New Collected Poems, by Derek Mahon, Gallery Press, 391 pp, €20/€35, ISBN: 978-1852355128
First, the casualties. Leaving aside the many translations present in Collected Poems (1999) and since absorbed into Adaptations (2006), I counted the following victims of Derek Mahon’s revisionism in the dozen years since his last attempt at hammering his oeuvre into unity: “The Forger”, “A Kensington Notebook”, “October in Hyde Park”, “A Dirge” and “Stanzas for Mary Stuart” from Collected Poems, “High Water” from Harbour Lights and the pseudo-translations from “Gopal Singh” in An Autumn Wind. Not too high a body count then, by Mahon’s standards. But this is without wading into the long list of poems sacrificed from Selected Poems, Poems 1962-1978 and the long-ago, out-of-print collections from which his first Collected Poems was pieced together. On top of which, there are the innumerable revisions that any revisiting of his work by Mahon trails in its wake, here as previously: a line or a stanza lopped off here, a poem title altered there. The Hudson Notebook has been renamed New York Time while The Yellow Book is now Decadence, to stick to titles, while the second stanza of “In Carrowdore Churchyard”, which formerly ran
Your ashes will not fly, however the rough winds burst
Through the wild brambles and the reticent trees.
All we may ask of you we have; the rest
Is not for publication, will not be heard.
Maguire, I believe, suggested a blackbird
And over your grave a phrase from Euripides.
– a form it had managed to sustain for more than thirty years, and in which I hazard many people will have committed it to memory, now reads as follows, under the title “Carrowdore”:
Your ashes will not stir, however the winds roar
Through elm and bramble. Soon the biographies
And buried poems will begin to appear,
But we pause here to remember the lost life.
Maguire proposes a blackbird in low relief
Over the grave, and a phrase from Euripides.
“We pause here to remember the lost life”? Surely Mahon has written too many poems on hymn-singing Ulster not to recognise the drone of a god-fearing cliché when he hears one? As revisions go this is hardly up there with Auden changing “We must love one another or die” to “We must love one another and die” in “September 1, 1939” or writing “This is a lie” in the margin of “Spain 1937”. Critics of his revisions, Yeats wrote, needed to grasp “what issue is at stake: / It is myself that I remake”, but self-reinvention is one thing and tinkering for tinkering’s sake another, the low-level molestation of poems to no discernible end or advantage. The guard who awoke to find Bonnard retouching a painting of his on the gallery wall chased the artist out of the building, we might remember. A corollary of this is the question of copyright. Does work missing from New Collected Poems retain any formal existence? Though I count no fewer than forty Mahon volumes on my shelves, even this would-be completist blanches at the prices asked on AbeBooks for early Mahon pamphlets and all the tantalising inédits they contain. What of the anthologist who wished to reproduce these castoffs or the old, not the new, version of “In Carrowdore Churchyard”? The Heraclitean flux of his back catalogue is worthy of a Mahon poem in itself, which in mise-en-abyme fashion the author could then revise out of existence, and whose absence from the Revised New Collected Poems I could lament in turn, and the cycle begin over again.
“I wouldn’t start from here”, runs the familiar joke about the tourist in Ireland who stops a local in search of directions. Here may not be ideal but for better or worse it is where we find ourselves, and despite these grumbles this review is not premised on a lament for Mahon’s past. Something decisive does indeed happen to Mahon in the 1980s, between The Hunt by Night (1982) and Selected Poems (1991), but to reduce this to early Mahon good/ later Mahon bad would be too neat an exercise in partition. Rarely if ever do careers break down, in both senses of that term, so easily. When Larkin demolished Auden in “What’s Become of Wystan?” in 1960, he did much to establish the British/American Auden divide that still holds sway today, while signally failing to explain the many virtues of 40s American Auden before the real rot set in, in the following decade. The deeper reason for his attack, one might suggest, was to help him slough off Auden’s influence and vindicate the very different poetics of The Less Deceived. If our proprietary feelings about the work of the previous generation can distort its reception for readers to come, how much more distorting is it when the writers themselves are doing the revising, as witness the revisionist afterlives of the oeuvres of John Crowe Ransom, Marianne Moore, Auden, Robert Lowell, or Mahon himself? There is rarely a single right answer to the problem of how best to sort out such tangled legacies. A belated scholarly pluralism is probably the most civilised option: Ed Larrissy’s The First Yeats: Poems by W.B. Yeats 1889-1899 does an exemplary job of putting occluded early poems and discarded versions back on the record, but no one is about to argue that it should replace the opening stretches of Collected Poems as they currently stand.
