DECEMBER 5, 2020
— “Girls on the Bridge”
DEREK MAHON WAS an unsettled, ambiguous poet in an age that asked for certainty, tub-thumping, and compliance. The word “contumacy” announces itself from his poems several times, at least from the versions I hold dearest — the 1990s Penguin Selected. Like Auden, Mahon was a reviser, meddler, at times despoiler of some of his earlier work: replaying and noncompliant. For him, as for Robert Lowell — another great poetic architect who loosened up over time — the printed edition was only ever another draft with which to tinker. Displaying empathy for the great streak of literary Irish exiles, his head in the yellow books and smoke of the Decadents, Mahon’s great critical accompanist Hugh Haughton picked out in the exemplary The Poetry of Derek Mahon a line from Des Esseintes, which could have been written with Mahon’s obituaries in mind: “The fact is that when the period in which a man of talent is condemned to live is dull and stupid, the artist is haunted, perhaps unknown to himself, by a nostalgic yearning for another age.”
Mahon was haunted, certainly, but not only with a nostalgic yearning for a specific, romantic age. He was possessed by something more elemental: a ghostly, almost shamanic intuition that what was repressed in modernity would inevitably return to disrupt the apparent niceties of bourgeois life: “What middle-class [insert swearword of decreasing strength here] we are.” This intuition was not uncommon within the tribal intensities and violence of his native Belfast, against which he voted with his feet yet to which he found himself inextricably tethered. “In Carrowdore Churchyard,” Mahon’s elegy for Louis MacNeice, opens his Selected and locates him in a Protestant Irish, cosmopolitan genealogy. Mahon learned plenty from MacNeice’s sense of rectitude, his desire — at times paralyzing in a climate of allegiances and passionate feeling — to avoid the easy answer. He also adopted something of his sophisticated remove, his long view and classical manners. Mahon’s early poems operate chiefly through images and things — he is exceptional at stage-setting, at the choosing of objects — but they do so with an enormous, subtly implied wingspan of time.
A poem such as “An Image from Beckett” makes merry with tenses: “They will have buried / My great-grandchildren, and theirs / Beside me now” — as jarring a stanza as one might wish to find in a poem to this point seemingly momentary and panoramic. The speaker later says,
It was good while it lasted,
And if it only lasted
The Biblical span
Required to drop six feet
Through a glitter of wintry light,
There is No-One to blame
at once commenting on his own situation and, one feels, on that of the species itself. Here we have an intimation of the doomed Earth shucking off its ruinous inhabitants; there is, even in Mahon’s earliest work, an ecopoetic concern avant la lettre.
The lack of histrionics is typical, too. The view of humanity as aberration or encumbrance informs some of his other, odder poems, enlightened hymns to detritus and clutter, such as “The Mute Phenomena” (after Nerval) — “Already in a lost hub-cap is conceived / The ideal society which will replace our own” — or “Squince”:
And the village is of clear-cut
A pink-washed grocery shop,
A yellow teléfon box
We live now in a future
Prehistory, the ancient
Mystery surviving in
The power to enchant
This sense of a “future prehistory” is not nihilism, but rather a grounded, focusing awareness of the fleeting nature of a human life on the evolutionary scale. This all comes together in his greatest achievement, the agreed-upon masterpiece which risks occluding his many other exceptional poems, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford.” Its talk of “a foetor / Of vegetable sweat since civil-war days” conjures Ireland and Europe and the 20th century in the microcosmic plight of mushrooms, their “gravity and good faith,” their desperate need to be delivered or, failing that, at least borne witness to.
Mahon had a permanent sympathy for the figures, in literature, in life, who, with gravity and good faith, took a step back to see the wider picture. He was temperamentally uncomfortable — almost psychically inured against — putting on the sort of airs it would have required for him to become a spokesman for anything aside from well-made art, just as he was of settling (at least until much later) on a definition of, let alone a location for, home. There is in his work the enduring dream of escape, not only from Troubled Belfast, but also from the modern sensibility, the disposable, commercial bombardment of the senses, the lowering march of prize and publicity culture in literature. One sees in the early poems a disdain, not pointed or standoffish, but inborn and to do with ensuring that the work, rather than his reputation or citizenship, is immunized against the worst of the sectarian bloodshed. “Afterlives” is as close to explicit as he comes. He is clearly, sighingly aware of the accusations ready to be levelled, but equally aware of his own capacity to endure and make it out with his faculties intact:
But the hills are still the same
Grey-blue above Belfast.
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.
A later, more tender look at home comes in “Courtyards in Delft,” a neutralized view made possible through an intermediary painting, the spick-and-span order rendered atemporally, and thus made a possible place to dwell in. Even in this reverie he is “[a] strange child with a taste for verse / While my hard-nosed companions dream of fire,” but this feels less feyness or snobbery than another expression of a restlessly pliable state of mind: his nose, like his attitude, fluid, even provisional.
