Page-by-page highlights reel of the work of one of the finest poets of the last half-century
How many books of “selected” and “collected” poems should one poet have? If it is Derek Mahon, one of the finest poets at work in the past half-century, the answer is five. The author, so far, of two Selected Poems and two Collected Poems, has now released New Selected Poems (Gallery Press/Faber and Faber, €13.90).
For his existing readers, it is a page-by-page highlights reel. It will remind them where they were when they first read the astonishing gear changes of ‘A Disused Shed in County Wexford’ (“Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!”) or the sudden self-portrait of ‘Courtyards in Delft’ (“I must be lying low in a room there,/ a strange child with a taste for verse, / while my hard-nosed companions dream of war/ on parched veldt and fields of rainswept gorse.”).
The distinctiveness of Mahon’s modernity was shaped by his appetite for new material in the face of the terrible certainties that invaded Ireland while he wrote poems like ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’ and ‘Tractatus’ (Remember the sunset as “that titanic roar,/ The steam rising wherever the edge may be”?).
That modernity persists in his confident return to more traditional poetic territory in poems such as ‘Lapis Lazuli’ and ‘A Country Kitchen’. And new readers, or those who only know a few Mahon poems from the Leaving Cert? The rest of us envy them their discoveries.
A cool, smart and smarting intelligence blazes throughout: it’s there at the start in ‘Glengormley’, which situates a translated line of Sophocles in Mahon’s childhood: “‘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.”
But Mahon’s poise means that good jokes and expert rhythms do not cramp his style. The poem soon takes a larger, darker turn as it faces up to this place where “the unreconciled, in their metaphysical pain/ dangle from lamp posts in the dawn rain; // and much dies with them.”
Mahon’s inquiring imagination takes his poems in unexpected directions: this selections shows clearly his appetite for other lives and other worlds. New Selected Poems numbers among its many speakers “the last of the fire kings”, an “unborn child”, “the widow of Kinsale”, Captain Oates, the poet Basho and the essayist Montaigne, each of them fluently brilliant about the world and the dilemmas in which they find themselves. The multiple biography of ‘Lives’ questions the very act of simulation: its speaker journeys through past lives, the perspective banal (“First time out / I was a torc of gold / and wept tears of the sun. // That was fun”), historical (an electric shock // the night the lights / went out in Europe/ never to shine again.”), then stunningly conclusive:
and if in the distant
thinks he has once been me
as I am today,
let him revise
his insolent ontology
or teach himself to pray.
Rapid, joky, suddenly mysterious, dramatic, Mahon reminds us that poems can be complex and lucidly direct at once.
A recent poem develops a biography for Palinurus, a figure who appears briefly in Virgil’s Aeneid. In his friend Seamus Heaney’s version of the Aeneid’s sixth book, Palinurus’s ghost is pacified when he hears “in cities/ On every side populations will know/ To build you a tomb and observe solemn customs/ With offerings year after year. And the place/ For all time will bear the name Palinurus.”
Mahon’s Palinurus takes a different tack. He steers away from the happy ending, asking instead how “a seasoned helmsman” ended up lost at sea:
Many theories fit:
I had a blackout on the night I quit,
Jove required the forfeit of a life
so that many might be safe,
I’d lost my faith in Aeneas
Instead he chooses “ obscurity and isolation – / childish perhaps but there you are”. This choice might be said to describe not just Palinurus, but any poet’s career, if career is ever the right word for a poet’s work. And so, the poem’s horizon shifts. The hint of autobiography opens the ancient scene in a way that is typical of Mahon (and may explain why, along with Philip Larkin, his work is as beloved by novelists as by poets).
The converse is also true of more obviously autobiographical poems. The life, his life and the life of our time, is in the poems, but so too is an imagined world, and with that, a sense of potential and different futures. Mahon writes a poetry of record which is also quicksilver and speculative, dreamily departing from his given material.
A stylist and poet of sensibility, he is, almost traditionally, a poet of place too. Belfast-born and resident in Kinsale for years, he is a poet of the fringes: here are day trips to Donegal, the famous shed in Wexford, the garage in Co Cork, west Kerry, Bangor and Timoleague. Mahon’s edge-dwelling long view is also evident in his allusions to French, American and Italian poets, while there is a brilliant smash and grab raid on Homer in ‘Calypso’, a poem in praise of the next relationship, preferring the nymph Calypso to Penelope and Ithaca.
‘A Quiet Spot’ presents the case for these places’ generative power, and further evidence that Mahon had moved from being the ironic, suffering subject of a terrible world to a more active, if quixotic dreamer-up of solutions: “ ‘Wrong life,’ said Adorno, / ‘can’t be lived rightly.’ The right place / is a quiet spot like this// where an expanding river spills, / still trout-rich, from the dewy hills.” The same Horatian, advising tone and statelier rhythm enters the gorgeous, meditative poem with which the book ends:
Strangely, after the goldrush and the slump,
what remains is a great sense of relief.
Can we relax now and get on with life?
Step out and take a deep breath of night air
In peace, not always having to defer
To market forces, to the great hegemony,
The global hurricane, the rule of
His most famous poem begins “Even now there are places where a thought might grow.” New Selected Poems is, as readers will discover, one of those places.
— John McAuliffe, The Irish Times