Failing this solution, feelings will tend to run high. But with Mahon feelings run high anyway. Who can forget, more than a dozen years on, Peter McDonald’s paint-stripping response to The Yellow Book in Poetry Ireland Review? Among living Irish poets only Muldoon comes close to Mahon, I would suggest, as a source of anxiety of influence: second-hand Heaney or Longley can be a relatively benign or harmless affair, but anything beyond the bare minimum of second-hand Mahon or Muldoon is positively fatal to a poem. Yet without the requisite dose of Mahon in their bloodstream, where would the work of Sean O’Brien, Harry Clifton, Peter McDonald, Justin Quinn or Conor O’Callaghan be, to go no further? As we know from “An Image from Beckett”, Mahon has thought deeply about inheritance and legacy, and their capacity to become dead ends: the speaker of that poem short-circuits the question by leaving his heirs “This (…) my will” and nothing besides. Even without bringing death into it, and as manifest from the first page of New Collected Poems, the individual in Mahon is often shocked into reconsidering his relations with the larger structures of community and history. “Spring in Belfast” finds the poet “Walking among my own”, before knocking itself out of this comfortable orbit with an awareness of “the things that happen in the kitchen houses / And echoing back streets of this desperate city”, and the more than casual interest and “casual pity” these phenomena should elicit. The next hundred or so pages, or slightly under a third of this book, pursue these noises off in work that remains among Mahon’s best-known and most skilfully wrought and imagined. Here is a daunting parade of lyrics, transforming the stereophonic nightmare of the Troubles (whether expressly referenced or not) into meditations on the twin demands of humane conscience and artistic autonomy: “First Love”, “An Unborn Child”, “Ecclesiastes”, “An Image from Beckett”, “The Snow Party”, “The Mute Phenomena”, “Courtyards in Delft”, “The Mayo Tao”. It is hard to think of another contemporary poet who has produced so crystalline and flawless a run of anthology pieces.
Among those few others that have (one thinks of Geoffrey Hill), it is not unknown to enter a period of allergic counter-reaction. The impulse is entirely understandable: so familiar have Mahon’s early poems become that one might wonder what form a new reading of them could possibly take. Reviewing the 2000 Selected Poems, John Redmond found an answer within the work itself: the distrust of modernity one finds in The Hudson Letter and The Yellow Book (I prefer the old names) suggested that the exotic landscapes and poètes maudits of the early books were heralds not of a strange but necessary modernist dawn, but objects of nostalgia. It has always been among the paradoxes of Mahon’s engagement with modernism that the shock of the new so often finds expression in laments for the grace and beauty of past eras (Make It Old?), not to mention in the careful stanzaic tapestries to which he has remained so loyal down the decades – patterns that have stitched their way through a hundred slim volumes by his epigones in the intervening decades, and become historic objects of homage in their own right (The Hudson Letter and The Yellow Book strike me as technical relaxations rather than genuinely new departures or exceptions to this rule).
