Derek Mahon died on 1 October 2020. I’ve written about his poetry before—it’s Lucretian or Ovidian spirit—and going back to read through his work, I find that his poems almost never fail to bring enjoyment, no matter how slender, inconsequential or blithe. That his worse poems are all of those things prevents them from being other even worse things, perhaps; that they are those things also reveals just what a strange poet Mahon was. The enjoyment that is consistently to be had from his poetry is the enjoyment of fine writing turned to the world: description, speculation, exuberance that it is, and that it is this and that. He is a poem of beings, not of Being, though in the later poetry the praise is for a pantheistic cosmic unity, apprehended by science as much as by poetry. There is something quietly dazzling in seeing Mahon connect the microbes to the stars with a sprezzatura formalism. There seems to be nothing that Mahon cannot include into a poem, and nothing that he would not include into a poem, sufficiently confident in his sense of how he relates to it, even if not always so sure that he has any particular insight into what it means or is; that latter limitation is not a limitation of the poetry so much as a circumstance of them, written into what they are.
The world, Mahon seems to say, is good for poetry—and poetry is one way of admiring all that the world is. There is not much vituperation in Mahon’s verse. But then the “laus,” the admiration, is for the promise and potential of the world to generate novelty and abundance, rather than for human actions or characters, to the failures of which he seems resigned and forgiving; he is too much a materialist to hold people to a strong idealism, and atrocity and violence are in parentheses in his poems. That was a line of criticism of his work early on, when he was thought to fail to engage with Irish politics and Irish history, and I think it is true that his poems do not see history so much as they see change; they do not see violence and atrocity so much as they see loss, waste, and pain.
The ecological ravages that have escorted humankind into the Anthropocene are, from what I can see, as political a subject as Mahon has taken up, and taken on. But even here, his instinct is for awe at what the stuff of the world does and is as it undergoes horrific changes:
Earthquake and tsunami!
Wasteful and cackling, Thames
water still bubbles away
as in more temperate times.
Euphoric as it crashes
riotously from the tap,
it still flows and twinkles
as if it will never stop—
even when a rainbow drops
above Bayswater, the sky turns
to a glistening denim-blue
and an evening star shines.
Think of this abundance
When the bright splatter blows
eastwards, leaving the heavens
a washed-out yellow-rose.
(“6. London Rain,” in “Homage to Gaia”)
Surrounding Mahon’s evident urge to preserve and protect the earth we are destroying—articulated with greater directness and clarity in other poems—is a cosmography that thinks always of “abundance,” and that allows Mahon to find consolation in a vision of Lucretian breadth.
Mahon’s breadth of appreciation for what forms matter and life can take, and at their patterns and dynamics of interaction, inspires his commitment to writing in form; form becomes necessary against the sprawl of the world. For a novelist, plot and character would grant order; for Mahon, it is the form of poetry and the limited, situated first-person perspective of the poet that does the same. But the inspiration that Mahon finds at what is can also prevent some of his poems from asking why and how what it matters. In response to that remark, Mahon might say that he is agnostic, that his poetry does not adjudicate value. In which case, I would restate my qualification more pointedly: the inspiration Mahon finds at giving poetic form to the variety of forms in the world can make it difficult to ask why the poetry matters, what it brings to life beyond the enjoyment of discerning and seeing. Seeing and discerning are, without doubt, fine and essential in life, but it is not too much to ask that poems enlist them in something else that brings with it benefits: a stabilizing of judgments, a reconciliation or resolution of a conflict, a hard-won clarity in a matter otherwise too obscure or subtle for apprehension. Where Mahon’s poems perceive, they do not always apprehend; and where they enlist form to unite perception, they do not always enlist form to unite judgments at strife. At times it can even feel that Mahon’s poems actively dodge strife: blithely aloof, they can be too willing to look away, and at ease with the world because it affords a restless shifting of attention to something else that is always turned up—churned up, it can seem, in the poetry’s texture.
It feels worth drawing attention to the limitations of the poetry in order to appreciate where they overcome it—in order, that is, to make better sense of what Mahon’s best work does. The best of Mahon’s poems happen when his relish for the abundance of the world, its Lucretian renewal and generative promise, is set out of reach, withholding, or deceptive in its imminence. In other words, the best of the poems happen when his inherent comic cosmography is made unexpectedly difficulty.
