Mari Hughes-Edwards defines as a “potentially precarious” act which renders the individual “vulnerable and visible,” the poem constitutes a space of intimate contact and reciprocal involvement (2006: 123). This metaphorical conversion between text and place is one crucial to my discussion of ekphrasis and intimacy. As Carson explains in the previously mentioned “Landscape with a Calm,” “I’ve been thinking of the stanza as an ample room I want to wander in […] / […] a room, a place wherein / You stand; a stopping place, a station” (2020e: 27-8). In a similar light to Ted Cohen’s discussion of metaphors as representations of intimate knowledge, Carson here equals the act of personal reading, the eyes’ movements across the page, with the physical motion of a body inhabiting a room that does not originally belong to him.[3] To enter another person’s space requires a particular understanding of both said space’ and its inhabitants’ idiosyncratic rules of behaviour; the moment after the entrance, Hughes-Edwards explains, is defined by a knowledge of protocols and roles to be assumed since, “it is the interaction between individuals within the building that determines the extent to which it is a home” (2006: 123). This interactive correspondence is further extended to the material nature of said spaces, what Carson calls in The Star Factory the “patterns of the everyday,” and how these traces of quotidian life act as “hooks” for the development of multiple personal narratives (2019d: 67). As he explains, it is the accumulation of a “panoply of objects” such as “soup tureens, [a] check tablecloth, … a kettle steaming on the hob,” among others, which allow a specific room to become “a virtual embodiment of many stories” (2019d: 67). Traditionally speaking, homes are individually defined, depicting a form of emotional grounding after a newcomer has been accepted and embraced within the inner dynamic of the place, while houses can be seen as mere spaces of performance. Nonetheless, I argue this classical distinction between home/house in terms of performativity and exclusion is subverted by Carson’s conception of viewing-as-reading-as-inhabiting in the same way in which he destabilises the threat of intrusion of domestic spaces.

Following Michael Fried’s concept of “detheatricalised” art found in Absorption and Theatricality, it is possible to see a correlation between Fried’s paradoxical definition of beholding and Carson’s ekphrastic poetry. By equally establishing an illusory distance between performer and audience that necessitates “the beholder’s point of view” while simultaneously persuading said viewer that “the actors themselves [are] unconscious of his presence,” both Fried and Carson require an illusion of separateness to be built alongside a delusion of belonging (Fried 1988: 95). This position, moreover, affects the beholder’s understanding of his own nature. According to Andrea Kern, Fried’s self-contradictory relationship supposes not only that the work’s disregard of the viewer allows it to be truly beheld, but that the spectator himself is capable of “forget[ing] [his] own status and identity” as a subject in front of the work, becoming another object lacking any form of self-awareness (2018: 306). Paul J. Gudel, conversely, argues that Fried’s definition of theatrical works allows the subject to feel unrestrained and located in “a place outside” the work which allows him to feel “autonomous, least limited or oppressed by convention,” ultimately unrestricted of having to be anything but his “most authenti[c]” self (2018: 193). Although they differ in terms of the placement of the subject within the traditional subject/object binary, what matters here is how they both present Fried’s definition of theatricality and art as a type of aesthetic and affective encounter where the subject does not need to fully inhabit the work of art to truly experience it; like a guest being invited in by a host, the beholder can still participate in the making of an artwork through contemplation and visitation.

Consequently, to inhabit does not mean to appropriate. By considering the text of the poem as being part of an interior space, the beholder in Carson’s Still Life assumes the guise of both reader and guest. Furthermore, unlike Fried’s judgement against ‘theatrical’ works which fail to appear as “self-sufficient, autonomous, [and like] a closed system independent of … the world of the beholder,” Carson’s work relies on a clear awareness of their dependence on other materials and sources. As he explains in another poem based on Nicolas Poussin’s Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion, after having included several lines directly quoted from Tom Lubbock’s Great Works: 50 Paintings Explored, this apparently secondary material represents in reality “the kind of writing you need to copy out / To properly infuse its cadences of assonance into your system” (2020e: 50). Although not a study of Carson’s relationship with originality and authenticity, it is worth noting how these direct inclusions of other texts and voices across this collection highlight the active presence of his authorial voice during the process; it is also worth noting how, unlike other preceding published works, this is the only collection to include a list of bibliographic notes at the end.[4] This awareness intertextuality is even further extended to the concrete necessities of his own writing habits as he explains at the beginning of the same poem:

Let me begin by writing about the instrument I’m writing with: a ‘Lady Patricia’ …
Feminine, slighter counterpart
To the heftier, senatorial ‘Patrician’, it suits my hand fine as I write, or scribble,
Standing at the bedside dressing-table (2020e: 48).

