Derek Mahon, Ovidian, Whitmanesque, a spiritual materialist, a novelist in lyric, Northern Irish, rooted in transit and travel, poet of arrivals and departures, encounters and immediacy, movement and flux, is one of the acknowledged major poets of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
In the beautiful epistolary “Yaddo Letter,” he writes to his children: “That life consists in the receipt of life | Its fun and games, its boredom and its grief.” “Receipt” is a fine and characteristic touch from the Belfast-born poet who, among contemporaries and predecessors, has maintained and developed the plain or familiar style of verse. “Receipt” because these feelings, our responses to life, are the proof, like a receipt from a purchase, that we have invested and paid for the experiences themselves; they are not what we pay for, they are not the payment; they are the small crumpled wad we are likely to dispense with, or leave in a pocket or car seat. The word carries, naturally, that contemporary resonance of a life of pointless papers. But against that, “receipt” has other significance: that these affects and responses are the acknowledgement that life has been received, that they are in themselves the reception of life. Life, on such a reading, is not what is naturally ours; we are open to it, but it happens to us, is granted or given to us.
The senses do not coincide, but they are both valid, and they both speak also to Mahon’s poetry, which is distinguished (in all senses) for living by both views of how life stands in relation to a person.
The poems are the small slivers of paper on which is recorded the evidence of payment received; a receipt of experiences that tallies up to “fun and games” in so far as poetry is serious play, and “joy and grief,” in so far as a poem brings into existence a new experience of feeling; but the receipts that are Mahon’s poetry are also like receipts in measuring out and recording, not the feelings only, but the particular exchanges, investments, purchases, and allotments that the world has made. They are, in other words, rich with the particulars of distinct and particular experiences, content as few poetry is content, to tally those particulars without urging significance; they are content that the particulars are, like numbers on a receipt, adequate, if rightly recorded, counters of the world’s value.
Then, at the same time, the poems are themselves, one feels, Mahon’s act of reception; they are receipts in this other sense in so far as, reading Mahon’s poetry, one often feels that he is actively receiving the world around him through the act of composition and completion; as if the finished poem were the completed apprehension of a place, experience, time, and exchange.
These possibilities reside within, and look outwards from, that familiar word, a mere ripple of metaphor on the surface of the lines. (And this is not to mention its connotation in the letter to children from whom he is confessedly distant: that he wonders and worries how they will receive the letter.)
What is misleading in what I’ve written is the suggestion that “receipt” for Mahon is passive; receipt in his poems coincides with, and seems to be conditioned upon, purposive movement and action (not just activity) not only of the poet’s surroundings, but of the poet himself. For all of Mahon’s keenness as an observer of life, the speakers of the poems, are dependent on his itinerant force, his capacity to travel, journey, arrive, and depart. So with all poets, one might think; but not so, in that there are not many poets whose most observant works of stasis, confinement, and passive endurance are circumscribed and occasioned by the act of arrival and departure that is available to the poet, but not the subject; there are few poets whose poems tend towards, whether included in the poem or not, the impulse or compulsion or freedom to move.
An example will help–and to lead with a strong one:
Even now there are places where a thought might grow –
Peruvian mines, worked out and abandoned
To a slow clock of condensation,
An echo trapped for ever, and a flutter
Of wildflowers in the lift-shaft,
Indian compounds where the wind dances
And a door bangs with diminished confidence,
Lime crevices behind rippling rainbarrels,
Dog corners for bone burials;
And in a disused shed in Co. Wexford,
Deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel,
Among the bathtubs and the washbasins
A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.
This is the one star in their firmament
Or frames a star within a star.
What should they do there but desire?
So many days beyond the rhododendrons
With the world waltzing in its bowl of cloud,
They have learnt patience and silence
Listening to the rooks querulous in the high wood.
They have been waiting for us in a foetor
Of vegetable sweat since civil war days,
Since the gravel-crunching, interminable departure
Of the expropriated mycologist.
He never came back, and light since then
Is a keyhole rusting gently after rain.
Spiders have spun, flies dusted to mildew
And once a day, perhaps, they have heard something –
A trickle of masonry, a shout from the blue
Or a lorry changing gear at the end of the lane.