Stephen Enniss’ biography of Derek Mahon takes as its title the title of Mahon’s early poem “After the Titanic.” The Titanic was assembled in a shipyard in Belfast where Mahon’s grandfather was employed, and Ennis draws attention to a second biographical shadow across the poem: an obscure attempt at suicide taking place when Mahon was at Trinity College. But the poem is also a discovery in Mahon’s development of what would be a condition of his finest writing: poems written from the other side of abundance—from after its loss—in a world that still promises renewal, but that cannot provide adequate recompense for what has been lost. In those poems, Mahon opens his strong comic vision to the challenge of tragedy; even if the comic vision remains victorious, the poems are marked by struggle. In “After the Titanic,” the speaker, a survivor of the Titanic, is beyond consolation, but Mahon accommodates within the poem the sources of life that might console, the promise of renewal that elsewhere is the dominant theme in his poetry:
They said I got away in a boat
And humbled me at the inquiry. I tell you
I sank as far that night as any
Hero. As I sat shivering on the dark water
I turned to ice to hear my costly
Life go thundering down in a pandemonium of
Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches,
Boilers bursting and shredded ragtime. Now I hide
In a lonely house behind the sea
Where the tide leaves broken toys and hatboxes
Silently at my door. The showers of
April, flowers of May mean nothing to me, nor the
Late light of June, when my gardener
Describes to strangers how the old man stays in bed
On seaward mornings after nights of
Wind, takes his cocaine and will see no one. Then it is
I drown again with all those dim
Lost faces I never understood, my poor soul
Screams out in the starlight, heart
Breaks loose and rolls down like a stone.
Include me in your lamentations.
The speaker condemns himself for having turned away from sacrifice, and from having fled the loss of life—and as a consequence he is cold to the world’s fecundity and sea’s flotsam, both of which are reminders both of the excess that was the Titanic as well as of the enormous loss of life at its sinking ; for this speaker, no meaningful abundance persists. At the same time, the poem takes stock, the abundance of the world is there to be witnessed, and even if its significance is not registered, Mahon’s skill and interest suggest how, in other places, by other people, they might be.
What I’m describing as the root of Mahon’s best poetry might be ascribed to one of Empson’s principles: the best poems admit the possibility an attitude or outlook that would directly challenge or oppose their own, and accommodate it within the poetry. It is akin to the self-accusation that Geoffrey Hill calls the lifeblood of romanticism, and the antiphonal heckler that a work of literature must anticipate, for its suasion to be real.
Mahon is most persuasively himself when he imagines what is least his own experience of the world, granting that its limits and revealing also its strengths in the process. The most famous, rightly, of Mahon’s poems, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford”:
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 rain barrels,
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 pitchers, 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!’
Though the ghosts of history are present, with the troubled history of Ireland most immediately in the poem’s vicinity, it is not, I think, a reflection on the barbarism that owes its life to civilization. The sudden exclamation—with an exclamation mark that does not wholly persuade—to the “Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii” pulls in two directions, with the two names evoking and invoking distinct horrors, one an atrocity and the other a catastrophe; if anything, they are two poles of terrible waste. The line itself flashes into the poem like a reverie: Mahon is reminded of both, but the poem is about neither. At that moment, though, we are given the full breadth of the poem’s vision: a vision of all wasted life, impelled by the rich blossoming fungi, itself both a testament to life and decay, to what perseveres and to what flourishes only by neglect and oblivion. The poem is really answer to Samuel Johnson’s “Vanity of Human Wishes,” as the nod to Peru in the opening lines and the final word, “vain” indicate, though it not human ambition and aspiration alone that threatens Mahon, but the thought that the fullness of human life is voided, left in the dark.
Mahon’s meter is often “light,” his itinerary in his poetry is often “relaxed,” and an itinerary of comfortable cosmopolitan errancy, and the poem leaves unanswered what can be expected from poetry in response to the final plea: “Let not our naïve labours have been in vain!” The first thought is memorialization, but Mahon is not a memorializing poet; and I think his answer, here implicit but realized in his body of work, concerns instead an attitude towards the world that the mushrooms of the shed, and the discarded souls associated with them, can no longer live by or fulfill: not a memorializing of the past, but an embrace of, and responsibility to, the present and future that fulfills the hopes and commitments of the past—to recognize loss and absence present within the flourishing that is capable of satisfying and fostering our “desires.” (Mahon is an Epicurean poet). The poem suggests a standard by which Mahon’s work can be measured, and by which to appreciate Mahon’s finest poems—poems including (by no means limited to) “Tithon,” “Ovid in Tomis,” and “An Image in Beckett”—not to mention what is as serious an element of his work, a body of translations that, recovering and discovering poems from across history and culture, speaks to what it means to take up all that the world offers us, with a simultaneous recognition that what is offered is no longer, and cannot be, fully present. Mahon’s commitment to translation is a commitment to serve the labors of poets before him (and different from him), so that they are not in vain.
I’ve tried to say what is best in Mahon–but what will make Mahon endure is also the sheer amount of poetry that is good, that brings with it the sane pleasure of writing turned to bring the world into focus, and that wants for us, in its sanity and pleasure, to take pleasure in what the world offers. His is an epicurean sanity.