I wonder if
a time could ever come when human life,
relieved of ego and finance, might thrive
on the mere fact of existence.
– Derek Mahon, “Rising Late”
In the Time That Remains
Reflections on the poetry of Derek MahonOana Sanziana Marian
I wonder if
Derek Mahon has responded to every letter I ever sent him. Our first exchange was in 2002, while I was writing an undergraduate thesis on his long poetic sequence “The Hudson Letter” (now retitled “New York Time”). I wrote to his agent, and, a week or so later, he phoned New Haven from Dublin. Only he’d reversed the time zones; the landline rang at 5 a.m., my groggy roommate knocked and said, “The gentleman on the line says he’s Derek Mahon. Isn’t that your poet?” We spoke, properly, later – I can’t recall what about. I wrote again the following summer from the Synge House on Inishmaan, or, rather, the cottage where the playwright John Millington Synge had gone a hundred years before me, at W. B. Yeats’s suggestion, to learn Irish. Derek’s reply was a postcard from Keats’s House, and it said he was in London. We met for coffee at the Groucho Club a few weeks later.
For most of my life I’ve been led by poems and poets and poetry, and I see now how poetry offered me a kind of ordering principle for living, maybe even a map for integrating experience into something like insight: what religion might have done, but didn’t. In this instance, however, I mean “led” rather literally. I studied Anglo-Irish poetry in college, initially, because an artist I’d fallen for wrote out Seamus Heaney’s “To a Dutch Potter in Ireland” by hand on lovely paper. It was a meditation on what survives violence (in this case, the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in 1940), and it was also the most erotic poem I’d ever read:
Like wet daylight
Or viscous satin under the felt and frieze
Of humus layers. The true diatomite
Discovered in a little sucky hole,
Grey-blue, dull-shining, sticky, touchable—
Mahon’s poetry had a different quality, cooler, weirder. His most famous poem, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” digs, too, but instead of turning soil, as in Heaney’s earthbound rural scene in (maybe his most famous poem) “Digging,” Mahon gets underneath “a burnt-out hotel / Among the bathtubs and the washbasins” and – but who would see this coming? – commemorates forgotten victims of Treblinka and Pompeii through the perspective of a thousand mushrooms crowded around light passing through a keyhole. The poem asks:
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.
Not as squirmy-sexy as “a little sucky hole,” desire in “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford” proliferates in absence, under the cover of neglect, with life happening somewhere, within earshot, but at an immutable distance. Indeed, Mahon has admitted in an interview with Eamon Grennan that the poem contains another unarticulated desire: to bridge another immutable distance, between the poet and the need to speak to the violence in the North during the Troubles.
Poetry is “not a philosophical or psychological blueprint; it’s an instrument for embodied experience,” says Adrienne Rich. “But,” she continues, “we seek that experience, or recognize it when it is offered to us, because it reminds us in some way of our need. After a rearousal of desire, the task of acting on that truth, or making love, or meeting other needs, is ours.” Desire implies the crossing, or temporary closing, of a distance, moving from a “me” to a “you,” or from a familiar “here” to an unfamiliar “there,” until these binaries blur utterly in intimacy. This is the direction of movement that poetry activates within me; it is both internal and external. Poetry moved me; I went to Ireland because a college adviser who also wrote poems and encouraged my poetry writing knew the great-granddaughter of the family that had hosted Synge for five summers. I used the check from a poetry award at graduation to buy a ticket to Brazil (because Elizabeth Bishop went to Brazil). I went to divinity school primarily to study with a poet. Richard Wilbur has said in an interview, “I know a lot of people, poets, who are not consciously religious, but find themselves forever compromised by their habit of asserting the relevance of all things to each other.” I’d find that habit hard to shake; at the time of writing this, I live in Ireland, and the woman who owns the apartment my wife and I rent in Dublin was once the student lodger of Sonja Landweer, the Dutch potter from Heaney’s poem.