A chief exhibit here, or rather not here given its excision from the canon, is “A Kensington Notebook”, centred on the Pound of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, a Pound just modernist enough to put his Georgian forebears to flight but yet to succumb to the unmanageable sprawl of The Cantos. The question of art and politics is, as ever, finely poised. This is the pre-fascist Pound but there remains enough bad behaviour to go round, as in a vignette of Wyndham Lewis placing a revolver on the table at a dinner party (“Anarchy masquerading / As art”, thinks Herbert Asquith, “dangerous both”). Pound was a “War artist” who depicts “The death-throes of an era”, while Orpen “glorifies / Haig, Gough etc.”. Mahon’s fondness for the backward glance, for Pound the elegist of pre-war London, deflects the poem from the consequences of that unhealthy intersection of anarchy and art, but at the risk of encasing him in decadent amber, with all its accompanying pathos. (The word “intersection”, where Irish art and politics are concerned, inevitably raises the spectre of the “unhealthy intersection” of the two Conor Cruise O’Brien diagnosed in WB Yeats, a trope echoed by Edna Longley, who has found in Mahon’s work a paradigm of responsible politics. An entire study of contemporary Irish poetry and politics could be written from these starting points.) Is there a personal subtext here? The temptation to read the pre-war Pound as an analogue, however inexact, for the pre-Troubles Northern Irish poet is strong. Who would not prefer the “death-throes” of Mnemosyne and Eros to the vagitus of the rough beast howling to replace them? And that rough beast slain at last, if slain it is, does one simply return to the innocence of the lyric past? Even to put it like this is to beg all manner of questions about the innocence of lyric form in the face of politics, a presumption Mahon has long since confounded. There are numerous beautiful short lyrics towards the end of New Collected Poems, but there is no going back. We are not innocent now, because we were not innocent then.
There is a strong case for reading Mahon as a decadent poet, but as The Yellow Book shows, something in his intellectual make-up never quite allows him to embrace the label fully. Yet in his in-between state, with the 90s on one hand and The Cantos on the other, perhaps the Mahon of “A Kensington Notebook” was merely honouring the young Pound’s example. It is never really apparent in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley how seriously we should take its speaker’s weakness for Lionel Johnson and his fellow absinthe-quaffing bards, let alone his pretensions to greatness, as served up in the effete “Medallion” on which that sequence expires. Vindicating art in the face of philistinism, Pound’s poem nervously overuses quotation marks (“the ‘age demanded’ chiefly a mould in plaster …”), holding up the clichés of the day in sensitive disgust but somehow abashed by them, fretting guiltily in their shadow. It is no more obvious in Mahon’s poem how successful he believes Pound has been, and whether his war on what “the age demanded” (a phrase Mahon’s poem repeats) has been a dazzling success or a colourful flop. Is Pound tragic? “No,” Mahon protests, but “‘available / Reality’ was increased”, resorting to his own Mauberleysque use of quotation marks, and bracketing off this interlude of foppish aestheticism from the genuine tragedies to come. But what does it mean to place the concept of reality, of all things, inside quotation marks?
If I have dwelt on this rejected poem it is because of Mahon’s tendency to value the artistic pose of being caught in the moment, arraigned by history and unsure how to proceed, over any mere resolution, vividly captured here and never more than in the magical mushrooms of “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford”. One has only to imagine how banal the scene would be if anyone were to answer the mushrooms’ cries for help and liberate them from their prison – a prison whose promise of the hereafter holds all kinds of advantage over the inevitable disappointments of the here and now (“Somewhere in the heaven / Of lost futures”, as Mahon put it in one of his most perfect distillations of this impulse, in “Leaves”, “The lives we might have led / Have found their own fulfilment.”) Celebrated in his villanelle “Antarctica”, Captain Oates stepped out into the cold, whereas Mahon, in “Dejection” (now “Dejection Ode”) notes that he has “twice come in from the cold”.
