Everything is susceptible

Douglas Dunn

  • Poems 1962-1978 by Derek Mahon
    Oxford, 117 pp, £5.75, November 1979, ISBN 0 19 211898 6
  • The Echo Gate by Michael Longley
    Secker, 53 pp, £3.00, November 1979, ISBN 0 436 25680 0
  • Poets from the North of Ireland edited by Frank Ormsby
    Blackstaff, 232 pp, £6.50, October 1979, ISBN 0 85640 201 X

Derek Mahon’s Poems 1962 – 1978 includes most of his three earlier books, to which he has added a few uncollected poems and about 35 pages of new work. Readers will discover that poems with which they thought themselves familiar have been retitled and in some cases extensively revised. Although precocious in that there are poems here which must have been written when Mahon was as young as 20 or 21, he looks as if he has been compensating for a lack of productivity by going over earlier work once again. Form and style in contemporary poetry are of course, highly contentious matters. There are celebrated poets who appear to have no idea about line-endings, who cannot shape a verse, or who sacrifice one aspect of poetry, usually rhythm, for the sake of emphasising another, most often visual imagery. Mahon is above so compartmentalised a notion of poetry. But his revisions suggest uncertainty as much as they do a growing maturity.

‘The Apotheosis of Tins’, for example, appeared in The Snow Party as a prose poem. In his new book, which is of the species ‘poems new and selected’, it appears rewritten in lines, and he has revised it in other ways, too, but not to much effect. It is still an invigorating piece of writing, and the key to a large part of Mahon’s imagination. He places the reader on a beach which is deserted apart from a litter of unenticing modern disposables, hovered over by the figure of the poet himself. A tin-can is the poem’s unlikely spokesman; and yet the remarkable thing about the poem’s anthropomorphism is that Mahon can also appear dead-set against the arrogantly man-made and man-centred attitudes which possess nature and things for the purposes of the Pathetic Fallacy.

This is the terminal democracy
of hatbox and crab,
of hock and Windowlene.
It is always rush-hour.
If we have learnt one thing from our desertion
by the sour smudge on the horizon,
from the erosion of labels,
it is the value of self-definition.
No one, not even the poet
whose shadow halts above us alter
dawn and before dark,
will have our trust.
We resist your patronage, your reflective leisure.

The extra-historical landscapes he creates are didactic enough, but while they condemn destructive human abuses of nature, Mahon’s effect is more the contrivance of a large-scale and passionately elegant iconoclasm than a means of ticking off humanity for its deracinated, cruel and greedy ways. He is an unashamedly literary poet. Artistic predecessors as much as nature itself are the sources of his metamorphosising imagination. Unlike Ted Hughes or Seamus Heaney, he has never felt the need to make his diction coincide with the rugged or violent nature he depicts. In a previously uncollected poem, ‘A Kind of People’, he writes:

Umbrellas and parasols,
Like old navy raincoats,
Sewing machines, bird-baths,
Shovels and violins,
Are really a kind of people.
(Renoir discovered this.)

Much of Mahon’s literary personality is taken from urbane French examples, particularly from certain French poets of the 19th century. He is a dandy of windblown headlands, a Nerval, or Corbière, of the North Antrim coast. Where his countryman Seamus Heaney finds appropriate analogues for his poem-making in rural crafts, and in his delving fidelity to Irishness itself re-creates the accents and intonations of Irish-English, and sometimes Irish, Mahon is the creature of European excellence, of a hypothetically European style of perception and standard of writing. He is deliberately smooth where Heaney is consonantal, guttural and purposefully rough. Heaney’s recent excursion into Dante was unexpected, but it is no surprise to find that Mahon’s new poem ‘The Poet in Residence’ (he was resident poet at the New University of Ulster for a couple of years) is a version of Corbière’s ‘Le Poète Contumace’. Fascination with High Culture, and a commitment, on the other hand, to ‘a prescriptive literature of the spirit’, and to a time when

           we give back
The cleared counties
To the first forest,
The hills to the hills,
The reclaimed mudflats
To the vigilant sea,

do not seem compatible, at least in theory. But by putting urbanity and primitivism to the one human purpose Mahon allows them to coexist. The values of the city are taken to these windblown headlands, and the values of the wilderness, of where rock meets the sea, are taken into the city. It is a remarkable and surprising exchange, and Mahon suggests it with real imaginative power.

Disappointingly, his newer poems predict the end of that exploration which he began with ‘A Kind of People’, of that embracing and respectful compassion for everything. ‘Light Music’, a series of 25 short poems, is drawn largely from that side of his mind, but they look like off-cuts from a work-bench on which more demanding work should have been taking shape. Ambitious as ‘The Poet in Residence’ and ‘The Sea in Winter’ are, the octosyllabic verse of the latter poem is already familiar from ‘Beyond Howth Head’, and the first is a translation which comparison with Randall Jarrell’s translation of the same poem by Corbière does not improve. It would be a pity, too, if Mahon’s poetic ontology were to come to a conclusion as weary as this:

Meanwhile the given life goes on:
There is nothing new under the sun.

It is dispiritingly resigned when taken alongside his high-spirited and incautious ‘The Mute Phenomena’:

Your great mistake is to disregard the satire
Bandied among the mute phenomena.
Be strong if you must, your brusque hegemony
Means fuck-all to the somnolent sunflower
Or the extinct volcano. What do you know
Of the revolutionary theories advanced,
By turnips, or the sex-life of cutlery?
Everything is susceptible, Pythagoras said so.

