Derek Mahon: A Rage for Order

*****

The following review was written in 2012 on the publication of Derek Mahon’s New Collected Poems. It was originally commissioned by Rory Waterman and published in New Walk Magazine. It is to be hoped that before too long his publisher, the excellent Gallery Press, will bring out an updated volume of all Mahon’s poetry.

*****

Derek Mahon’s New Collected Poems reviewed by David Cooke in 2012

New Collected Poems Derek Mahon. The Gallery Press. 2011. Paperback. 592 pages.
ISBN: 978 1 85235 512 8

Derek Mahon first made his name as a poet in the late 1960s as part of that remarkable efflorescence of poetic activity which coincided with the start of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The media spotlight that was an inevitable part of these tragic circumstances may well have brought the work of Mahon and his contemporaries to a wider audience. However, less welcome was the assumption that their work was somehow a product of these circumstances. Even more frustrating were expectations that the poets should be self consciously ‘responding’ to a political situation. Seamus Heaney famously entitled a poem ‘Whatever You Say Say Nothing’ in response to ‘an English journalist in search of ‘views / on the Irish thing.’’ Mahon, also, in his poem ‘The Last of the Fire Kings’ states bluntly: ‘I am / Through with history – / Who lives by the sword // Dies by the sword’. Nonetheless, however much his poem’s protagonist might wish to pursue his vision of ‘Perfecting my cold dream / Of a place out of time, / A palace of porcelain’, there is a hint also that such aestheticism is a form of evasion:

But the fire-loving
People, rightly perhaps,
Will not countenance this,

Demanding that I inhabit,
Like them, a world of
Sirens, bin-lids
And bricked-up windows –

In ‘Afterlives’, another poem from the 70s, Mahon describes his feelings on returning to Belfast after several years working in London. Evoking a world where ‘the orators yap, and the guns / Go off in a back street;’ he expresses his pious hope

That in our time these things
Will amaze the literate children
In their non-sectarian schools
And the dark places be
Ablaze with love and poetry
When the power of good prevails.

Again, however, the poem’s concluding lines suggest that turning one’s back on history is not as easy as it might seem: ‘Perhaps if I’d stayed behind / And lived it bomb by bomb / I might have grown up at last / And learnt what is meant by home.’

Mahon’s New Collected Poems, published a few months before his seventieth birthday, replaces his earlier Collected Poems published over a decade ago, adding to it most of the work from his recent volumes, Harbour Lights, Life on Earth, and Autumn Wind, alongside a small number of uncollected pieces, including ‘Monochrome’ a deeply affecting elegy for his wife, Doreen. As with all previous recensions of Mahon’s work The New Collected Poems is not merely a volume by volume assemblage of what has gone before. Looking back over Mahon’s work one senses that he does not view individual collections as definitive statements. They are seen rather as stages on a journey towards the creation of a single entity that might adequately encapsulate his vision. Yeats exhorted poets to ‘hammer’ their ‘thoughts into unity’. For Mahon any such unity is always provisional and involves him in a constant process of tinkering. In this regard he is like the hermit poet of ‘The Mayo Tao’: ‘I have been working for years / on a four-line poem / about the life of a leaf; / I think it might come out right this year’. Moreover, ‘The Mayo Tao’ itself is a piece which first appeared in Mahon’s 1975 collection The Snow Party as a prose poem. It was later redrafted for Poems 1962-1978 as a loose sequence of Black Mountainish stanzas. In Collected Poems it was reshaped again as three free verse paragraphs, the form it still retains.

Mahon’s determination to be true to himself may of course be admirable, but such fastidiousness can be disconcerting for those who follow his work. Single lines, stanzas, and whole poems are constantly rewritten. Titles are changed and poems that one has admired for years are unceremoniously dumped. In his latest volume he has dropped ‘The Apotheosis of Tins’, ‘October in Hyde Park’ and, inexplicably, ‘The Forger’, a fine poem which has been part of the canon since its first appearance in Night Crossing in 1968.

Although Mahon is a poet who has single-mindedly pursued his vocation, he has also sometimes questioned the validity of ‘this lyric lunacy’. The artist as an outsider has always been an important figure for Mahon: De Quincey, Van Gogh, Jean Rhys, along with his late lamented ‘Forger’: ‘And I too have suffered / Obscurity and derision, / And sheltered in my heart of hearts / A light to transform the world’. In ‘I Am Raftery’ he elaborates upon ‘Mise Raifteirí’, a brief lyric in which the blind Gaelic poet laments his poverty. By way of contrast, Mahon’s reincarnation has got himself a creative writing gig in New England where he has ‘traded’ his “simplistic maunderings” / for a slick imagery and a wry dissimulation’.
For all Mahon’s hesitations and self-doubt as to whether the poet can or should make something happen, Night Crossing, his 1968 debut collection was a precocious and well received volume. In ‘Spring in Belfast’ he examines his relationship with his middle class Protestant background:

Walking among my own this windy morning
In a tide of sunlight between shower and shower,
I resume my old conspiracy with the wet
Stone and the unwieldy images of the squinting heart.
Once more, as before, I remember not to forget.