In Celtic Revivals, Seamus Deane reads Mahon’s work as waiting for an end to the tragedies of Irish history before it can leave its marginal zones behind, but often in more recent work the motivation is more private than that, as Mahon makes concerted efforts to imbue the domestic with the necessary glamour to take over front-of-house responsibilities from his loner artists and renegades. In “Sunday Morning”, from The Hunt by Night (1982), a poem of attempted self-righting in the midst of crisis, Mahon paints “the strife / And strain of the late bourgeois life”, but cannot commit, distracted by an evangelist “Proclaiming that the end is near”. In “The Studio”, Mahon resigns himself to the “occasional cries of despair” (“a function of the furniture”) of an unremarkable interior in which the artist goes about his business, but “Sunday Morning” cannot resist wandering off again to far-off Asian sandstorms – anything to redeem us from “triviality”. If the “locked heart” must be “redeemed by flesh and bone”, there is an anxiety that, poetically speaking at least, the front door key is all too effective at doing the locking. A good barometer of his uncertainty on this score is “Afterlives”, from The Snow Party, whose execration of bourgeois values originally involved hailing its dedicatee, James Simmons, with the words “What middle-class cunts we are / To imagine for one second / That our privileged ideals / Are divine wisdom.”
In the 1991 Selected Poems Mahon softened “cunts” to “twits”, a harmless expletive now upgraded again to “shits”. This uncertainty around domesticity, masculinity and embourgeoisement came at a timely moment for Irish poetry. Mahon’s background, though never mined by him to the same extent that his Northern Irish confrères mined theirs, sounds proletarian enough, if upwardly mobile: “a working-class environment which had risen, as it were, into the lower middle class”, in the poet’s own description. The real change came at Trinity, with the flamboyant literariness that became his signature as early as his Icarus juvenilia (“His literary life is a dream of the literary life,” John Redmond notes); a literariness, one might add, that acquired totemic status in Eavan Boland’s polemics ever after on gender, form and privilege; and from which, particularly where gender and domesticity are concerned, the latter-day Mahon appears to have backed down, almost penitently. Owners of Night-Crossing will know the early poem “First Principles”, whose speaker looks forward to his words reducing women, the “poor bitches”, to crawling for his favours, “croaking please, please”. In a consideration of Mahon and gender in Justin Quinn’s edited essay collection Irish Poetry After Feminism (Colin Smythe, 2008), Fran Brearton assesses this poem as a dramatised crisis of masculinity, noting that “the earnest and unironic mode in which appropriate views on women are stated in his later poems does not make for the best poetry”. Her example is Harbour Lights (2005), in whose “Calypso” one finds Mahon saluting “the redemptive power of women”, while the Sappho of The Hudson Letter may be speaking for her mouthpiece too when she asks “What did I teach but the love of women?”
It is an oddity of literary history that poets prepared to revise great poems out of existence can show unwavering loyalty to work posterity will judge to have been among their weakest. Where Mahon is concerned, the poem meeting that need, and another prime exhibit in the tussle between outsiderdom and domesticity, is undoubtedly “The Yaddo Letter” (now rechristened “Yaddo, or A Month in the Country”), a five-finger exercise from the 90s whose rehearsals of his private sorrows are overearnest and undercooked. This is poor work, but poor in a way that throws into relief the version of himself with which Mahon is currently most at ease. Few poses borrowed from a passing existential outlaw will offer much emotional sustenance in the face of dilemmas like this: “‘One always loses with a desperate throw’: / what I lost was a wife, a life, and you.” The poem could even be read as the hinge in New Collected Poems, a Mahonesque De Profundis in which the shallow masks of literary role play are cast aside for the inarticulate songs of the heart. I don’t believe anything so simple does happen, but what “The Yaddo Letter” does highlight is the extent to which the intertwining of brilliant fakery and vehement sincerity has been a part of Mahon’s armoury from the outset, for all his transformations and shifts of focus down the decades.
