The Poems 1961-2020, by Derek Mahon, Gallery Press, 536 pp, €22.50, ISBN: 978-1911338048
For some, like Auden on the death of Yeats, the poet becomes his admirers. For others, like Michael Hartnett, the poet is his Collected Poems. Just now, besides the poems collected here, there is a great deal of Derek Mahon that survives, one year after his death, in the minds of his admirers. I would even say the style of the man, between levity and profundity, is instantly recognisable in the lines, and while no more than a casual acquaintance myself, I had plenty of occasion to witness, even be party to, the crossings over of life and art.
Here for instance is a poem called “Jean Rhys at Kettner’s”, not one of his finest but typical of such crossings over. Kettner’s, a well-known watering-hole in London, is where Jean Rhys, the Anglo-Caribbean writer of Wide Sargasso Sea, repaired to in earlier years when scraping a living as a chorus-girl in that city, and drank, invisibly, among the Jazz Age crowd.
I’m crouching here in the corner, a kind of ghost
but safe with my Craven ‘A’ and Gordon’s gin,
wearing a cloche hat and an old fox fur
and skimming Vogue with my distracted air.
Thus begins this retrospective on riotous youth, which ends a couple of sonnets later, in retired old age, up a dreeping lane in the West Country.
Released at last, I lived out my two lives
between the water and the vie en rose:
the bottles ting-a-ling between hedgerows,
a draughty house at the end of a country lane.
This, to anyone who read or knew Mahon, will be familiar territory in a number of ways. First the formality, about which he was unashamedly doctrinaire. Secondly, the way the lives and/or books of others are used to mediate his own experience, in this case retirement to “a quiet spot” as he called it, after the high-risk intensity of metropolitan literary life. As with Ovid in Tomis, so with Coleridge in Highgate, Rhys in the West Country and Mahon in Kinsale. Less noted, however, though familiar to those on hand at the time, were the openness and constancy of the creative process in such an otherwise private man, the duckings into doorways (“you know how it is”) to get lines and phrases down at their moment of inception, the enlisting of whoever was around (myself in the above instance) as accessory to a socially timid man needing to soak up the atmosphere in a flashy establishment like Kettner’s, but hesitant to do so on his own. I was not surprised a while later to read the finished product, and others will have had similar experience of becoming extras in a staged scenario, where art is continuous with life.
By my late twenties, or around 1982, when I first met the poet, I was familiar only with the better-known early poems of this present Collected, like the MacNeice tribute “At Carrowdore churchyard”, the Micawberish “Everything is Going to be alright” and his masterpiece “A Disused Shed in County Wexford”. Northern Irish poetry – this was the time of the Troubles, the early eighties – seemed drawn to deal with its experience through the formal art of Auden and MacNeice, an ironic distancing of emotion, rather than, as in the Republic where I grew up, an immersion in translated European poetry with an eye on contemporary Americans. Besides, I myself in those years was in flight from the sanitised – as I saw it – academic world of poetry, immersing myself in the activism – as it seemed to me then – of refugee camps in Asia and African teacher training colleges. Imagine my surprise on returning from all that, to share a first reading (I had always thought them excruciating, even as a member of the audience) with an acknowledged master who made himself invisible at literary gatherings, read his own poems dryly and self-deprecatingly, and shared, like myself, the same unease not with poetry but with the social environment it was obliged to show itself in. Though of course I had sensed it already in one of those earlier poems, “I am Raftery”, I had already chanced upon.
I am Raftery, hesitant and confused among the
loud-voiced graduate students and inter-
changeable instructors; were it not for the
nice wives who do the talking, I would have
run out of hope some time ago, and of love.
After that, the poems and the man were one. I went back, more systematically, to the earlier work – the big meditative stanzas, the iambic lines with the inspired wobble in the middle, the characteristic Mahon colloquialisms that humanised even the broadest of generalisations; a carpentered world, but rough-planed, splintered, edgy – breaking off into silence through the difficult years of the eighties, with the small but important exception of “Antarctica”, the title poem of which, a villanelle, embodies, as does the Kettner’s poem already referred to, the tension between solitude and the need for society in so much of his work
‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.
and perhaps best expressed in the earlier “Please” from Light Music, his pamphlet of the seventies:
I built my house
in a forest far
from the venal roar.
beat a path
to my door.
