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Jagged Lines and Smooth Numbers

Harry Clifton

New Selected Poems, by Derek Mahon, Gallery Press, ISBN 978-1-85235-665-1

Some time in the early 1980s, while working in refugee camps in the Far East, I received from Peter Fallon of Gallery Press a copy of Derek Mahon’s Courtyards in Delft (“the best thing we have ever published”) and fell in love with the large, contemplative stanzas, something I had once studied carefully in American poets like Robert Lowell or closer to home in Yeats, but was grateful to be reminded of in the wide world-historical context of the Thai-Cambodian border, where quatrains and sonnets, not to mention free verse, got lost in the heat and the military uproar.

My perspective, therefore, was a little unusual in that I had missed out on the Dublin Mahon of Trinity in the sixties, the London Mahon of the seventies, not to mention the complexities of the Belfast Mahon, with or without the Troubles. That still left a lot though – America for instance, or France or Greece – and the rest could be ingathered retrospectively. If I mention all this it is simply to indicate that Derek Mahon, when we strayed into each others’ ken, as we did from time to time in the eighties, was at the end of a brilliant early phase and not yet ripe for the self-remakings of the nineties. His dilemma, which in a sense continues to this day, was to have a later self compared, not always favourably, to an earlier – an imbalance this present selection partly, if not completely, redresses.

Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man
Who has tamed the terrier, trimmed the hedge
And grasped the principle of the watering can.

as it says in “Glengormley”, the opening poem here. There is no danger of this going away, or others like it such as the well-known elegy for Louis MacNeice, with their Marvellian wit, between the everyday and the vatic. But neither, in this book, are they allowed to overshadow what comes after. A more jagged, perhaps wilder, at times lighter and more humorous Mahon is bypassed to an extent, in the anxiety to get past the beginning and into the middle. I don’t only mean short pieces like “Inis Oirr” or “A Dying Art” but the sequence “Light Music”, where the levity, in among so many well-wrought urns, might have stated, in the way of his friend Samuel Menashe, a grave truth humorously.

I built my house
In a forest far
From the venal roar.

Somebody please
Beat a path
To my door.

Mahon is on record as “hating post-modernism”. Not many would disagree, if anyone knew what it meant in the first place. At a guess, I would call it the imaginative assimilation not just of nature but of culture, the secondhand as well as the firsthand, into the making of poems. On this basis we can say that poems like “Lives” and “The Banished Gods”, included here, or “The Mute Phenomena”

Already in a lost hubcap is conceived
The ideal society which will replace our own

were “post-modern” long before the term itself became current. What is hated, I suspect, is the word itself, not the imaginative process, which, like the belly of the great white shark, is forever having its digestive powers tested and enlarged by an intake of modern and historical detritus, not to mention organic matter. An obvious example of the “post-modern” is Mahon’s perhaps best-known poem, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford”, where Peruvian liftshafts, mycologists, light meters, mushrooms that lean the wrong way, Treblinka and Pompeii conflate in the spellbound simultaneity of a single experience – with a nod, in the last line, to the visionary poet David Gascoyne’s “Ecce Homo”.

Let the god not abandon us
Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.
We too had our lives to live.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naive labours have been in vain!’

Words like post-modern are irrelevant here, but something else comes into play that should be mentioned. Robert Lowell once said that all problems in art are ultimately technical problems, and it is the irregularity of line, the jaggedness of “A Disused Shed”, that sets it apart, perhaps gets it to a different level from the “smooth numbers” of many another in the Mahon oeuvre. Understandably then, we find him in the early nineties decrying “the straitjacket of stanzaic form” in a Sunday Times interview, and engaging with a new life in Manhattan through the medium of couplets as rough-hewn and irregular as lines in the aforementioned “Shed”. The result was “The Hudson Letter” (here retitled “New York Time”), at once the self-confrontation of a man with his back to the wall and a series of meditations, à la Mac Neice’s “Autumn Journal”, on secular society and the poet’s place in it as a “resident alien”. The effect is as if an exquisite acoustic player had gone electric – a louder, dirtier sound, not universally welcomed, but necessary at the time as a working through of angers and despairs, a digesting and regurgitating of the too-muchness of post-modernity.

Oh show me how to recover my lost nerve!
The radiators knock, whistle and sing.
I toss and turn and listen, when I wake,
To the first bird and the first garbage truck,
Seeing the “lordly” Hudson “hardly” flow
To New York Harbour and the sea below.

If, as is claimed on the back of this Selected, there is an early, middle and late Mahon, then the late begins here with “Ghosts”. We are back in the Old World, the past blows in the window, but less terribly. Elegy and retrospect, self-acceptance are in the air. Kinsale, with its harbour lights, is home, but so too are the reinstated stanzaic forms. “Can we relax now and get on with life?” asks the fine concluding meditation, It might have been nice around here to have had the lightening effect of Samuel Menashe, and a few more local pieces like “Ursula’s Place”. Big, complex stanzas, whatever their subject, can feel like an attempt to solve the riddle of the universe, and “Calypso”, an erotic retrospective, gets caught up, a bit too self-consciously, in its parallelisms. Less intellectualised and more moving are “Monochrome”, a beautiful tribute to his late wife, and “The Widow of Kinsale”. The myth-kitty, as Philip Larkin calls it, has been heavily ransacked (too heavily in my view) by the Mahon, Longley, Heaney generation, though it is fair to say that Derek Mahon has classicised his experience a good deal less than his contemporaries.

The shaping spirit that has led to masterpieces early and late, many in this Selected, has also led to a kind of self-sculpting that can cut both ways where perceptions are concerned, one being the tone of breathless adoration (“finest poet of a generation”) that says nothing, the other a dismissive familiarity (“Does he want us to beg him to come back?”), the opposite side of the same coin. Yeats, about whose remoteness he made interesting comments, is not a million miles away from all this. Whether or which, he is neither an outcast from Plato’s republic nor a Tennysonian pillar of poetic society. After such Sturm und Drang, there is a tidiness to the lifework, as if the spirit of Micawber had strolled out at the end, a living vindication of his own lines.

I lie here in a riot of sunlight
Watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

The salty dogs and shipyard elders of his early Belfast work, irascible at “the poetry nonsense”, might at the end of the day have quite approved of young Mahon, and what became of him.

1/5/2016

Harry Clifton’s Ireland and its Elsewheres is new from UCD Press. Portobello Sonnets is due from Wake Forest and Bloodaxe Books.

 

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