By beginning the poem with his own positioning within the act of writing, the reader must contend not only with their own place in the piece but the looming presence of Carson’s authorial voice standing by their side.

This form of shared space directly influences the manner in which intimacy is built and presented within interior spaces. Beatriz Colominal, for instance, discusses a form of inherent spectatorship that “convolute[s]” the boundaries between “inside and outside, private and public, object and subject” (2012: 254). Instead of having a subject proactively involved in the dynamics of the house, the level of participation of said subject is dependent on the distribution of the space, allowing him to be inside without being part of the interior. Using Adolf Loos’ photograph The Moller House as an example of both this inner and outer subject, Colominal argues privacy does not equal intimacy as the occupants of Loos’ House are “involved in, yet detached from, their own space” (2012: 254). Similar to a “theatre box,” the space depicted in the photograph allows for a form of comfort based on traditional intimacy – by being part of the inner space of the room – and authority as “this space assumes the character … of a point of control” (Colominal 2012: 255). By granting a vantage point of those entering and exiting the room, the subject placed in Loos’ ‘box’ is capable of being both a participant and a spectator of such inner dynamics. Intimacy, in this sense, is conditional and open-ended, simultaneously exposed and secluded as the inside of a house stands readily available to be temporarily entered. As Seamus Heaney explains in “The Sense of Place,” “[w]e are dwellers, we are namers, we are lovers, we make homes and search for our histories” (1981: 148-9). Dwelling, accordingly, is part of a sequence of actions-in-the-making, unfinished yet defined by their lack of completion. Homemaking, like naming and remembering, bears the hint of a possibility. By seeing both creator and reader as mutual participants of a text that requires their involvement to exist, the intersection between ekphrasis and intimacy in Still Life acquires an unfinished quality directly related to a specific form of artwork and interior space: the study.

The Study: Intimacy and Conditionality

As previously mentioned, Carson’s poems hinge on a sustained illusion of immediacy, the textual experience of his reader seemingly coexisting with the emergence of his apparently simultaneous creation. Such emphasis on the making of the poem extends over to the material origins of the paintings he refers to. Several instances are given to the detailed examination of the “illusionistic craquelure” upon their surface as well as the use of colours by the original artist: “How many shades are mingled there from pear to sage to olive green? Now / That I look at it, is there a background hint of yellow?” (2020e: 23).  He concludes the previously discussed “Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion” with a lingering note that directly addresses a form of writing that escapes the page: “I go on writing” (2020e: 54). His poem on Joachim Patinir’s Landscape with Saint Jerome equals the making of a poem with the growing of a tree, bringing together the reader’s first encounter with the text alongside the moment of its composition: “[…] the stanza radically changes shape, becoming more like a tree / Or a shrub with a dense central trunk–arboreal, in other words, like these / Which you are viewing now, which I have written only now” (2020e: 34). In both instances, Carson highlights elements that escape casual contemplation, be it within or outside the frame. This attention to both inner- and extra-corporeal elements open up the boundaries of the visual artwork beyond its painted surface to its spatial surroundings. The ekphrastic poem, as Carson describes in “Landscape with a Calm,” becomes the space where “you can walk right through or dawdle in / To contemplate a phrase, the line or contour of a painting, / The happenstance of a statue” (2020e: 28).