One genre particularly good at running Mahon’s more high-flown existentialism to ground has been the verse letter. Yet as his verse letters have shown, the breakthrough to artless or even artful sincerity must coexist with other imperatives. Questions of the individual and the group have a strong bearing on this genre too, as emerges from the discussion of an early Michael Longley verse letter to Mahon (from An Exploded View) in Fran Brearton’s 2006 study Reading Michael Longley. Within any generation of writers, not least one as close as the Belfast poets of the 60s, there will be tensions between group solidarity and self-assertion, and flashes of status anxiety are occasionally visible beneath the bluster and banter on which these early verse letters thrive. As the last of the group of Simmons, Heaney, Mahon and himself to publish his first collection, the young Longley’s investment in their group identity was high, but having published his verse letter to Mahon in the New Statesman on December 3rd, 1971 he suffered the unusual sequel of a letter from Mahon to that journal in the following week dissociating himself from the poem. At issue were two phrases in particular: a reference to the burnt-out houses of “the Catholics we scarcely loved”, and a joint self-description as “two poetic conservatives”. The ensuing correspondence led that first phrase to sprout a pluperfect qualifier (“the Catholics we’d scarcely loved”) and the poets’ friendship survived, though by way of a verdict on shared aesthetic programmes Mahon was also moved to declare that “the only ways are separate ways”. Another member of the group, James Simmons, was the recipient of a Longley verse letter too and had his own problems with group identity in the years that followed as he saw his contemporaries’ reputations outstrip his (for an account of which, cf Heather Clark’s The Ulster Renaissance: Poetry in Belfast 1962-1972, OUP, 2006). If Mahon seemed the happy loner in all this, Simmons’s death in 2001 emboldened him to revisit old ties in “Art and Reality”. The reanimation of auld lang syne is warmly done, but an ever so slightly jarring note remains. Paraphrasing Swift, Mahon ponders the relationship between principled independence and the comforts of reputation:
Had you but spar’d your tongue and pen
you might have rose like other men –
though what’s the point in ‘rising’ when
the kind of work we favoured thrives
in the night silence of the nerves?
There is a long tradition of elegies for those who have died without realising their promise or leaving a monument of enduring intellect (Simmons did not die young, but Mahon’s lukewarm closing line – “I still hum your songs” – more than qualifies him under the second heading). Consider Dryden’s “To the Memory of Mr Oldham”, in which the elegist denies that anything could have made the dead man’s life fuller than it was (“O early ripe! to thy abundant store / What could advancing age have added more?’). Oldham’s reputation has not survived, and was not high at the time either, but Dryden converts the minor poet’s shortcomings to elegiac opportunities:
A noble error, and but seldom made,
When poets are by too much force betrayed.
Thy generous fruits, though gathered ere their prime,
Still showed a quickness; and maturing time
But mellows what we write to the dull sweets of rhyme.
Oldham suffered only from excess of poetic zeal, as understandable as it was “generous”, and those who survive into maturity risk a dullness Oldham has now escaped. All these kindnesses are as ritualised as they are touching, whether sincerely meant or not, but underpinning all is the logic of poetic posterity. The surviving poet celebrates but simultaneously usurps the elegiac object; the dead man’s central merit is to have provided his elegist with such a splendid poetic occasion. Mahon’s poem has a more personal tone than Dryden’s but this rhetorical crux still obtrudes. If there is no point in “rising”, why does Mahon feel obliged to encase the word in quotation marks? Which is it, “rising” or ‘“rising”’? I have written elsewhere on Mahon’s quotation marks and the tension they represent between received opinion and a poetic renovation of the same (“Derek Mahon, ‘The Forger”’, Irish University Review (vol 39 no 2, Autumn/Winter 2009, pp 215-222), but in his recent work the first part of this dyad has effectively routed the second. We inhabit “the ‘knowledge’ age”, a road is dug up for “fibre optics and more ‘information”’, and a speaker prefers to inhabit a “spinning centre” to “an ‘interface’ / or even a ‘cutting edge”’. The difference between irony and sarcasm, Empson suggested, was that there is something worth defending on both sides of an irony. While the examples I have just quoted are straightforward sarcasm, this fails to explain Mahon’s reaching for the same device at moments of drama or genuine crisis, as in “Art and Reality”. As if in response to this uncertainty, to return to that poem, Mahon imagines and overrules the dead man’s objections to Mahon’s summary of his career:
We flinch, of course, when someone writes
our story by his different lights;
yet what I say agrees, I know,
with your self-estimate.
