Perish the thought

John Redmond

  • Selected Poems by Derek Mahon
    Penguin, 213 pp, £9.99, November 2000, ISBN 0 14 118233 4

In his undergraduate days at Trinity College Dublin in the early 1960s, Derek Mahon cast a spell over his contemporaries, as he would cast a spell over his early readers. He had wit, taste and a literary knowledge beyond his years; his distinctiveness as a Belfast poet was crucially accentuated by his study of French literature, which Irish poets had been slow to explore. Fellow students who are now also famous poets have recorded how intimidating his presence, and poems, could be. ‘I was taken aback by the sheer verve of his idiom,’ Eavan Boland writes, ‘the attack of his syntax, his brat-pack stance as poète maudit.’ Michael Longley ‘felt overwhelmed and wanted to withdraw to a safe distance’. It was obvious that, as a young poet, he dominated the university scene. It was not so obvious that the university would dominate him.

Of the Northern Irish poets who emerged in the 1960s, Mahon was the most technically gifted. The early poems show a mesmerising assurance immediately established, for example, in the opening of ‘Early Morning’, the first section of the sequence ‘Breton Walks’:

No doubt the creation was something like this –
A cold day breaking on silent stones,
Slower than time, spectacular only in size.

The loftiness of that ‘No doubt’ instantly lifts the passage. The voice affects to be bored by the Creation, in the process framing a wide-angle picture, a God’s-eye view which, as in Auden’s poetry, undergoes a chastening contraction, brought about here by an old woman’s theatrical entrance:

She calls good-day, since there are bad days too,
And her eyes go down. She has seen perhaps
Ten thousand dawns like this, and is not impressed.

The poem is a performance confidently carried off, and it is this confidence we react to.

‘Early Morning’ makes an important distinction between creation and work, a distinction on which his poems will continue to insist. In Mahon’s poetry, creations have more life than their creators. The poet tends to establish the scene and then take up his position, usually that of a passive observer, as in the following prescient lines from an early version of ‘Beyond Howth Head’:

And will the year two thousand find
Me still at a window, pen in hand,
Watching long breakers curl on sand
Erosion makes for ever finer?

At heart, Mahon’s poetry is about a literary consciousness profoundly turned in on itself; its deepest feeling is for the state of desire which the widening horizons of literature make possible, a desire for desire. Because of its self-reflexiveness, however, the true subject and feeling of his work is sometimes obscured. Most of the early writing about Mahon emphasised how glamorously well-travelled the poems were. Night-Crossing and Lives, his first collections, with their versions and translations of Villon, Breton, Rimbaud and Baudelaire, were seen as bringing a fresh idiom into Irish poetry. Here were poems of the Existentialist outsider, of anonymous points of departure, of endless lonely railway stations and hotel rooms. The critic Brian Donnelly, an early fan, recalls that Mahon’s face – unsmiling and goateed – on the cover of Night-Crossing, seemed to be ‘suggestive of things foreign and exotic’.

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