To be intimate at the time of encountering a work of art appears in Still Life as part of a significant act of public engagement with others. This form of open intimacy, I argue, is part of a newfound reconceptualisation of the relationship between subject, body, and community which Caroline Magennis defines as part of the “transformative” quality that “small moments of intimacy” can have on one’s understanding of the self and the other (2021b: 2). In her book, Northern Irish Writing After the Troubles: Intimacy, Affects, Pleasures, she explains how contemporary writers from the North of Ireland have begun to present the interrelation between private and social spheres as an intersection instead of a boundary. By writing against the trauma traditionally inscribed in Northern Irish literature, Magennis sheds light on the possible depth to be found in a reading of intimacy as a communitarian, shared experience. Although primarily focused on fictionalised bodily sensations in novels, her analysis is nonetheless essential to reframe Carson’s text, particularly with the figure of the ‘intimate’. Defined as “a confidant, with whom you make sense of your personal life by setting it out into a narrative,” this figure in Magennis’ text echoes the reciprocal manner in which Carson’s poetry asserts and invites the need for a reader to complete the making of his aesthetic encounter (2021b: 16).

The role of the ‘intimate’ emerges in this collection in the form of Carson’s wife, Deirdre, transposed into the virtual reality of the lyric speaker and the unnamed ‘you’ who accompanies him to his chemotherapy sessions. Moore notes the particular quality this device adds to the pieces: “The ekphrastic poem has a long history as a type or genre, but it is probably unique to Still Life that the paintings informing the poems are contemplated by a couple” (2019). Gail McConnell, likewise, comments on how, “first and foremost, [this is] a book of love poems – a book of poems about how love happens, moment to moment, frame to frame, year to year” (2019). The use of the second person in poetry, according to Karen Simecek, creates an illusion of intimate dialogue between reader and text in the form of a shared understanding. Poetry, she explains in her article “Cultivating I: The Use of the Second Person in Lyric Poetry,” that prominently addresses readers as a ‘you’ constructs a collaborative point of view where recognition shifts from the “intimate expression of another” to a “singularity of voice” (2019: 501). By “either assum[ing] the role of the speaker in the poem, or of the one who is spoken to,” intimacy cannot escape a sense of awareness of the reader’s articulation of his role within the text (Ribeiro cited in Simecek 2019: 505). The distinction between self-expression and empathy is thus blurred as Simecek states: “we respond to the poem as if it contained our own thoughts and attitudes, and in this sense, we overstep the space between ourselves and the poetic voice” (2019: 504). Unlike ‘overstepping’ one’s place, as he declares in “Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion,” Carson carefully invites the reader to sustain the illusion of intimacy he presents and to “[l]ook at” the pictures “beside me / … and think” (2020e: 53).

By using the ekphrastic mode as a form of illusion and delusion, Carson’s poems assert that intimacy is a type of performance. First conceptualised by Mary E. Trull in her text Performing Privacy and Gender in Early Modern Literature, the concept of ‘performing privacy’ is seen as the result of a flexible dichotomy between writing and publishing in women’s writings during the early modern period. To perform privacy, Trull explains, supposes understanding the act of publishing as more than a movement from the “private realm of creativity to a public realm of consumption” while “rejec[ting] the assumption that either manuscript or print publication is definitively public” (2013: 1). The representation of privacy, consequently, signifies an illusion oriented toward an audience, “a spectacle for public consumption rather than a protective gesture walling off the family from the wider social world” (Trull 2013: 9). In his text The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jurgen Habermas discusses how the institutionalisation of what is deemed public stems from distinguishing the role of the family from forms of material reproduction. The “intimate domain” of the family world during the seventeenth century, he adds, has redefined the idea of “privateness” in terms of a “saturated and free interiority” removed from the non-interfering economic activities of the outside world (Habermas 1991: 10). Such definition distinguishing between intimate spaces and the material sphere is further problematised in ekphrastic poems which, as previously mentioned, hinge on the lyric speaker being able to consume the visual work of art within their domestic plane. The study, I argue, represents a meeting point between these two elements while conveying the type of immediacy that Carson’s writing reflects across the collection.