There have been deaths, the pale flesh flaking
Into the earth that nourished it;
And nightmares, born of these and the grim
Dominion of stale air and rank moisture.
Those nearest the door grow strong –
“Elbow room! Elbow room!”
The rest, dim in a twilight of crumbling
Utensils and broken flower-pots, groaning
For their deliverance, have been so long
Expectant that there is left only the posture.
A half century, without visitors, in the dark –
Poor preparation for the cracking lock
And creak of hinges. Magi, moonmen,
Powdery prisoners of the old regime,
Web-throated, stalked like triffids, racked by drought
And insomnia, only the ghost of a scream
At the flash-bulb firing squad we wake them with
Shows there is life yet in their feverish forms.
Grown beyond nature now, soft food for worms,
They lift frail heads in gravity and good faith.
They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!
“Save us, save us”, they seem to say,
“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!”
The extraordinary poem represents also as much a departure from the familiar style as can be found anywhere in Mahon’s work; there is so much that could be said about it. I will only say that the pressure of the poem is that of arrival; of the poet’s capacity to arrive and to do something, and also, tragically, to depart. “You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary” gives us the poet as traveller and the traveller as poet: light meter is the form of the verse as well as the scientist’s instrument for reading light, and the two are in some way coincident, so that the poet arrives and receives the light, and records it (receipt again), but only because of his having been able to come and go; and the relaxed itinerary is the luxury, the liberal privilege (more on privilege below), which the poems reminds, entails duties for discoverers and wanderers in all guises (poets, scientists, amateurs, historians). This is a poem about the reception and recovery of life, by those who have the power to reach life in the first place.
In Mahon’s poems in general, the world is to be moved through, moved upon, moved within; the poet is receptive to all of the world’s diversity and life because he can travel. He is to be opposed to so many of the greatest poets: Baudelaire, with his skepticism towards mindless motion in “Le Voyage”; Samuel Johnson in his imitation, “The Vanity of Human Wishes”; Larkin; even late Byron, the incessant wanderer, makes movement the stuff of comedy for the reason that it is, for him, at bottom an empty and wearing action that is comic by virtue of its being something we cannot learn to stop and so must learn to laugh at.Unlike Johnson or Baudelaire or Larkin or late Byron, his experience of life is hearty, healthy, desirous; he does not write from boredom or melancholy or despair, though his writing might move him through those states.
A Belfast-born poet, Mahon writes of his region, but never with a taste of regionalism that one finds in Seamus Heaney, and this in part because the region is always a stop along the way. In a more critical vein, a naive reader might remark that Derek Mahon is the poet of the privilege and possibility of the white western male in an age of an American imperium that includes Europe’s nations as among its strongest sources of strength. And the charge is accurate; the naivety in making it lies only in one’s not having recognized that Mahon has made it before us.
His poem bristles with unease and fear and recognition of the cost that he and others are exacting on the world, in the suffering of populations, and in the destruction to the planet itself. The “receipt” of life is not only the feeling of joy and grief in the poets own life, but the cost exacted on others. And yet nowhere does Mahon suggest that the only response to power is renunciation; it is instead, he reminds us, responsibility; and the poems might be read as his exemplars of what it is to go forth into the world, to receive it and observe it and participate in it, with power.
The description on one of his latest volumes 2008’s Life on Earth speaks of “the eco-poetry of the ‘Homage to Gaia’ sequence on environmental themes,” which might make many readers wince in dread, but which is a wonderful series of poems. That Mahon may not have objected to that sentence (if he had any say in the matter) seems an extension of his willingness to speak in terms that are forthright, even if inaccurate or insufficient. His ease with familiar words and turns of phrases is, since he is a very good poet, at one with a desire to redeem them; but he does not reel away from their sullied presences, or expend worry and self-reproaches for the inevitable failures to redeem them more than he can; the poetry does not writhe at inadequacies of language.
