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A Fierce Eye

Gerald Dawe

Red Sails: Prose, by Derek Mahon, The Gallery Press, 104 pp, €11.95, ISBN 978-1852356149

Looking at the sheer volume of WB Yeats’s Collected Works other than his magisterial The Poems is a bit of an eye-opener – the prose is simply massive ‑ autobiographies, essays, prefaces and introductions, letters, articles and reviews.

He certainly set the bar very high indeed. The same goes for Eliot, Auden, William Carlos Williams … These boys weren’t afraid to write. And even in someone long associated with the minimalist word such as Beckett, the bulky series of Letters set alongside his numerous works of prose fiction are weighty.

Derek Mahon treads a somewhat more refined gauge since Journalism: Selected Prose 1970-1995 was published in 1996 with his Selected Prose volume appearing in 2012. No surprise then that Red Sails, Mahon’s most recent gathering of prose musings, is full of parenthetical voices; “voices off”, as it were, having the best of both worlds, here and now; there and then.

Red Sails is a lithe and alert and, at times, sanguine book, celebrating what the poet sees as valuable and worthwhile, though splenetic and damning on the fashionable trends of valueless marketing mantras which he sees around many a corner. This is fiery stuff at times. But there is also a more poignant if ironic tone at play, especially when Mahon’s thoughts on his artistic life pass the viewfinder. For instance, in his (essential) reading on booze, he charts the effects of heaving drinking on various literary souls including himself:

I continued to drink in London during my journalistic years, the pint of bitter at first. But drinking draught means sitting in a pub, and I had work to do, so it was hard stuff – Grant’s, Gordon’s ‑ on the desk at home by the typewriter. This lasted several years but it had to stop. Insomniac, disoriented and paranoid, I made the acquaintance of a series of detox-and-rehab establishments.

And the “cause” of all this, what Mahon was “‘running away from’” was “Belfast, the provincial self”. So it is reasonable to see the effects of what he calls his “crazy drinking in those days” as part and parcel of a lifestyle that inspired and afflicted a generation of war babies coming to terms with the big bad wonderful world outside their parents’ front door. It led to “the usual awful things”:

… grandiosity, squalor, hysteria and financial chaos, not to speak of inanity, skin problems, bungled sex and sometimes, breezy impulse theft (books, cash): the shame, the shame.

To which Mahon’s retrospective voice wisely retorts:

Every luminous moment, every out-of-the-body experience, every work trance, every flight of the “egotistical sublime” had its sleazy counterpart, its mad scrape, its showy demonstration, often mythologised. (Jump in a river for fun and someone will say you tried to commit suicide.)

So at the heart of Red Sails there is a lot of truth-telling going on about the artist’s life (or lives). A far cry it is too from the showy, silly lifestyle version we are offered daily from media-hungry “celebs” of one kind or another, asking the reader to feel their pain and oversharing what passes for real understanding. On which related matter Mahon speaks with a countercultural authority befitting his adversity:

Now, in the “liberal” West and farther afield, the decent ideals ‑ egalitarianism, feminism and so on ‑ have been adapted to marketing purposes and, thanks to advertising, the naive anti-elitist crowd place themselves at the disposal of ferocious elites like the manipulators of the popular music racket, the fashion business, the motor car business and much besides. We have a travesty of liberalism, a vast charade advertised as an open society where really we do what we’re told.

Amen, brother. But in case this “rant”, Mahon’s default mode, sounds like Uncle Frank on a bad day, there is philosophical steel to match the ire:

Specious images are among the realities with which we live, and are often taken for the real; there’s no escape, even by seaplane. But this too is an illusion. We’re not prisoners but visitors in our time. We can live, disgracefully, in “the past” if we wish, or in an imagined future; we can study the actual shells. Reality withdraws from technology but is there still ‑ a genius loci, a face in the stone, impatiently awaiting its rediscovery.

Much of Red Sails is about forms of rediscovery: the balletic sea plane, the pots and pans of William Scott, out of the way places – Mahon’s epigraphic plea “Can we not just sit in silence and contemplate?” sounds like the opening of a poem; prep for his own translations and theatre writing, views on sympathetic figures from Montaigne and PJ Kavanagh to his poet-publisher, Peter Fallon, and lasting praise for his east and west Cork hinterlands before we are back in the Mahon pad, shuffling through the CD list:

With one or two exceptions ‑ Joni Mitchell, the always inventive Björk ‑ the whole “music” industry and its yellow submarines can slide into the sea for all I care. But Jimmy Kennedy, now, that was a different thing. (Bear with me.)

And of course we do ‑ for there is the deft tone and humour that punctures the bloated self-importance of much that goes by the name of art on our world. While Mahon’s fierce eye on the fake, fatuous and grammatically lax or lazy is, well, legendary:

Now rock stars, making out to be on the dangerous edge, are right in there with the powers that be, patronising criminal heads of state and delivering the youth vote to the status quo. I hoist my red sails in the sunset of production to proclaim that there are other ways of doing it.

But just in case that was going to be it the parenthetical voice kicks in and we are in Mahon territory again with the precision and the need to get what “it” is, right:

(The red sails are really white, but the weather situation, the atmospherics, make them red; the radical urge, the blazing crimson, springs from prevailing conditions.)

This is a great little book that “springs from prevailing conditions”: Mahon in top form.


Gerald Dawe’s poetry collection Mickey Finn’s Air was recently published by The Gallery Press. He teaches at Trinity College Dublin.



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