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’.
But the thrilling impression of cosmopolitanism was misleading. Mahon’s modernity was a sought-after effect – it was not fundamental, a fact confirmed by the latter half of this Selected Poems, in which the outside world seems to consist entirely of tormenting signs of a much better lost world; and where aeroplanes and computers, among other things, are treated as shockingly recent and alien: ‘What ever happened to the critical spirit,/real jazz, film noir and grown-up literate wit?’ Even in his prose, in the letters from America that he occasionally published in the Irish Times, for example, he writes as a bookworm: San Francisco is a ‘city of bookshops’ (like Dublin, apparently), and New York ‘a city of the text’. Mahon’s self-mythologisation as a modern cosmopolitan was accepted by a generation who wanted to see certain values forcefully embodied.
A similar pressure to misread him was generated by the Troubles, a pressure enhanced by his love of self-correction as a literary effect. Mahon’s poems chide themselves for not engaging with social divisions and political violence, but this is as far as they go. Violence in his work is generalised – there are no equivalents of such personal meditations on the subject as Longley’s ‘Wounds’ or Heaney’s ‘Strange Fruit’. Instead, he thinks about the right way to write, as in the opening poem of this Selected Poems, ‘Spring in Belfast’:
One part of my mind must learn to know its place.
The things that happen in the kitchen houses
And echoing back-streets of this desperate city
Should engage more than my casual interest,
Exact more interest than my casual pity.
In Mahon, ends are always overwhelmingly foreseen: Rome, and every other city, is built – and destroyed – in a day. We pass over the stages of construction, the messy everyday phases of labour and organisation, and move straight to the finished article. The great middle range of experience, so prominent in the poetry of Auden, Kavanagh and Heaney, vanishes. Only the lurid extremes remain. The dilations and contractions are so implausibly massive that the best poems make them seem blackly humorous. In ‘Tithonus’, the eponymous god, con-demned to live for ever in the form of a cricket, imagines what it would take to describe all that he has seen:
Not merely Golgotha
But the leaf-plink
Of rain-drops after
In the scrub as Genghis
Khan entered Peking
And the changing clouds,
I would need
Perish the thought.
As in Hamlet, the drama is not in thinking about action but in thinking about thinking (‘Perish the thought’) – and perhaps Mahon is best seen as the student prince of Irish poetry. Returning to Trinity twenty years after the ‘trauma’ of having to leave, he writes about how the university has haunted him, a feeling which caused ‘metaphysical problems at first, to do with self-identification and a sense that, despite having lived for years in London, I’d only been away for a term or two’. Student days, in his prose, are invariably bathed in a radiant glow, and he leans towards other writers who feel the same way, excerpting a passage of the purest sentimentality from the work of another Trinity old boy, J.P. Donleavy: ‘All those days of hope. Sitting through the golden afternoons the window open of one’s room. To hear the glad carefree voices passing below. The white pop of a tennis ball.’ Mahon goes on to comment, in a phrase that reflects on himself, that ‘Donleavy Man isn’t interested in other people. He seeks a rich repose in this life, with a sweet dream of the next.’ Mahon quotes him again at the beginning of a poem which has passed through a revealing set of titles: ‘Dog Days’, ‘Dream Days’ and now ‘J.P. Donleavy’s Dublin’:
‘When you stop to consider
The days spent dreaming of a future
And say then, that was my life.’
Except that in Mahon the truth is even more reflexive. The ideal state is to spend your days dreaming about the days spent dreaming of a future. His literary life is a dream of the literary life. His changes of title often revolve around proper names, as if there were an uncertainty about how much to identify the speaker with their author (‘Bruce Ismay’s Soliloquy’ becomes ‘After the Titanic’, ‘Knut Hamsun in Old Age’ becomes ‘Hunger’.) Dreaming about the literary future, the poems cannot come to terms with time. The end of each poem is a death, a return to time, which many of the concluding lines nervously over-advertise (‘Will scarcely last beyond today’. ‘Like clock hands in a bar mirror’. ‘I think it may come out right this winter.’)
Sound in Mahon’s poetry has a Beckettian affinity with silence. With human vitality draining into those objects on which it acts, or which act on it, the outside world, as in low-budget drama, is suggested by a few momentous ‘noises off’, a milk bottle being knocked over, ‘the white pop of a tennis ball’. The poetry’s contemplative murmur, its blissful state of desire, is given sudden corrective jerks, especially in the contraction from smooth polysyllables to harsh monosyllables. Such sounds manipulate consciousness by raising fears of intrusion, and the frequency with which they occur suggests that they have long since been ritualised. Ambient, echoing spaces are used to protect consciousness from time, an early example of this process being ‘An Unborn Child’. Lulled by the comfort of the big stanza, the embryo subject basks in reassurance, mulling over hints of the world to come:
I know them in my bones – bones which embrace
Nothing, for I am completely egocentric.