Although derived from Nerval, there is something characteristically Mahonesque at the heart of that impertinent rebuke. Also less conspicuous in his recent work is the rhetorical ingenuity of ‘Matthew V.29 – 30’, which, if it is something of a macabre party-piece, is delightfully injudicious, disturbingly witty, and, like other poems, now appears reorganised and revised. ‘Autobiographies’, also recent, is likely to strike a reader already appreciative of the elevated lyricism of ‘A Disused Shed in Co Wexford’ as no more than nice, little more than personal and charming, when, at his best, his work is open, and its feelings wide and provocative.

In that splendid poem, ‘A Disused Shed in Co Wexford’, which is his best, and so fine an achievement it is likely to prove an embarrassment to him, mushrooms are deftly metamorphosed into ‘a kind of people’. They begin to represent the lost of the world, its victims, the anonymous multitudes of history. In an earlier poem Mahon wrote of ‘our lives in infinite preparation’, and, in this poem, lives are evoked as having been waiting, patiently and in silence, to deliver an appeal.

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 peoples 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!’

Part of the poem’s victory lies in the impression that Mahon’s mushrooms are not only ‘a kind of people’, nor are they mushrooms merely. They have a life outside of their appearance as a property, or device, within what is ostensibly a pathetic fallacy or anthropomorphic ploy. But Mahon’s mushrooms are not ‘people’: they are ‘a kind of’ people, and in ‘a kind of’ – that irritating conversational tag – there’s room for speculation. The mushrooms are metamorphosed into ideas: everything is worthy of consideration, and respect; everything is susceptible. It is achievement of that order, together with the poems which support it, which makes Mahon’s book a landmark in contemporary verse.

Mahon’s allegiances are, of course, Irish, and yet they are queerly aligned, or disjointed, and sometimes irascibly. Michael Longley’s Irishness is more affirmed than Mahon’s, and it is enriched by the poets of the Roman Silver Age. There’s a tender lyricism in him, and a love of the Irish countryside, its people, customs, flowers and creatures. The Echo Gate is his fourth collection. His first book, No Continuing City (1969), recommended itself through poems such as ‘Epithalamion’ and ‘The Hebrides’ in which traditional forms were worked out with an old-fashioned, fussy dexterity. These poems can now be read in Frank Ormsby’s Poets from the North of Ireland, a useful guide to Northern Irish poetry, but an anthology which has probably appeared too late to revive the fashion of only yesterday, when new poetry from Northern Ireland was patted on the back each time it appeared.

Expert enough at the beginning of his career to have allowed his skill to mislead him into the occasional preciosity, Longley has now matured a way of writing that fits in somewhere between lapidary free verse and the conventionally metrical. Good examples in his new book are ‘Peace, after Tibullus’, written in relaxed hexameters, and a poem about Oliver Plunkett, whose mummified head is kept in a glass case on the altar of Drogheda Cathedral.

Trying to estimate what height he was
Keeps the soul awake, like the pea under
The heap of mattresses under the princess ...

Such bizarre perceptions are rarely found in verse as lucid and discreet as Longley’s. The strangeness of how he observes, and the cool measure of his writing, impart an effectively unnerving atmosphere. Even in the extraordinary and disturbing narrative of ‘The Linen Workers’, one of three elegies for the dead in Northern Ireland, his sense of measure and clarity works to devise a type of restraint which is not that of reticence, but of fidelity to imaginative exactitude. Given, too, that some readers still expect ‘war poetry’ from Northern Irish poets, it is also a refusal to risk expostulations or gestural extremism.

When they massacred the ten linen workers
There fell on the road beside them spectacles,
Wallets, small change, and a set of dentures:
Blood, food particles, the bread, the wine.

Before I can bury my father once again
I must polish the spectacles, balance them
Upon his nose, fill his pockets with money
And into his dead mouth slip the set of teeth.

Two poems in The Echo Gate, however, ‘The War Poets’ and ‘Bog Cotton’, show that he is imaginatively concerned with war poetry. In ‘Bog Cotton’, he seems to try to place the Irish flower alongside Rosenberg’s poppy, and the desert flower of Keith Douglas’s ‘Desert Flowers’. It seems to me that Longley’s poetry arises from a Protestant conscience which takes satisfaction from the certainties of country life and the securities of domesticity. Rebelliously placing his faith in poetry itself, Mahon invents a release from his background, for all his love-hate relationship with the people and place he comes from. Longley has perhaps recognised what is good in his place and people, and been content to work from there, much as Heaney has done.

Four ‘Mayo Monologues’ represent what I think is the best of The Echo Gate. In each, he tells a story with affectionate respect for the characters of his own creation. The third is spoken by a guilt-ridden woman who has encouraged the attentions of a mentally backward man.

 I might have been the cow
Whose tail he would later dock with shears,
And he the ram tangled in barbed wire
That he stoned to death when they set him free.

‘Arrest’, the fourth of the set, is narrated by a man who ‘made love to the animals’.

The sergeant called me by my christian name,
And waited an hour while I tidied up.
Not once did he mention why he had come
Or when and where he would take me away.
He just moved quietly from wall to wall
As I swept the floor towards the flagstones
And leaned brush and shovel, the broken tongs
Next to the spade and hoe I’d brought inside.

Northern Irish poets write with a more persuasive sense of sharing in the life of their place than most of their English colleagues are able to manage. They have what looks like an easier access to the typical or representative, and it would be a mistake to see this as a symptom of provincialism, or as the sign of a willingly parochial lack of ambition. In ‘The Linen Industry’, for instance, it is possible for Longley to take his pictures and narrative from Northern Ireland’s best-known manufacture, and to make of them a kind of love poem, a celebration of his people. Three sonnets on the heroines Sulpicia, Grace Darling and Florence Nightingale are written with a similar measured sweetness.