Rising Late, by Derek Mahon (paintings and drawings by Donald Teskey), Gallery Press, 48 pp , €100, ISBN: 978-1911337201
Olympia and the Internet, by Derek Mahon, Gallery Press, 86 pp, €11.95, ISBN: 978-1911337102
In Rising Late, Derek Mahon’s signature formalism is on full display. And it is a delight. The poet himself seems to take pleasure from his verse forms, which rearrange the structural units of English poetry into combinations new enough to surprise the reader and recognisable enough that their dialogue with tradition is clear. Indeed “tradition” is too stodgy, too compromised a word to really serve us any longer in the twenty-first century, when our traditions of innovation and avant-gardism are so numerous. Tradition is nothing if not malleable, and Mahon’s tradition is a site of play. As he writes in “Horizons”, the first poem of the volume, “Nobody clears the same horizon twice,” but each one exposes a fresh vista. Just so, each of Mahon’s rhymes offers a different variation of the technique’s possibilities, from the most epigrammatic perfect rhyme to the most amusingly far-fetched slant one, with as much or as little irony as we care to read into it.
“I think I go / with the theory that a knowing cogito, / some spirit, spoke the word / and retired,” concludes the deft poem “At the Strand Café”, which takes on the topic of creation and evolution in five ebbing-and-flowing stanzas. They contain both the vague immensity of “infinite dark” and the precision of “smartphone”, placing themselves in the twenty-first century with unpretentious ease. Mahon has always been acutely conscious of his times, yet here he is capable of bringing our temporal coordinates into and out of focus, as his tone and theme demand. If we “go” with the theory that our chaotic contemporary world is proof enough of a deus absconditus, then Mahon must be credited for not making the point with moralistic vehemence. The issue is taken up by different poems in different ways, leaving us with a “rich confusion” of meditations rather than a singular certainty.
Mahon first captured the literary world’s attention in his twenties; fifty years later, he still writes with the verve and humour and tongue-in-cheek allusiveness that make his work so enjoyable. Yet the atmosphere and pace of these poems is calmer, less angry, less cynical than that of his early work. This volume shows Mahon newly attuned to the bright and almost miraculous: “sun on a hundred windows” makes magical “the brief / pedestrianism of the quotidian life”, just as his seemingly effortless wordplay, internal rhymes, and aural echoes make the memories and evocations of his poems far more than mere “old dust and fluff”. Even “Mythistorema”, a new sequel to his most famous poem, “A Disused Shed in County Wexford”, avoids ponderousness. Orpheus and Eurydice are woven into a story of a disused mine – yet the poet insists, with only a modicum of irony, that their ending is “a happy outcome really”, concluding with whispers “in the dim fields below”. Olympia and the Internet defends Mahon’s choice to revise his poems, but this goes beyond revision, and even beyond the ecological laments he began to craft in the new century, to consider how we might remythologise our contemporary history.
This is a poet at the top of his game. There is a sense of joy in the poetic art here that a detail-minded reader may locate in the poems’ intricate plays with language and form but which ultimately cannot be – and maybe should not be – analysed with academic seriousness. Even the famously serious Yeats was fascinated by an “impulse of delight” he could not name. Long-time readers of Mahon may see this as a hard-won peace with a world, and a life, that has all too often shown its undelightful side. The brightness of these visions has been earned.
Donald Teskey’s paintings work well with the poems. They are landscapes, whereas Mahon’s poems often focus on humans, but there are plenty of poems whose reach is readily extended by the image that accompanies them. Sometimes, it enters into a complex intertextual dialogue: “Bridges”, for example, refers back to Mahon’s “Girls on the Bridge”, a far darker poem that grapples with the unique contours of our “monstrous age”, itself responding to Edvard Munch’s eponymous painting as well as his famous The Scream. These human-centred paintings are different from Teskey’s atmospheric, unpopulated bridge picture, yet its complex play of light (which comes from afar) and dark (which looms up toward us) enters this conversation with its own voice. Meanwhile, Mahon’s poem finally reaches toward Hart Crane’s Brooklyn Bridge in order to extend its conversation across the Atlantic, a deft yet unsurprising move for this well-travelled poet, cosmopolitan in the best sense of the word. Thus one poem and one painting create reverberations between words and images, across decades and between countries.
To enter the pages of Olympia and the Internet is to fall into the delusion of unmediated access to the author. This collection of prose pieces is so personal, so intimate, so filled with emotion, that one feels as if it were, somehow, simultaneously spoken and written. Mahon’s dialogue with the past includes interjections of “No, no no!” as a negative review of a much-enjoyed film is recalled. This is endearing.
Mahon’s poetry is also often deeply personal, but prose is a different medium. We encounter the same allusive intelligence; we hear the same witty and self-deprecating voice. Yet the medium of prose can bear the weight of specific details – names, dates – that could collapse a lyric poem. Thus this volume allows us to situate Mahon, but also to marvel at what he remembers and chooses to present. He makes his cultural emplacement clear, and demystifies some matters that may befuddle his readers. I am thinking here of his tendency to revise his poems long after their original publication. Like Auden’s self-censorship, this practice may confuse casual readers, frustrate scholars whose original responses are rendered anachronistic, and disappoint devoted fans who enjoyed the original poem just the way it was, thank you very much. When a poet writes that “for some of us nothing is ever finished”, we may cry out, but you can just write a different poem! This particular reader loved the “loquacious” and “gabbling” first version of Mahon’s “Lapis Lazuli”. Yet we must concede the pressures that twenty-first-century writers face, as the public gains astonishingly broad access to their drafts, juvenilia, and private correspondence, “for everything ends up in archive libraries, to be scrutinised, and perhaps misinterpreted, by not always friendly eyes”. This results in an urge to “set things right” by the writer. For younger generations, who grew up in the age of email and text messaging, the problem may appear hopeless: there will be compromising information, or at least bad poetry, stored in cyberspace somewhere. Let us remember what happened to Philip Larkin – and he hailed from the pre-Internet age.
Mahon has always been a critic of contemporary culture. The cutting edge of his criticism, though, is offset by the punning humour that he brings into the most serious discussions. The accelerated pace of technological development, financial greed, our pollution of the earth – we may expect a certain perspective upon these topics, yet may be surprised by the humorous, punning tone he takes. Mahon is so far from being a moralist that we may find ourselves smiling at moments when righteous indignation may be called for: in a memorable essay on rubbish, for example, he concludes by deftly referring to the recently fashionable “thing theory”, suggesting that “redemption of the disregarded and marginalised may yet extend to the waste paper and the banana skin”. Mahon is not so much disparaging academic trendiness as he is suggesting a comical way to bring it into “real life”. Thing theorists may disagree. But the rest of us will appreciate the way an essay which could so easily turn into a piece of moralistic hectoring (how many plastics have you discarded today?) ends with both comedy and radiance (refuse can fascinate, can turn brilliant).
These considerations compel me to mention the one drawback of this volume: its lack of composition dates and publication information for these essays. Are they all original? Interested readers might like to know when they were written and if they were published before, especially given their variety. The eponymous essay is a highly personal, associative piece about the poet’s beloved Olympia typewriter; it is illuminating and charming, and I am curious to know if it was written specially for this book. Its closing Stevensian insights on poetry offer a fit conclusion to the volume: poetry thrives in the digital age because it is “a form of resistance, … an insistence on private truth and fantasy”. Mahon’s poems work together with his prose toward this goal, resisting and insisting, but also delighting, in their encounter with the twenty-first century.
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 entitledPoetry 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.