That sequence is marvelous, as is the rest of the collection. The experience of reading through it is similar to that of reading through a great nineteenth-century novel, encountering such scenery and density of habitation; there is no high culture or low culture; everything is admitted, on the same shelf, in conversation (c.f. “Ode to Bjork“); it may be that in this, Mahon is close to Whitman, but Whitman’s poems, though they absorb and unite so many people and objects, do not have the principle of plot: action and movement. Whitman, even in “The Sleepers,” does not really bind himself to his own physical location in a room, in place, where he might stop or start, leave or stay, explore or shut-out; he instead transcends body, explores by vision. Mahon is always in transit, or consciously awaiting or avoiding or declining transit, and that principle of individual movement deferred or embraced, allows him to populate his poems with reminders of other places he has been, with other places he could go, with places that other people are going. Similar, also, to Marianne Moore, except that her adventures and explorations seem to take place through the printed word and printed image; the horizon and expanse of her work are set by reading. When Mahon remembers or anticipates another place, it is one where touch, savor, smell, and hearing will engage with the environment.
But Mahon’s are not travel poems, even when he travels. They are like nineteenth-century novels rather than nineteenth-century travelogues in so far as what they encounter is not asked to do the work of the foreign, not called into service to define a home culture or another place. Persistent through the poetry is the experience of encountering what is other, the yearning for human contact, the celebration at achieving it, and the yearning to come into contact also with the things, nature, machinery and sensory fumes of a particular place; but whether the settings and destinations are Irish or Indian, all is both alien and within reach. That experience of encounter with things and people, with arriving at a place that is always changing, in generation and destruction, or dwelling and accruing memories in a place that might be abandoned and forgotten: the experiences and feelings of coming into contact, remaining in contact, and abandoning contact give the human side to Mahon’s incessant contemplation of movement (even when he is still); he is a part of the flux of the world.
From “Heraclitus on Rivers,” which belongs to an earlier collection than Life on Earth:
Nobody steps into the same river twice.
The same river is never the same
Because that is the nature of water.
Similarly your changing metabolism
Means that you are no longer you.
The cells die, and the precise
Configuration of the heavenly bodies
When she told you she loved you
Will not come again in this lifetime.
The last two stanzas from the final poem in Life on Earth, “Homage to Goa”:
“The streaming meteor, is it dead or alive,
a deliberate thing or merely gas and stone?
Some believe in a life after this one
while others say we’re only nut and leaf.
An ageing man repents his wicked ways:
we began so innocently, and may again”
– Abu al-Ma’ari, tenth century, Syrian.
Given a choice between paradise and this life
I’d choose this life with its calamities,
the shining sari, the collapsing wave,
the jeep asleep beneath the coconut trees;
skyflower, flame-of-the-forest among the palms,
ripe mangoes dropping from the many limbs,
the radio twang of a high-pitched sitar,
“Kareena Kapoor in Hot New Avatar”!
A gecko snaps a spider from a window.
Given a choice of worlds, here or beyond,
I’d pick this one not once but many times
whether as a mozzie, monkey or pure mind.
The road to enlightenment runs past the house
with its auto-rickshaws and its dreamy cows
but the fans, like the galaxies, go round and round.
And he like the fans, goes round and round. Whitman, again, comes to mind, except that Mahon has none of that exuberance which elevates Whitman’s vantage to the visionary; and whereas Mahon goes, making the rounds, place to place, person to person, Whitman himself spins, absorbing the world into the vortex he makes.
Mahon does not absorb; he encounters, and the movement he knows to be essential to encounter. The terror for Mahon is strandedness, and though there are times, he recognizes, when he, like anyone, must feel stranded, cut off not just from others, but from the prospect of joining or finding others, he also imagines, in some of his finest poems, the experience at an extreme. One such poem would be the post-apocalyptic landscape of “Tithonus.”
Another, though not so successful as “Tithonus,” which represents a peak in Mahon’s body of work, would be the opening poem of Life on Earth. In it, Mahon adds to his considerable work in translation, translations being themselves a form of encounter. The translation is placed at the start of the collection to contrast with that final poem, “Homage to Goa”: it is a rendering of Ovid’s “Heroides X”, titled “Ariadne on Naxos”—the heroine stranded from her lover:
There’s no one here, no one to help me leave
this barren place, and even if there were
where would I go? I can’t go home alive
I who betrayed Crete to the foreigner.
