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Derek Mahon: 1941-2020

Patricia Craig writes: October, it seems, not April, is the cruellest month. A year after Ciaran Carson’s death on October 6th comes that of Derek Mahon: two resonant voices silenced, two vital presences vanished from the earth. Both Belfastmen, though one stayed and the other got away as quickly as he could. “Mahon was too fastidious for Belfast,” James Simmons observed, not altogether accurately, in his jokey enumeration of his poet-contemporaries, “Flight of the Earls now Leaving”. “Fastidious” makes Mahon sound a bit of a sensitive plant, which he was not. He was simply ill-adapted to the cultural climate of Northern Ireland before it underwent a sea change. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that a literary efflorescence got under way in the North, and – although he was part of it – Mahon by then had ceased to inhabit the deplorable city of his birth and upbringing. A scholarship to Trinity College got him out of Belfast, whose defects, perhaps, were magnified in his mind by comparison with the glamour, urbanity and architectural grandeur of Dublin.

The poetry began early, with school magazines and the like, and continued at Trinity, where a poetic coterie was soon established. The famous first encounter between Mahon and fellow ex-Instonian Michael Longley marked a key moment in literary history and is often repeated. “Are you Longley? Can I borrow your typewriter?”: these are the words of the unabashed newcomer, delivered without preamble. It’s the start of a lifelong friendship, and also the start of a fellowship in poetry which crystallised into a Northern triumvirate once Seamus Heaney had entered the picture. The Heaney-Longley-Mahon trio (in alphabetical order), like the “Macspaunday” (MacNeice, Spender, Auden, Day Lewis) quartet of an earlier time, was not without its rivalries and complications, along with essential and enduring affinities. All three poets exhibited an astonishing virtuosity and artistic integrity from the word go.

So much for “the poetry nonsense”, as Derek Mahon’s father had it: “When are you going to give up the poetry nonsense?” he kept asking, in exasperated parent mode. Derek later took Mahon senior’s disparaging phrase as the title of a short film made in 2009 about his life and work. Part of “The Poetry Nonsense” was shot in North Antrim, and I went with poet and film crew to Portrush, where we duly gazed at Craigvara House overlooking the sea, and thought about a bad episode in Derek’s life. Here, he had rented rooms during his stint as Writer-in-Residence at Coleraine University and suffered a kind of breakdown fuelled by alcohol (“That was the year / of the black nights …”). A more upbeat site of past shenanigans is the old Arcadia Ballroom, still perched on its rock with wild Atlantic waves crashing round it, but a lot more dilapidated than it was in the days when the teenage Mahon used to cycle all the way from Belfast to Portrush, looking for “innocent young romance” (and finding it). A howling gale is blowing the hats off our heads (it’s November) and making our eyes water – “I shall never forget the wind / on that benighted coast …” – so we don’t linger too long revisiting Derek’s dancehall days in the 1950s, but turn our steps towards an out-of-season seaside café and makeshift lunch.

For all his repudiation of the North in general and Belfast in particular, with its narrowness of outlook and sectarian intransigence, Mahon never lost his attachment to the Antrim coast. This, with all its associations, recurs over and over in his poetry. The coast, and the seaside towns. “The narrow road bridge up at Cushendun”; “The lough as far as Whitehead and the sea.” “A True Note”, his beautiful elegy for Ciaran Carson in the final Mahon collection, playfully titled “Washing Up”, alludes to Portstewart in its opening line. “Portrush, Portstewart, Portballintrae”, he wrote elsewhere, appropriating an old French saying about Germany to complete the couplet: “Un beau pays mal occupé.” And, putting his finger as ever on the strange atmosphere resulting from the surge of modernity which hit the area in the late 1960s, only to come up against ecclesiastical rearguard action, he spoke sardonically of a peculiar local blend of “derivative hedonism and Sabbatarian grimness”.