In marked contrast to Heaney, whose work frequently celebrates its rootedness in family and community, Mahon’s sense of identity is more ambivalent:

The things that happen in the kitchen houses
And echoing back streets of this desperate city
Should engage more than my casual interest,
Exact more interest than my casual pity.

In ‘Carrowdore’, his elegy for Louis MacNeice, written in a spirit of rivalry with Heaney and Longley, his mastery was acknowledged by his two friends who abandoned their own projected poems: ‘You lie / Past tension now, and spring is coming round / Igniting flowers on the peninsula.’ In some of these early poems Mahon is also adept in his use of dramatic monologue, as in his portrayal of Bruce Ismay in ‘After the Titanic’: ‘Now I hide / In a lonely house behind the sea / Where the tide leaves broken toys and hatboxes / Silently at my door.’ Equally impressive is his understated depiction of a political prisoner in ‘Jail Journal’:

For several days I have been under
House arrest. My table has become
A sundial to its empty bottle.
With wise abandon
Lover and friend have gone

The 1970s were to prove a difficult time for Mahon in his personal life and increasingly his poetic output was affected. Reviewing Poems 1962-1978 in the The Honest Ulsterman, Tom Paulin took Mahon to task for ‘whining without distinction’ in much of his more recent work. As might be expected, Mahon has long since dropped many of the less successful pieces. However, even in work that has been retained and is still widely admired there is frequently something forced and unconvincing, particularly in those poems such as ‘The Studio’ where Mahon is obsessed with the idea that inanimate objects are conscious or ‘Lives’ where he plays around with notions of transformation and the transmigration of souls. What, in the end, are we to make of a disembodied consciousness that becomes in turn a gold torc, a lump of clay, a stone or an anthropologist? Even ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’, often considered to be the poet’s masterpiece, is not immune from this factitiousness. Interestingly, Mahon himself in a recent interview with the Guardian acknowledged that he thinks of this poem now as ‘a rather manufactured piece of work’. For all its grandiloquence, its attempt to make some funghi in a cellar representative of the ‘lost people of Treblinki and Pompeii’ remains unconvincing.

Nevertheless there are also many successes. In ‘Ecclesiastes’ he excoriates the puritanical zeal of northern Presbyterianism: ‘God, you could do it, God / help you, stand on a corner stiff / with rhetoric, promising nothing under the sun.’ In ‘Aran’ he evokes the island’s bleak landscape and expresses admiration for a sean nós singer ‘singing the darkness into the light.’ Developing an image from Beckett, ‘Leaves’ is one of Mahon’s most ravishingly beautiful lyrics and one in which he adumbrates the themes of consumerism and environmental damage that have become ever more central to his work: ‘The prisoners of infinite choice / Have built their house / In a field below the wood / And are at peace’. ‘The Snow Party’ is also a beautifully cadenced lyric in which the poet takes another look at aestheticism in the face of violence:

Elsewhere they are burning
Witches and heretics
In the boiling squares,

Thousands have died since dawn
In the service
Of barbarous kings.

By the middle of the 1970s it looked as if Mahon had lost his way, but then in 1982 he published The Hunt by Night. Widely viewed as a return to form, Seamus Heaney praised the new work for ‘a copiousness and excitement… found only in work of the highest order.’ Inspired by Pieter de Hooch, ‘Courtyards in Delft’, is a superbly crafted vision of protestant domestic values in which Mahon glances back at his own childhood:

I lived there as a boy and know the coal
Glittering in its shed, late-afternoon
Lambency informing the deal table,
The ceiling cradled in a radiant spoon.
I must be lying low in a room there,
A strange child with a taste for verse,
While my hard-nosed companions dream of war
On parched veldt and fields of rainswept gorse.

Other notable successes are ‘Derry Morning’, ‘Rathlin’, ‘A Garage in Co. Cork’, and ‘Ovid in Tomis’. In the latter Mahon revisits his theme of the poet as outsider. He also indulges his fascination with animism and the transmigration of souls. However, given that the context here is Augustan Rome and the exiled poet of the Metamorphoses, the use of such tropes seems appropriate and convincing. In 1986 Mahon brought out one more collection, the slender but exquisite Antarctica. It would then be nine years before he was to publish another full length collection. When in 1991 Viking published Mahon’s Selected Poems even he felt that perhaps his best work was behind him, describing the book as ‘a handsome enough tombstone, but a tombstone none the less.’