“Of course” has become a frequent filler in Mahon’s poem, and has a coercive as well as a concessive ring to it, if not as coercive as the certainty with which he claims to “know” that the dead man’s self-estimate tallies with his. How different a poem would this be if it acknowledged the very different vantage points from which, in late career, Mahon and Simmons contemplated the vagaries of worldly reputation? Not so long before this elegy for Simmons, Mahon had been apostrophising himself in The Hudson Letter as “I who once had a poem in The New Yorker”. Even in the midst of personal sorrows, there is always at least one eye on literary house-keeping and the vagaries of fame. Anyone can write and discard imperfect poems of youth (Philip Larkin did so with aplomb), but to revisit them as relentlessly as Mahon does bespeaks a very different attitude, a peculiar mix of the aggrandising and the hostile at once. Recent poems will elegiacally ghost precursor work or nudge them into line with their author’s current feelings. Mahon was at it as early as “Heraclitus on Rivers”, contemplating the oblivion that will overtake his “best poem, you know the one I mean”, while the ending of “The Small Rain”, the final poem in The Hudson Letter (“When does the thaw begin? / We have been too long in the cold. – Take us in, take us in!”) reprises the ending of “A Disused Shed”, giving notice of the later Mahon’s preference for warm companionable spaces over the chill of solitude.
I have been a little promiscuous in playing off recent against earlier Mahon, despite my initial disclaimer on that topic. The Hudson Letter and The Yellow Book are over by page 229, leaving a hundred and sixty pages of poems still to come, so perhaps it would be wiser to divide Mahon, like Roman Gaul, into three parts. Those sequences, I note in passing, are considerably altered from their Collected Poems printings, which were in turn substantially different from their original forms. What seemed exercises in unwonted Mahonesque maximalism have relentlessly shrunk in the intervening years. “Would he had blotted a thousand”, was Ben Jonson’s snorting retort to a player who remembered Shakespeare as never having blotted a line, and while these sequences would not be among my favourite Mahon (by a distance), his changes here are wholly for the better I find, the blotter gainfully employed for once. More importantly than a line here or there, however, is the contradiction still lodged at the heart of The Yellow Book. The plain truth is that recent Mahon is so blimpishly anti-modern as to sabotage any decadent ambitions the sequence may harbour, reducing its 90s theme to a kind of window-dressing or prompt for high-class literary chit-chat. The nadir of the sequence, let me suggest, is the couplet “Maybe I’m finally turning into an old fart / but I do prefer the traditional forms of art”. It is hard to imagine what kind of art could be served by this glum abdication from thrill, risk and surprise, whether it be in free verse or a double sestina. This is fogeydom, not tradition.
“Oh, I am all for grimness and horrors of every sort,” Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Robert Lowell of Philip Larkin, “but you can’t have them, either, by shortcuts – by just saying it”, and often in recent poems there is a feeling that consolation and community, worthy and desirable things both, have been willed into place, “by just saying it”, as much as demonstrated or proved. Here again though, there are precedents in the earlier work. I have never much liked “Everything is Going to Be All Right”, with its ivied-over cadences (“How should I not be glad to contemplate …”) and soft-soaping embrace of the reader with a repetition of its title in the last line. Where the Mahon poem typically makes high drama of uncertainty and instability, the corresponding virtues of reassurance, dramatically at least, are easily overrated (for a later example, there is the end of “New Space”, with its full-rhymed overinsistence: “Once again / we look to the still living whole / to heal the heart and cure the soul.”) The same syndrome holds true of Mahon’s eco-poems, of which there are many in Harbour Lights, Life on Earth and An Autumn Wind. Something about Mahon the eco-poet does not quite add up for me. While a comparative reading of Heaney and Longley might want to dwell on the country versus the city boy, the one busy following the halter while the other ticks rarities off in his guidebook, with Mahon it is not the natural world that is at issue so much as the pose of concern the work is concerned to strike on its behalf. In fact, Mahon the eco-poet is responsible for some of the weakest things in New Collected Poems: I find little to distinguish the fogeyish side of The Yellow Book from the sermons in stanzas of “World Trade Talks” (“Next spring, when a new crop begins to grow, / let it not be genetically modified / but such as the ancients sowed / in the old days”). Who are these ancients? The pose of sage is too seductive, too readily taken up. Mahon turns an amused gaze on Kinsale “yoghurt-weaver” hippies in “Homage to Gaia”, but between this, condemnations of overconsumption and a paean to a very agreeable-sounding restaurant, we fall short of the overarching critique that might justify that title, Life on Earth. Many a tree has been felled, after all, to facilitate the ruminations of the eco-poets. I miss the contrarian wit of Christopher Reid’s “Men Against Trees”, and the sangfroid with which it opens (“I note that the deforestation of Brazil / is going ahead at a cracking pace”), before saluting the work of a chainsaw-wielding council worker (“You had to admire the insouciant slob!”).