I first met Derek Mahon, by arrangement, in 1978 or ‘79, in a pub in Strangford called the Cuan Bar. He’d been driven down from Belfast by Michael Longley, with whom he was staying at the time. When I arrived at the pub I found Derek stretched full-length on a bench outside, enjoying the late evening sunshine. He soon got up and proceeded to put on a firework display of wit, ingenuity and higher gossip which held me spellbound (and helpless with laughter). He was in the middle part of a life characterised by a certain turbulence, dedication to his craft, a disputatious impulse and an inner reserve sometimes bordering on stand-offishness. But when the mood took him he was uproarious company. He had just separated from his wife and children (they were subsequently reunited but later parted once and for all). He turned down proffered honours (an OBE, the Queen’s Medal for Poetry), and indeed had a reputation for going his own, headstrong, way – a way that took him to Paris, London, New York, an attic flat in Fitzwilliam Square in Dublin, and finally to Kinsale in Co Cork, where his last, contented and amazingly productive years were spent. Here he wrote the wonderful, luminous collections including Harbour Lights, An Autumn Wind and Against the Clock, with its rueful acknowledgement of time passing and echo of MacNeice. He stopped drinking (with the odd lapse). When he was appointed poetry editor at the New Statesman in the 1980s, he and I would meet for lunch near the paper’s Clerkenwell office, when he would give me books to review and stick strictly to water, while I had a glass of wine. The New Statesman appointment didn’t last, any more than the earlier, even more incongruous one at Vogue had done. Derek did not like to be tied down.

Soon he was off to Dublin to be a Writer Fellow at Trinity College; various university posts in the United States were to follow. Through all the changes of locale and personal circumstances, Mahon’s exhilarating, absorbing and dazzling poetry collections continued to appear: The Hunt by Night, Antarctica, The Yaddo Letter (addressed to his children Rory and Katie), The Hudson Letter, The Yellow Book, among others. Though certain poems have been singled out for especial assent – “Carrowdore”, “The Last of the Fire Kings”, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford” (of course), “Courtyards in Delft” and so on – you could say that Mahon never wrote a line that doesn’t scintillate with a wayward brilliance – and this is true of his prose as well as his poetry. I’m thinking, for example, of the extraordinary essay called “Huts and Sheds”: a product of Mahon’s awesome erudition and concomitant lightness of touch, and written as an oblique tribute to the yen for solitude. Or the autobiographical pieces in the late collection Red Sails, which came into being partly as a riposte to Stephen Ennis’s life of Derek Mahon, After the Titanic (2014) – some parts of which drove the subject of the book to tear his hair. Well, as he put it in “Art and Reality”, his affectionate, ironical elegy for James Simmons: “We flinch, of course, when someone writes / our story by his different lights.”

There were other elegies over the years, for “Eugene Lambe in Heaven”, for his father-in-law, for JG Farrell, most poignantly for his estranged wife, Doreen Douglas, who died in 2010. Mahon’s poetry encompasses every mode and variety of expression, from conversational to metaphysical, lyrical to spirited, evocative to reflective. It is always inspired, always humane. It’s abundant in indigenous ironies, indeed – “A mode attributed to the liberal Ulster Protestant”, he noted ironically, half including himself under the designation and half not. He’s a master of astringent nostalgia (“How can we not love the first life we knew?”), and alert to every nuance of the contemporary world. His articulations of despair and disbelief are energetically framed to cut out gloom.

In his relations with others Derek Mahon could be thrawn, touchy, out of sorts; there were times when he needed to be left alone. He was also benign, generous, outgoing (when he wasn’t being introverted), funny, stimulating and entertaining. For someone whose poems are replete with images and artefacts (“Things [that] reclaim their vibrant lives”) Mahon was unusually averse to acquisition. His living quarters tended to contain only the minimum requirements (but everything had to be arranged just so) – and even books that came into his hands flew out of them again, as presents to friends or to local booksellers, once their purpose was fulfilled. (The few he kept included Louis MacNeice’s The Strings are False and a Collected Yeats.) A complex personality, then, whose prodigious talent has left the field of literature immeasurably enriched, and whose strong impact on the lives of his friends and admirers alike is a testimony to his uniqueness. We will mourn the “high-spirited independent stance” he attributed to Michael D. Higgins in the last poem in his last book, addressed to the President of Ireland but also applicable to himself. Here’s another couple of lines from the Simmons elegy to round things off: “ ‘Love what you can, die game,’ you said -- / and so you did, and so you did.”

10/10/2020