Washing Up, by Derek Mahon, The Gallery Press, 93 pp, €12.50 paperback, €18.50 hardback, ISBN: 978-1911337904
It is a great gift to have one last volume from this extraordinary poet. Although it is illusory, the sense that he is still among us, observing the same chaotic world we live in, is a welcome comfort. Mahon has always been a poet of his times. Like Yeats, he makes much of feeling at odds with his times, yet Mahon is secure in his identity as a relic of a lost age. The virtual world is not for him; neither is the “mean machine” of contemporary systems. The rebellious poem “Sand” calls for us to clog up the gears of the great machine and then relish its shuddering stop. What next? Peace that is all the sweeter for being hard-won, in which “we hear silence sing / clearer than anything.” That is Mahon’s gift. He is the poet who makes us hear this silence, insisting in plain language that it is not charged or complicit. In previous poems such as “The Snow Party” or “A Garage in Co. Cork”, this silence has blossomed out of tumult and ruins. The same theme continues in Washing Up, though here it is more often and more calmly achieved ‑ the poet has found his place in Kinsale, where the gears relentlessly turning the world sometimes seem to stop. This sense of stoppage is also one curious effect of the Covid 19 lockdowns imposed throughout the world: “there reigns a shocked euphoria during this / short respite, this enforced parenthesis.” “Shocked euphoria” is a brilliant phrase to capture a moment of “enforced” silence and stillness that is darkened by the suffering that necessitated it. Should we even enjoy such a silence?
And should we call Mahon a utopian? This is a question for all of his readers. Etymologically, perhaps ‑ he has always celebrated non-places, where civilisation crumbles back into nature and enchantment is once again possible. He has long been an acidic critic of social utopias. “Atlantis” mocks the neocolonial drive toward an “ideal society” of artificial intelligence and “post-human” perfectionism, in which “dubious sentiments” will be silenced and “the last savages”, clinging to a past-tense existence in a future-tense world, will have been banished. Poems like this participate directly in our current culture in a way that invites continuing dialogue. They are neither simple prescriptions nor denunciations, but show the poet thinking his way through the conditions of our brave new millennium without feeling any compulsion to furnish all the answers.
This is one of the qualities I will miss most. Mahon could easily be a hortatory poet but is not, choosing to parse the details of the situations he presents rather than to sweep them together into rhetorical generalisations. He submits his own emotions to scrutiny and sometimes mockery: “Alone in the Dark” is a meditative triptych that begins, unexpectedly, with the male speaker’s resentment at a “girls’ night out” attended by his partner. It is hilarious. He calms himself by acknowledging that she is more likely to discuss “funds for the arts, and topics of that kind” than to indulge in uproarious fun with dangerously “seditious” merrymakers. That worry taken care of, he can turn to his old dislikes and old desires, imagining himself into sympathy with the wine-drinking women, imagining the potentially miraculous power of the imagination to set reality to rights. And then, as the poem reaches a high rhetorical pitch, announcing the salvational power of poetry, a key turns, the woman comes back, and the poem is over. Does it finally deflate its grand thoughts? Does its dramatic situation force a sceptical reading, as we watch the speaker grudgingly come to terms with his exclusion from the fun, and then exaggerate that excluded position into a messianic one (“help me broadcast the poetic word”)? Two readings are equally true: Mahon is very aware of his comical position here, aware that he has produced decades of work that yearns for an ideal, and aware that the real world all around him has not listened to his admonishments and exhortations. Yet the shining vistas that he conjures from nothing ‑ really, from nothing, lying alone in the dark ‑ are allowed to possess a grace that perpetually works against the gravity of the world. There is a time for laughter and a time for seriousness, but sometimes these times come very close together. One of the most touching aspects of Mahon’s late-life work is its autobiographical vignettes and self-portraits. His voice is not disembodied, even if it aspires to be.
Nor is the poetry. Discussions of Mahon’s themes and situations can be engrossing enough for one to move too far from the verbal material of the poetry, which is, after all, what we first notice upon the page. His stanza shapes have become famous in themselves: the ebbing and flowing tercets, the “big” eight-line stanzas that allow for so much variation in rhyme scheme and contemplative detail, and many in between. Mahon is infinitely flexible in his rhymes and rhythms. One of his great accomplishments must be his ability to establish a form and then stretch it, avoiding metronymic meter and chains of perfect rhymes except in carefully chosen moments, perhaps indeed “to mock our easy common sense / and shock our breezy confidence.”
Although slant rhyme seems to come as easily to Mahon as the leaves to a tree, one cannot call him breezy. He is a poet who believes deeply in the power of art and the danger of creating a world whose values will end up diminishing the possibility of it. This is his central theme. Poem after poem circles around it. Despite the volume’s punning title, the poet here is certainly not washed up professionally, but more invested than ever in his poetic work. Or should we see him as washed up from a different age onto the shores of modernity, “a relic of pre-digital times, / fond of anachronistic rhymes”? And yet, readers of modern poetry will counter, there is nothing more modern than the sense of being out of step.
It is fitting that Yeats comes up so often in these poems, even in contexts not at all Yeatsian. He is in many ways Mahon’s forefather, even as Mahon distances himself from the world of telegrams and anger far more than Yeats does. Their belief in the absolute power of art, in its need to gesture toward a world that is purer and cleaner than the one we inhabit, is central to their achievement. Both may have felt themselves born out of phase, but would we wish it otherwise? Mahon is attuned to our riotous contemporary world and his laments, mockeries, and celebrations of it all rest upon this attunement‑ which is different from love or approval. He lives in our world, and one of the pleasures of reading Mahon is hearing what he makes of it.
His late style is marked by an extraordinary richness: each poem contains so much internal variation, so many different kinds of words (erudite, casual, plain) and different tones (thoughtful, lyrical, funny, disaffected, premonitory), that it is hard to encapsulate any one. Not that good poems lend themselves to nutshell summaries, nor should they. Washing Up makes us read carefully, forcing us to slow down and savour these acts of thinking and feeling. If they often endeavour to show us gleams of light within the darkness and confusion that surrounds the speaker and us (since we, the audience, are always tacitly present in these self-aware poems), they refuse to banish the darkness altogether. It is up to us to interpret the poet’s place “at peace here in a world ill-at-ease”. If Mahon’s rhymes are consistently ill-at-ease, they still suggest harmonies that can be achieved. He is not a poet to calm and ease the mind. He keeps us alert, thinking, in flux. It is hard to accept that Washing Up will be his last word. It certainly does not read like a valediction. Perhaps this is the greatest gift of all: that this posthumous volume shows a talent so utterly undiminished, so equal to the challenge of contemporary life.
Magdalena Kay teaches British and Irish literature at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, where she is an associate professor of English.