Then in 1995 he published The Hudson Letter which was followed in 1998 by The Yellow Book. Having recovered from alcoholism and the breakdown of his marriage, he seemed to have reinvented himself as a poet, albeit to the dismay of some of his admirers. Gone were the elegant stanzas and the pitch perfect lyrics, to be replaced by lengthy epistles in loosely rhymed iambic couplets. The sequence of eighteen poems originally entitled ‘The Hudson Letter’ but now renamed ‘The New York Times’ was composed over a five year period Mahon spent there in ‘a rented ‘‘studio apartment’’ … / Five blocks from the river’ with ‘time to think and work.’ In ‘St Mark’s Place’ he gives us a quirky portrait of W.H. Auden, ‘slop-slippered bear of St Mark’s Place’, and highlights a parallel between the two middle-aged poets, both in the work they produced across the Atlantic and the mixed reviews it received. Now favouring open-ended structures that were journalistic and ‘baggy’ both poets were able to incorporate almost anything into their verse: the trivial events of day to day existence, ideas, politics, the books they were reading, their grumbles, and all the foibles of human existence. In Mahon’s case, it was as if he had switched his allegiance from Ovid, the poet of transformation, to the Roman satirists Horace and Juvenal. However, looking back nearly two decades later one wonders why some of Mahon’s readership found this work quite such a radical departure, since even in the 1970s he had written ‘Beyond Howth Head’ and ‘The Sea in Winter’ two verse epistles to friends. Moreover, along with the example of Auden in New Year Letter, there was also Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal. In ‘The Yellow Book’ now re-titled as ‘Decadence’ Mahon uses the same form to meditate upon his life and concerns on his return to Ireland. Brilliantly orchestrated and lively, both poems can now be seen as prophetic in the light they shed on our present economic meltdown.

In recent years Mahon has been living in Kinsale, Co. Cork, and far from resting on his laurels, has been more productive than ever. A self-confessed poetic conservative, he has continued to produce chatty epistolary pieces such as ‘Resistance Days’ and ‘Harbour Lights’ but has also, increasingly, been going back to his polished stanzas. Having now seemingly attained ‘the serenity / which for a lifetime has eluded me…’ Mahon has discovered in the figure of the homecoming Odysseus an alter ego:

‘Receive
my prayer, a prayer of gratitude and love.
I will bring gifts again as in the past
if great Athene lets me live to taste
the joys of home, relinquished long ago,
and sit down with my family once more.’ (Ithaca)

In ‘A Quiet Spot’ the parallel between Mahon and his analogue, Odysseus, is made more explicit:

We tire of cities in the end:
the whirr and blur of it, so long your friend,
grow repetitious and you start to choke
on signage, carbon monoxide, the hard look.
You always knew it would come down
to a dozy seaside town –

Mahon’s relaxed, discursive style and his celebration of the joys of domesticity again remind one of the later work of W.H. Auden. However, if at the outset of his career Mahon looked on as the ‘Good Life’ was being destroyed by sectarian bloodshed and bigotry, he now sees it threatened, more than ever, by the insidious forces of consumerism and pollution. Although these are concerns which can be traced a long way back in his work, they seem more recently to have been informed by his reading of Rachel Carson and the ‘The great Naomi Klein’. In ‘Growth’, a poem whose title is doubled-edged and desperately ironic, he evokes the resilience of the natural world which, in spite of all our efforts to destroy it, is still itself trying to ‘fight back’. In ‘New Space’ the notion of sustainability, seen now as a hard-headed, practical necessity, takes on a Yeatsian resonance as Mahon hints at the dreamy utopianism of ‘The Lake Isle of Inisfree’:

Though the sun rises in a blaze
these mornings, breaking up the haze,
I’m less in love with the sublime,
more interested in the neat rows
laid out to raise the beans and peas,
rosemary, parsley, sage and thyme.

Formally satisfying and musical, Derek Mahon’s verse has an intellectual breadth that is rare in contemporary poetry. For five decades he has dedicated himself unflinchingly to his craft and his vision, producing a body of work which even on the threshold of his seventieth year is still evolving.

David Cooke is the editor of The High Window. His most recent collection is Staring at a Hoopoe published by Dempsey and Windle. Details of Slippage, Poems 2013-2018 will be announced shortly.

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2 thoughts on “Derek Mahon: A Rage for Order

    1. I looked on Gallery Books and I think it is out of print, so I presume some dealer on Amazon has hiked up the price of any they are sitting on? I’m sure it will be superseded before too long with an updated one. He’s had at least one collection since then.

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