In many of the recent Mahon poems I like less, I sense a strong convergence of the theme of consolation with the renewed Irishness that has entered his work, especially since his relocation to Kinsale. This has resulted in versions from the Irish and an investment in a certain bardic self-image, with a few incidental pot-shots across the border too (it was a blurb reference to his “native” Northern Ireland that particularly irked Peter McDonald, if I remember rightly). When Mahon ends his elegy for his mother with an inversion of an old Unionist slogan (invoking “the blue skies of the Republic”) one can appreciate his keenness to settle a score with the province of his birth, but the poetic point being made is less clear. Remarks are not literature, said Gertrude Stein, but happily for us there remains much in Mahon that is pass-remarkable. The later Mahon poems that communicate a true electric charge to me are those, whatever their setting, that keep faith with all the old quarrels of roots and attachments but go beyond gesture and opinionation into drama and metamorphosis. “A Swim in Co. Wicklow” is a beautiful and protean poem, melting irresistibly before our eyes into the flux of pure being:
Among pebbles a white conch
worn by the suck and crunch,
a sandy skull as old
as the centuries, in cold
and solitude reclines
where the moon-magnet shines;
but today you swirl and spin
in sea water as if,
creatures of salt and slime
and naked under the sun,
life were a waking dream
and this the only life.
Similar moments of lift-off and transformation occur in “New Wave”, “Circe and Sirens”, “Calypso”, “Ithaca”, “Autumn Skies”, with its irresistible couplet “If a thing happens once / it happens once forever”), “Monochrome”, an elegy for the poet’s wife, and then the unexpected gift of “Shandon Bridge”, a poem described as a “rap”, and all the more tantalising for striking out in its punky way just as New Collected Poems comes to a halt. Its young woman:
won’t be going back home to Prague.
she won’t be going back home to Kiev.
No, she’s going to sit out here
in the rain till she can find the nerve
to look at the future long and clear
in the bright prism of a water drop.
The only direction left is up.
With New Collected Poems Mahon has succeeded in relocating the centre of gravity of his oeuvre somewhere in that problematic decade for him, the 1980s, with the work on either side of it now given equal weighting. With time on its side, the argument between the two panels of this diptych is one the later work will probably end up winning, by force of accumulation alone, rather than on outright poetic merit. Those who regret this outcome can still read Mahon in his 1991 Selected Poems. But this way lies loss and impoverishment too, in the fetishised “lost futures” in which our favourite poets have chosen not to live. It is not a healthy place, in the long term, for readers to live either. Few poets as far on in their careers as Mahon remain capable of poems as strange, compelling and lovely as “Shandon Bridge”. Derek Mahon is one of those poets, and is one of the sovereign imaginations of our time. Up and down though it is, like a mountain range, New Collected Poems still harbours a glorious and inexhaustible body of work.
David Wheatley is a poet and critic. His most recent book is “A Nest on the Waves” (Gallery Press).