The pandemonium of encumbrances
Which will absorb me, mind and senses,
Intricacies of the maze and the rat-race,
I imagine only. Though they linger and,
Like fingers, stretch until the knuckles crack,
They cannot dwarf the dimensions of my hand.
The poem seems to be looking forward to the point at which the child will accept the pressure of the world, will take on the responsibilities of knowledge, yet it is really looking back, fondly, at the child’s distance from knowledge: experience is here thinking about how experience might look from the point of view of innocence.
Superb at quotation, Mahon is fond of one of Nabokov’s phrases evoking the mystic individuality of things in ‘the halo around the frying-pan’. But there is more than one possible application of this phrase: a tough-minded view of a frying-pan as we have never seen it before (because we have never been looking), or a tender-minded dwelling on the halo. In Mahon’s work the halo is often generated by anthropomorphism, a process which is most vitally ambiguous when applied, as it is in many of his poems, to crowds of small, homogeneous objects such as tins, leaves, grapes and raindrops. Mahon is not at all interested in the members of such crowds; he prefers that idealisation of crowds which makes them powerful, especially from the outside – a pure sense of crowd being the keenest way to emphasise, by contrast, a pure thinking solitude.
A vividly imagined crowd of mushrooms is at the centre of ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’, the best poem in his third and best collection, The Snow Party, the poem towards which his early work rises, and from which his later work declines. It begins with a characteristic panorama, a total vision, which rapidly shrinks through a gothic keyhole into a garden shed, a miniature Gormenghast, where the Nabokovian halo spreads uneasily over a cluster of mushrooms. Having festered unseen for fifty years, they are creepily animated by the prospect of a threshold being crossed:
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 learned patience and silence
Listening to the rooks querulous in the high wood.
The feelings of ‘An Unborn Child’ are fully born in ‘A Disused Shed’. Ruminative cadences from the earlier poem (‘the pandemonium of encumbrances’) are reproduced (‘Indian compounds where the wind dances’). The objects used to form the most arresting images in each poem have a foetal softness of thought: a curled-up kitten, clouds of goldfish, a bowl of cloud, rhododendrons – like the ‘little oval soul-animals’ of Plath’s ‘Balloons’. In ‘A Disused Shed’, they absorb the power of the stupefying opening line, in which the subject of consciousness is flatly announced: ‘Even now there are places where a thought might grow.’ As Seamus Deane has pointed out, Mahon’s poems are neither conceptual nor sensual but equidistant from both. As in Redon’s paintings, the forms are like thoughts coming into being, as if prepared to luxuriate for ever in their own formation – ‘What should they do there but desire?’
Mahon’s feeling for literature, and for Trinity, might well reflect an intense reaction to the lifeless normality of his upbringing. The grandiose decay of ‘A Disused Shed’ is eerily inverted in his own account of the family home and his mother’s ‘frantic kitsch decor’: ‘with your wise monkeys and euphemistic “Dresden” figurines,/your junk chinoiserie and coy pastoral scenes’. One of his essays imagines the Northern Irish town of Portrush, where he lived briefly, entirely emptied of people, the Protestants and Catholics all taking their problems elsewhere. Thinking about obliteration, either in one’s own terms or those of a favourite author (he likes MacNeice’s lines: ‘We shall go down like palaeolithic man/Before some new Ice Age or Genghiz Khan’), is essentially a sentimental act. This is the desire for a fresh start (he repeatedly uses the phrase ‘after rain’) taken to apocalyptic extremes.
The tone of this Selected Poems begins to change, a little over halfway, with a number of poems, such as ‘Dawn at St Patrick’s’ and ‘Noon at St Michael’s’, which are about being institutionalised. They reflect a personal crisis which drastically altered the nature and quality of his work. Written from the American artists’ colony and addressed to his children, ‘The Yaddo Letter’ typically makes you commiserate with him for his griefs and regret the form into which he has poured then:
‘One always loses with a desperate throw.’
What I lost was a wife, a life, and you.
As for love, a treasure when first it’s new,
it all too often fades away, for both, like the morning dew;
yet it remains the one sure thing to cling to
as I cling like grim death to the thought of you …
Mahon revises his poems well but revises his canon badly, and overall this is a dejected selection. The 1990 Selected Poems is much preferable, containing none of the much inferior recent work, and including poems such as ‘Nostalgias’ and ‘Tithonus’ which the current Selected drops. Since his incessant rewriting is a kind of reliving – a contemplation of the possible lives which literature endlessly reveals – it is a fitting irony that ‘Leaves’, one of his best poems, a beautiful reflection on reliving, is dropped from this book. But it can still be read in the 1990 Selected, quietly sounding its own hereafter:
Somewhere there is an afterlife
Of dead leaves,
A stadium filled with an infinite
Rustling and sighing.
Somewhere in the heaven
Of lost futures
The lives we might have lived
Have found their own fulfilment.