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Not at Rest

Magdalena Kay

Against the Clock, by Derek Mahon, The Gallery Press, 80 pp, €11.95, ISBN: 978-911337423

Derek Mahon’s new volume of poems, Against the Clock, again proves him one of the greatest contemporary masters of poetic form. Preoccupied as he is with his advancing age and the “final deadline” looming in the future, the suppleness and subtleness of his flexible rhythms and rhymes keep the subject from becoming ponderous. Mahon knows all about the dark side of life, but has an extraordinary ability to set his style against it, as it were, so that his formal ingenuity provides a counterweight. It would be false to say that the darkness is vanquished ‑ it is not. A Mahon poem does not engage in illusionary antics or light-headed optimism. It knows the type of world in which it must reside. But its own energy carries it through with panache: “life is short and time, the great reminder, / closes the file of new poems in line / for the printer and binder” ‑ and these lines in parenthesis no less. Rhymes as unusual as “reminder” and “binder” abound in this volume, and display one of Mahon’s greatest talents: his ability to take so-called traditional forms and subject them to change and play. At this point in his career it seems effortless. His play with the units of poetic form is creative to the point of ingenuity ‑ but not quite, since Mahon sets himself against ingenuity for its own sake, or wordplay that is not anchored by deep feeling. And yet “play” is the right word for what this serious poet allows himself to do, and perhaps must do.

Some of the poems here were already published in Rising Late, but this volume has a slightly different focus. A sense of artistic calling permeates Against the Clock. Several poems refer to the poet’s work, and manage to strike a tenuous balance between the prescriptive demands of a typical ars poetica and the tonal variation of a typical Mahon poem. Here again, his rhymes are illustrative: in “Working Conditions”, an “inconstant beat” rhymes with, but warns against, trying to be “too ‘great’”, while the rhyme of “time”, “tedium” and “wisdom” needs little gloss. Writing that proclaims itself as “too ‘great’” and wise can indeed seem tedious. Mahon is never one to hold himself above us, or even above his time and place ‑ he has, in another poem, learned how to rhyme “.com” with “home” in a deftly ironic self-situation.

Mahon’s signature subject in his twenty-first-century poems is the despoliation of the earth, the disappearance of spaces where a thought might grow (to paraphrase his most famous poem), and his identity as an older poet (one hesitates to write “elderly” given the extraordinary energy of his style ‑ his voice would never be called elderly) in a world that so often changes for the worse. Curiously, however, he does not focus his energies on sharp-tongued critique. It is there in phrases and glimpses, or in general atmospheres of discontent and dreams of transformation: in his call for a new “age of revolution”, his dismissal of “brash insensitives” focused on profit-making and his dislike of the corporate world, or in the title “Trump Time”, we glean the particulars of Mahon’s social vision. His accumulative technique might lend itself to tirade, but he refuses to let his grievances take over his verse or to write long, hectoring expositions. Against the Clock thus reveals its signature concern with time and age obliquely as well as overtly: its time is too short to spend on anger, or, God forbid, politics. Mahon is too knowing, however, to wish himself into another age, as he sums up in a nearly perfect couplet: “Would I prefer the old times? Certainly not. / The further back you go the worse they get.”

Rather his dream is one of escapism and transformation, in which abandoned or isolated places nourish an art that has always been tempted by flight from the here and now. Hence the volume prioritises contemplation over action, attunement to the luminous and not-yet-spoiled over lament or invective. The past may be well and gone, but in Mahon’s poems of happy remembrance he proves himself capable of revivifying a particular moment at will, filling it with light and colour, at least for the space of the poem. Does this signal a newfound peace, or at least a compromise with time itself? Mahon would say no: in one poem of nostalgia he writes candidly, “Nothing will ever set my mind at rest, / not even this antique photography / of a lost world.” We cannot argue with such a deeply felt admission. But would we truly wish his mind to be at rest, free of tension and contradiction and impossible desire? Would we wish the elderly Yeats to be placid? Would we wish the young Auden free of guilt and fear? Mahon’s frustration and anger define him as a poet of his times, and they help us readers to delineate the contours of his authorial persona. They are also necessary counterweights for the moments of radiance occasionally on display, for his ingenuity, his humour and his humane wish to be the “servant of a restored reality”. Perhaps the very notion of restoration has something utopian about it. Here, too, Mahon is cognisant of the perils of both nostalgia and blind hope, and this may be the reason why he finally accepts his position in an unrestored here and now.

1/11/2018

Magdalena Kay has written books about Seamus Heaney as well as the relationship between Irish and Polish poetry. She is currently writing a book about Philip Larkin and Charles Tomlinson entitled Poetry Against the World. She teaches British and Irish literature at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, where she is an associate professor of English.

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