Without my guidance and the spool of thread
I gave you in the maze, you would be dead.
‘As long as we both live’ was what you said.
We’re both alive, I think, but not together
and now I know what the abandoned suffer.
It is a moment of human solitude and resentment, its last words “on this bare rock,” from which the rest of the collection departs; it is also a recognition in a collection that celebrates connection, transit, commerce, of isolation, abandonment, exclusion. “The bare rock” also a glance at the fundamental geology of the planet, over which earth has grown to life, fostering, in turn, the world we know: “We babble about the world | while you sustain the earth” (“Homage to Gaia”).
Anticipation and exhilaration of departure, arrival, and discovery do not cloy Mahan’s poetry, or make the poetry cloying, because, without his looking on them as hollow distractions and vanities, he persistently, if obliquely, registers what coincides with them. Among the most moving poems in the collection, Life on Earth is Mahon’s re-imagining of the last act of Chekhov’s The Seagull, “Trigorin”:
The towns where the train pauses manufacture
chimneys and fences, boredom, mud and birches.
A cool breeze flaps decrepit architecture
and blows a white blaze on the country roads,
vegetable gardens, grimy local churches.
Folk-tale heroines nap in the autumn woods;
at Tver’, only a hundred versts from Moscow,
a wandering gull foreshadows the first snow.
The clouds are grand pianos; he makes a note.
Gogolian porters blink in smoky shadows,
a scent of heliotrope and a buzz of flies.
Girl in a blouse, man in a linen suit;
the wind goes running in remembered meadows
under the vast light of these northern skies:
‘Out here I feel a quickening of the senses
far from reviewers and hostile audiences.’
Nina, he’s come this time for a last look
at the great forest and your native lake,
the clear freshwater ripples you deserted
to join the theatre for his sake and yours.
He let you down of course, and himself too:
his work fell off when he lost sight of you.
Your soul migrated from his icy art;
a stuffed gull listens from a chest of drawers.
Watch out, he’s working on a new novel,
his best yet; when it sees the light of day
critics, as usual, will find it slight,
adroitly done though not a patch on Tolstoy.
(So too the friends gathered around his grave:
‘Oh, a great gift, if not quite Turgenev…’)
A dead seagull, what a terrific story;
amazing if you too were there tonight—
and there you are now, tapping the windowpane
like a tense revenant or a familiar ghost.
Waves on the water, wind loud in the wood
with a raw October evening drawing in,
but nobody loves each other as they should.
All come and go, to the hotel, to the train,
the gun room and the veranda; all begin
to die, it will be twenty years at most.
Not the sum total, but in Mahon’s imagination, such pessimism, disappointment and resignation are unignorable items on the receipt of life’s coming and goings; “all begin” calls out into the open of the page, hopefully, but falls into a death-sentence in the next line. But that beginning, setting out, is allowed hope even here is at one with Mahon’s faith that the hope is often well deserved and well met, even if setting out is not easily realized or come by:
SOMEWHERE THE WAVE
Once more the window and a furious fly
shifting position, niftier on the pane
than the slow liner or the tiny plane.
Dazzled by the sun, dazed by the rain,
today this frantic speck against the sky,
so desperate to get out in the open air
and cruise among the roses, starts to know
not all transparency is come and go.
But the window opens like an opened door
so the wild fly escapes to the airstream,
the raw crescendo of the crashing shore
and ‘a radical astonishment at existence’—
a voice, not quite a voice, in the sea distance
listening to its own think cetaceous whistle,
sea music gasp and sigh, slow wash and rustle.
Somewhere the wave is forming which in time…
A poem about the difficulty of departure, unwilling to arrive not at life, but at an end of it; but the ending of the poem does not guarantee an end. It offers instead a becoming; a further transformation of the world in flux, one more beginning found in one more ending—the contemplation of that being, for Mahon, a means to glimpsing a perfect timeless point around which the whole creation moves (as for late Eliot), but instead something more Ovidian; a creation always in time, in which movement is life, fleeting and transitioning, even when at rest.