In its first sense, a study is a private room used particularly for reading or writing. Although studies can be seen as exceptions to the public domain and communal quality of the family home, commentators like Elaine Scarry have referred to the inherently contradictory nature between solitude and the act of inhabiting a room. In The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World, comparatively to her discussion on torture rooms, a room “in normal contexts” is defined as the meeting place between body and world (Scarry 1985: 38). The body being itself enlarged, a room establishes boundaries that “preven[t] undifferentiated contact with the world” whilst still being inclined to the possibility of “allowing that world to enter” (Scarry 1985: 38). It thus embodies a shared experience born from a loss of self-consciousness since, once it has ceased to be “an obsessive object of perception and concern,” “the external world … [can] com[e] into being and begi[n] to grow” (Scarry 1985: 39). In like manner, James Krasner understands rooms as inherently linked to bodily experiences. Seen as the space surrounding the “body’s edge,” alongside the material entities constituting its environment, the room for Krasner represents more than an occupied space but an accumulation of touch and postures (2010: 5). Homes, accordingly, are experienced through the body, taking into account “the body’s intimate and dynamic engagement with the home’s resonantly familiar materiality” (Krasner 2010: 5). To inhabit a room, to belong to a space, is only possible through the formation of a sense of intimacy between self and others. Studies, in this manner, signify an illusion of privacy within a shared space similarly to how Carson constructs an illusory sense of intimacy between lyric speaker and reader.

In Still Life, rooms are places of memory and language. In “James Allen, The House with the Palm Trees, c. 1979,” for example, a poem based on an illustration of a previous house shared by Carson and his wife, the lyric voice’s encounter with the visual artwork is inextricably linked to how his memories of the place in the real world do not exactly align with his current aesthetic experience. As he describes the flower bed at the front of the image: “I’m looking at them, I see some yellow flowers among the red and white, for all / There was no yellow in my recollection. How could that be? I shut my eyes / And still I see them lavender and cream and violet, rose pink, never yellow” (2020e: 80). Although the inner and outer images of the house do not agree with one another, Carson nonetheless concludes that both “the picture and my memory of what it represents are dwelling places” (2020e: 81). Artworks, recollections, and poems all invoke a spatial quality that incites constant collaboration-as-habitation; although they imply an individual experience, they all require outside input for their construction. According to Tim Ingold, houses are the product of human involvement in the act of making. To build corresponds to an unfinished act, “a process that is continually going on” which does not depend on a “pre-formed plan” or a “finished artefact” (Ingold 2012: 34). The house is built, Ingold concludes, in the process of its dwelling similar to the maturation of living organisms through time. In a similar line, words assume in “The House with the Palm Trees” an organic quality which allows Carson to create a connection between the word “‘estate’– / A word derived from Latin status, ‘where one stands’” and “the etymology of ‘stanza’” (2020e: 82). Like words first entering a new language, appearing as “aliens” before becoming “denizens,” memories and people inevitably join others in the same manner a poem becomes part of the reader’s experience of the text (2020e: 82). Like a study supposing a form of privacy removed from the rest of the house’s dynamics, there is an unsustainable illusory quality to what it means to inhabit a home.

A study, in its second sense, is a form of practice drawing that precedes the making of a larger picture. According to Jean-Luc Nancy in his work The Pleasure in Drawing, to draw means to be involved in a dynamic process that implies a perpetually unrealised product, the pleasure alluded in the title being the direct result of such openness of form. Similar to the platonic conception of the ideal as that which precedes concrete reality within a metaphysical plane, to draw for Nancy means to designate, to produce a thought a priori to its reproduction: “Drawing is not a given, available, formed form. On the contrary, it is the gift, invention, uprising … or birth of form” (2013: 3). Drawing is a matter of constant formation and transformation. To draw means to draft, to sketch, and to highlight the in-the-makingness quality of the work through a suspended movement from the private to the public and vice versa; it establishes, as well, a sense of intimacy between creator, work, and beholder as the drawing is perceived as an opening into the creator’s impulses and incipient energy. Referring to the methodology of artist Tony Swain in “Canaletto, The Stonemason’s Yard, c. 1725,” Carson highlights the “incidental texture” of his landscapes: “he pulls out the page, thinks, and paints something on / The something on the page; thinks again, paints again” (2020e: 41). Echoing Nancy’s description of the sketch as the release of the conditional, “that which the impetus reveals of a design deeper and more secretive than any form’s aim,” Carson foregrounds the contact between thought and gesture over the product: “Thing after thing he follows what he thinks they want to become” (2013: 101, 2020e: 41).