Somewhere around the early nineties – still out of the country myself and living in London – I read an interview in The Sunday Times in which the poet expressed impatience with and a longing to get away from the “straitjacket of strict form” as he expressed it, having displaced himself from Dublin to New York as a “resident alien” and writing now in a new form – roughly rhymed, deriving from French classical couplets, somewhere between pentameter and hexameter and strung into long sectioned sequences, the whole adding up to a long poem, “The Hudson Letter” (here retitled “New York Time”) on Manhattan, akin to Louis MacNeice’s long meditation “Autumn Journal” on London and the self in the years before World War Two. Both texts read like attempts at self-examination in the teeth of personal and social collapse and end with a kind of secular liberal prayer, or wish beyond the facts, for things to resolve themselves, both crowding their final sections with the dreck and/or glory of contemporary life, whether accepted by MacNeice
This is no river of the dead or Lethe,
To-night we sleep
On the banks of Rubicon – the die is cast;
There will be time to audit
The accounts later, there will be sunlight later
And the equation will come out at last.
or hoped for against hope by Mahon
I think of the homeless, no rm. at the inn
far off, the gaseous planets where they spin,
the starlit towers of Nineveh and Babylon,
the secret voice of nightingale and dolphin,
fish crowding the Verrazano bridge; and see
even in the icy heart of February,
crocus and primrose. When does the thaw begin?
We have been too long in the cold – Take us in; take us in!
It is big-city inclusiveness at the service of a disappointed liberal vision, though not without love of life, high comedy or compassion for the down and out. In its invokings of and references to Hart Crane and Frank O’Hara, it relives the tragedy of the poetic mind as “resident alien” under the skies of high capitalism, but the American experience, about five years in all, never feels definitive, more like a necessary step into an experimental space for as long as the working out of a personal crisis might take. Soon again as the century closes, we are back in Dublin as the locus of meditation – a flat on Fitzwilliam Square, around the corner from the Shelbourne Hotel, with a different set of ghosts to be invoked and exorcised – Elizabeth Bowen at the Shelbourne, Belfast friends like Eugene Lambe, London ghosts of the Nineties, “failed” poets like Kavanagh or Clarke, and family ghosts like the poet’s own mother in Bangor – all steeped in a nouveau fin-de-siècle decadence presided over, a bit too self-consciously perhaps, by the poet Mahon himself as arch-decadent.
I keep alight the cold candle of decadence.
A rueful veteran of the gender wars
in ‘the star-crowned solitude of [mine] oblivious hours’
I remember London twilights blue with gin
sub regno Cynarae, the wine and roses
where ‘She-who-must-be-obeyed’, furs next the skin,
drove us to celibacy or satyriasis.
Not surprisingly, this set of Dublin meditations borrows its original title, “The Yellow Book”, from a hundred years previously. “Decadence”, its new title here, has the effect of foregrounding, at times to the point of obsession, a kind of middle-aged irritability at the way the world is, with its litter, its tourists, its omnipresent rock music, not to mention its crimes against earth and sky, whether in Dublin
Now closing time and the usual commotion,
crowds and cars as to a revolution.
Geared up by Klein and Nike, Banana Republic, Gap,
we are all ‘tourists’ now and there is no escape
or Kinsale, where a last stand, a redemption of sorts, will have to be found:
Elsewhere the cutting edge, the tough cities,
the nuclear wind from Windscale, derelict zones;
here the triumph of carnival, rinds and skins,
mud-wrestling organisms in post-historical phase
and the fuzzy vegetable glow of origins.
Meanwhile my own life had shifted from London, via Germany, to a kind of settled existence over ten years in the Hauts de Seine overlooking Paris. A new pattern established itself, whereby the poet, every Christmas, would check in at the Hotel Louisiane (a large room scattered with draft sheets, a manual typewriter on a window table overlooking a marketplace) on his annual escape from the “run-up” to that season dreaded by all true solitaries, for whom Paris, staying open as it did all day, was the only sanctuary. Tea would be taken in the Deux Magots with Irish Times correspondent Lara Marlowe, American poet CK Williams at the Café de La Mairie, Dostoevsky translator Richard Pevear on the rue des Écoles. Bookshops would be haunted, like Odile Hellier’s The Village Voice, the author, in a testament to his own self-effacement, surreptitiously slipping copies of his work onto the shelves. Meals were eaten at the Select in Montparnasse or the inexpensive Saint Benoit on rue Bonaparte, with passing literati from the TLS, friends like photographer John Minihan or publisher Anthony Farrell, visiting children like his son Rory, and whatever amitie amourouse was currently in favour. Paris, a literary construct like New York and Dublin before it, was a Left Bank prism, romantically rose-coloured as in the pamphlet Resistance Days, through which matters of global significance now could be filtered.
Still sceptical, statistically off-line France
resists the specious arguments most advance,
the digital movies and unnatural nosh,
to stick with real tomatoes, real brioche
and real stars like Adjani and Binoche.
One day, at the start of the new century, the phone in Paris rang – the poet, in a mixture of disbelief, hilarity and apprehension, announcing imminent fatherhood, at the age of sixty. In the months that followed, a flurry of London addresses laid a paper trail of domestic trial and error culminating, at last, in the bachelor solidity and solitariness of rooms in a house overlooking Kinsale harbour in Co Cork. This, as it turned out, was to last for the rest of his life.