Mahon’s fellow-feeling, if not always for his contemporaries, is most thoroughly evoked by the out-of-the-way, the quiet or withdrawn. Witness poems such as “A Refusal to Mourn,” in which “if a shirt-hanger / Knocked in an open wardrobe / That was a strange event / To be pondered on for hours,” or “An Old Lady,” whose subject is “[a] tentatively romantic / Figure once, she became / Merely an old lady like / Many another.” It’s there also in poems about other artists, Knut Hamsun, the later heavily revised Camus elegy “Death and the Sun,” and “Ovid in Tomis”: “I know the simple life / Would be right for me / If I were a simple man.”
He was knowing about all his knowing, too, always double-edged, mocking or at least brushing up against the Irish trope of the great escape to the Gaeltacht. The Synge-inspired rustic West was, in the end, just another temporary bolthole, like London, Paris, New York. A poem such as “Rathlin,” while not matching his best for pitch or force, touches on so many of Mahon’s enduring concerns — the cyclical threat of a dark prehistory, violence in the human subconscious, a dream of evasion hamstrung by technology, it’s all present: “We leave here the infancy of the race, / Unsure among the pitching surfaces / Whether the future lies before us or behind.” Mahon’s work, especially that collected up to the end of Selected Poems, his first protracted period of standing out in Randall Jarrell’s thunderstorms, taps into something that was shared by some of Jarrell’s generation, the exposed, “confessional” poets who immediately preceded him. Theirs was a Cold War–survivalist, post-Freudian vacancy, and their need to fill the hole left behind by the old gods with meaning was exacerbated further for Mahon by the ubiquity and erosions of technology.
This long great stretch of work, up to the early 1990s, saw Mahon, like Lowell, punting his faith in craft, ordering and shaping his poems usually but not always in elegant, orderly stanzas, and drawing on models as diverse as Marvell’s court-pleasing meditations and the verse letters of Byron. As in Lowell, after his Catholicism abated, there is a tussle with perfection, and perfectionism, and attempt to write and right wrongs and damage done. Consider the despairing notes of “Craigvara House”: “I thought, home is where the heart breaks — // the lost domain / of week-ends in the rain, / the Sunday sundae and the sexual pain.”
Other poems, like “The Last of the Fire Kings,” figure the poet as helpless evader of incivility, wishing to be “[t]hrough with history” and trying to end the “barbarous cycle,” but aware all the while of the tacit betrayals that come with whichever position is taken during the crudely divisive Troubles, not least that of the exile:
But the fire-loving
People, rightly perhaps,
Will not countenance this
Demanding that I inhabit
Like them, a world of
And bricked-up windows —
Not to release them
From the ancient curse
But to die their creature and be thankful.
By the end of this period of his writing life — one already punctuated by silences, breakdowns of the organism, all manner of refusals — there are evident signs of burnout, which anticipates and forgives the later diminution of elegance and concentration in the writing.
The later work exhibited a tendency toward the verse letter form — with which Mahon had experimented as far back as “Beyond Howth Head” — but also a move toward the couplet rather than the stanza as the default setting, as well as a baggier, chattier diction. It still rewards rereading, still yields up its not inconsiderable treasures, and is, in its way, miraculous, given the high cost paid for the preceding decades’ worth of focused, at times reluctant, line sculpting. Having prepared for the elegiac mode his whole life, with his focus on repression, his long view, his acute consciousness of fleeting time, he now embraced it wholly. “Monochrome,” for his late ex-wife, and several of the scenes from The Yellow Book, later reworked as “Decadence,” are among dozens of later poems rich in mournful atmospherics and clinching images: “[A] brief exposure, an exceptional act / performed once only in our slower lives / with your blue gaze and your longer hair / now ash for ever in the long sea waves.”
The final book, Washing Up, has been rendered posthumous and, in some ways, feels like a remix of the enduring Mahon themes. A poem such as “Sand,” with its urge to “[s]pend your remaining years / dodging the mean machine,” is one of several raging against “further nonsense from the twittering world,” while his sympathy for, and association with, exiles and peripheral figures also persists: a “local schizo” in “Around the Town” is an auteur with a “particular art.” There are nods toward the inevitable, too — the once “chiliastic prig” seeing his own, rather than an era’s, end in sight, as in the moving, beautifully rendered, defiantly materialist “An Old Theme”:
We shall meet again by the shore at high tide
swimming together noisily for a minute
or know each other in a thick cloud
of dust at a bus stop before dispersing —
flecks and specks of that vast entity
‘the seminal substance of the universe’:
new lives, the range of options infinite.
Mahon’s work, like Auden’s Yeats, may have been partly hurt into being by Ireland, but it grew, like his thinking, in the wider bounds of European and American literature. He took inspiration from anything that resonated with his urbane, high-minded intelligence, building a poetry in full color, littered with the stuff of life, made musical and memorable by the rhythms of translated French and Beckettian black comedy. His vision was anachronistically broad, anchored among junk but attuned to the time-lapse light of the stars. Temperamentally ornery, instinctively marginal — in attitude if not achievement — he chose to be sand, rather than oil, in the wheels, believing that the proper position for an artist was between exile and castigation, waiting for lightning strikes. From that lonely spot came some of the finest poems of the century, rooted but reluctant to linger, implying a whole world through household or wasteground objects, open to the darker side of nature, to the eternal urges lurking behind an ever-more hectoringly philistine public discourse — poems of audible trout and notional midges.