In a poem dedicated to a study of clouds by John Constable, the “clouds / That bloom and dim from marble sheen to darks of silver at the edges” on the street appear more “in the throes of being / And becoming” than full figures in the sky; in a similar line, Constable’s sketch illustrates their movement “caught on the fly between hand and ey[e]” (2020e: 47). The study, defined by Carson as “‘an act of learning,’” simultaneously depicts the spatial and immediate qualities that he imbues the poems in Still Life with (2020e: 47). Both the real world and the world found within artworks in this collection bear a quality of becoming, a sense of immediate engagement with the creative process only possible through intimate contact and knowledge of it. Throughout this article, I have presented two main argumentative lines in order to explore how Carson builds this illusion. On the one hand, the poems in Still Life work towards recreating the in-the-moment quality of drawing in his writing, focusing on the concreteness of the act alongside the material aspects of the artworks behind their inspiration. These ekphrastic poems can thus be read as examples of the process behind writing ekphrastic poetry. On the other hand, Carson presents the act of reading as the product of a shared space, where both text and painting acquire a spatial quality that requires reader and lyric speaker to come together in a single dwelling place. By seeing the ekphrastic mode through a lens of illusory immediateness and intimacy, we open up the possibility of reading ekphrastic poetry as a form of contact between visual work, author, and reader. Still Life, accordingly, does not only represent the illusion of the writer situated in front of a visual piece, responding to it in written form, but an invitation towards the reader to stand alongside him and contemplate it. Such emphasis on proximity and shared experiences applied to the context of contemporary Northern Irish poetry and literature in general, can also suggest a different way of writing and reading literary texts against a tradition of trauma, silence, and partition. Future research, in this sense, would apply this perspective to how current poets from the North of Ireland include and discuss the intersection between the written and the visual in terms of intimacy, pleasure, and positive feelings.


[1] For a detailed account of the extent of this research see: Ruben Moi. (2014). “Verse, Visuality, and Vision: The Challenges of Ekphrasis in Ciaran Carson’s Poetry”. The Crossings of Art in Ireland, edited by Ruben Moi, Brynhildur Boyce, and Charles I. Armstrong. Switzerland, Peter Lang. 235 – 260.

[2] For a non-exhaustive account, consider the following works: Temple Cone. (2006). “Knowing the Street Map by Foot: Ciaran Carson’s ‘Belfast Confetti’”. New Hibernia Review 10 (3): 68-86; Eamonn Hughes. (2009). “‘The mouth of the poem’: Carson and Place”. Ciaran Carson: Critical Essays, edited by Elmer Kennedy-Andrews. Dublin: Four Court Press. 86-105; Neal Alexander. (2010). Ciaran Carson: Space, Place, Writing. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press; Andrew A. Kuhn. (2010). “Ciaran Carson’s Books: A Bibliographic Mapping of Belfast”. Éire-Ireland 45 (1): 111-127; Julia C. Obert. (2012). “Sounding the City: Ciaran Carson and the perceptual politics of war”. Textual Practice 26 (6): 1081-1110.

[3] See Ted Cohen. (1978). “Metaphor and the Cultivation of Intimacy”. Critical Inquiry 5 (1): 3-12.

[4]  For a non-exhaustive account on this subject, consider the following works: Emily Cuming. (2006). “The Order of Things Past: Ciaran Carson’s Autobiographical Bricolage”. Life Writing 3 (1): 17-39; Danielle Barrios. (2011). “Ciaran Carson’s Belfast: Redrafting the Destroyed Native Space”. Nordic Irish Studies 10: 15-33; Elisabeth Delattre. (2013). “Correspondence(s) in The Pen Friend by Ciaran Carson”. Irish Studies Review 21 (4): 470-480.

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| Received: 28-10-2022 | Last Version: 09-01-2023 | Articles, Issue 18