A reader, taking the present volume from the beginning, may notice a reversion at this point, to earlier modes – the abandonment after Resistance Days of the loose open-weave meditatings of middle age, and the restoration from Harbour Lights onwards, of the stanzas that characterised his earlier work, with an ever-increasing emphasis on a right relation to the planet. A circle is being drawn, into which the poet withdraws, around sacred areas in a desecrated universe – children for instance (though preferably at a distance), cloud formations, the intimacy of the sexes, and the clean sweep of eternity, unpeopled, oceanic, in his translation (not included in this volume) of Paul Valéry’s “The Seaside Cemetery”, a truer expression of the poet’s agnostic longings than many of his own original poems.
And you, great soul, dare you hypostasize
a world untarnished by the luminous lies
the sun and sea suggest to mortal eyes?
Will you still sing when you’ve become a ghost?
Nonsense, everything flows, ourselves the most;
the hunger for eternity also dies.
Is sixty the beginning of old age? I write this approaching seventy, about a poet more than a decade older than I who managed a final push in his last years. But not before trial and error, the scaling down of Yeatsian ambition, the pruning back of world-historical afflatus in “Lapis Lazuli” first version (“While planes that consume deserts of gasoline / darken the sun in another rapacious war”) and its replacement by the local, the small, in poems like “Ursula’s Place” (“Boats strain at sea, alas / gales rattle the slates / while inside at Ursula’s / we bow to our warm plates”) where habit finds its niche, anxiety a bolthole of safety and perspective.
Probably the jury is still out on the Mahon of the Kinsale years, one party seeing it as a late, great surge, another as a near imperceptible decline, the work of a survivor of earlier intensities. The sea of course is omnipresent and there are many contemplations of the tide, here equated with the life force and usually on the ebb, cluttered with postmodern dreck. Erotic adventures from the past are classicised as in “Circe and Sirens” and the big “Calypso”, not altogether convincingly, as if the myth is being interpreted from too great a distance, over-explained by a kind of stage commentator, lately arrived in Ithaca or Kinsale, unsure if he has made it successfully home or betrayed his true fate.
Bemused with his straw hat and driftwood stick,
unmoved by the new wars and the new ships,
he died there, fame and vigour in eclipse,
listening to voices echo, decks and crates
creak in the harbour like tectonic plates –
It might be asked how Ulysses, safely ashore, put in his later years in Kinsale. He compared himself, with satisfaction, to the Larkin of Hull, away from rail connections that might bring tiresome literary researchers. He travelled quite a lot, on holidays or sponsored literary readings to far-flung places like India or Russia and wrote poems about all of them, in the manner of late MacNeice on his BBC or British Council journeys – which is to say never less than good but without the acute inner urgency of earlier times. When the poems dried up, he wrote occasional prose, or tinkered, to the annoyance of some, with what appeared already perfect. When they came back, there were perhaps too many stanzas in them for a man simply knocking about a harbour town. When the reflex fluency found a new subject however, as in “The Flying Boat” or a deep signal came out of the past, like “Monochrome”, on the death of his estranged wife, technique and particularity alchemised, and the magic was there.
But don’t mind me, for the important fact
is this, that you were once uniquely here,
a brief exposure, an exceptional act
performed once only in our slower lives
with your blue gaze and your longer hair
now ash forever in the long sea waves.
One way or another, the work went on, whether in first or second gear. Anyone anywhere, as the “Kettner’s” episode indicates, could be an accessory. The man one drove – slowly, windows open, he was a nervous passenger – around Kinsale to old reference points like Hedli MacNeice’s restaurant or Desmond O’Grady’s overgrown cottage on a hill, or sat with in an empty coffeeshop as he asked, anxiously, for the music to be turned off – was also the wise old gatherer of leeches in Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence”, comforting his younger self with the knowledge that “despondency and madness” nothwithstanding, there are still leeches, healing entities, poems, to be gathered “Against the Clock” to the very end.
You thought you’d done, the uneven output
finished at last, but that wasn’t the end
was it, since we’re obliged to stick it out
until the pen drops from the trembling hand;
so just get on with it.
Our connection, though intermittent, shared among other things an awareness of the American poet Hart Crane, famously, even symbolically, lost at sea off Havana, after a riotous life lasting thirty-two years, a body of ecstatic poems, sensual abandon and eventual burn-out, and the remark “let my vices be my ruin, as all else is lies”. A life, and perhaps a death that might have been Mahon’s – but survived, though always with a guilty eye to its possible authenticity as fate, alter ego, existential choice. I last saw Derek Mahon, walking-stick in hand, waving goodbye as I dropped him off at the gravelled forecourt of his house on Compass Hill, overlooking Kinsale harbour. Not so much Crane as late Coleridge in Highgate – the sea in sight, but safely at a distance.