When I met Derek in London, I presented him with a poem I’d written, an unabashed, “after Derek Mahon” poem that paid tribute to a Mahonian gesture (the poet and the world directly addressing each another) – and did so rather well, I thought. In the “Global Village” section of “The Hudson Letter/ New York Time,” Mahon describes his experience as an “amateur immigrant” in the United States: “sure I like the corny / humanism and car-stickers – ‘I ♥ NY.’” My poem was about a billboard along the Eastern Seaboard train route that read, “I’m hot for you. Love, Florida,” and I lifted (and italicized) a line from “A Garage in Co. Cork,” something his poems also do frequently. We might be anywhere but are in one place only – Mahon’s line, and mine – was a launching pad for my poem’s closing to lift out of the mundane world of chatty billboards to a place where I could make some kind of universal claim about love, or try to. I learned that trick from him; there is power even in typing out a line of a poem one loves, feeling its rhythm in one’s fingertips, or invoking a poet of stature as an interlocutor within one’s own work. Before there’s an anxiety, there’s an excitement of influence.
Engagement with tradition is many things, a way to claim authority, to pay tribute to what has nourished and shaped one’s work, or just to move the pen forward when one is stuck: form orders thought.
Mahon is known to keep his distance from the poetry scene, rarely giving readings or interviews, so it was unusual that he was present, fifteen years later, at an event in Kilkenny where his new collection Against the Clock was being celebrated by his editor at Gallery Press, and by the actor Stephen Rea, who later performed a staged reading of “The Hudson Letter/ New York Time.” I listened to the live performance, as I had listened so many times to the recording Rea had made for RTÉ radio in 2001 (before podcasts, I had recorded it on a cassette tape), astonished by its encyclopedic breadth, its funniness, its cinematic movements – now clipped from The Gold Rush, cut to a shot from inside his rented apartment in New York to the Hudson to the Jersey shore, now in real time, an invocation of the muse (and the poetic tradition that such an invocation nods to), as the poet describes the noisy morning routine:
Respighi’s temperate nightingale on WQXR
pipes up though stronger stations throng the ether –
a radio serendipity to illustrate
the resilience of our lyric appetite,
carnivalesque or studiously apart,
on tap in offices, lofts and desperate ’hoods
to Lorca’s “urinating multitudes”
while I make coffee and listen for the news
at eight; but first the nightingale. Sing, Muse.
It’s thanks to Mahon that I know who Respighi is. Another lesson: two spondaic words can do A LOT of work, but need a running start; a line like “while I make coffee and listen for the news,” plain as it is on its own, will still be buzzing with the electricity of whatever came before it. So begins the sequence of eighteen poems in blank-ish verse, beautiful as I’d remembered, particularly the last poem in the sequence, “The Small Rain,” a cri de coeur for the lost, the lonely, the “drifters, loners, harsh and disconsolate,” of New York City. It’s also for Mahon himself, who came through youth in a turbulent Belfast at the start of the Troubles, a suicide attempt in Dublin, decades of alcoholism, and one of silence; when it appeared in 1995, “The Hudson Letter/ New York Time” closed a roughly ten-year hiatus since the publication of Antarctica, and announced a distinctly different style, more colloquial, less formally obsessive – or, who knows, maybe now obsessively informal? – than that of his previous work.
This change of tone and form was, in part, what had compelled me to write about this sequence as an undergraduate; I couldn’t articulate it, but I felt there was something vital, vital to my own existence, in the shift from formal perfection to this looser style, still singing, but talking sometimes, too, and talking to someone(s). Nor was I alone. Mahon’s articulations of marginality, and on behalf of the marginalized (there’s an implicit force doing the marginalizing) have recently inspired a range of socially conscious literary-critical work, from Gail McConnell’s study of Mahon and Calvinism (within a larger study of Northern Irish poetry and theology) to Sam Solnick’s contextualization of his work within the poetry of the Anthropocene. For Hugh Haughton, who has written the authoritative monograph on Mahon, the turn in “The Hudson Letter/ New York Time” to a simultaneously more casual voice and more ambitious scale and length signaled nothing less than “a poetic resurrection” – yet one that he describes in strangely articulated praise: “Gone are the elegant stanzas, the panoptic distances, the ‘cool’ cantabile of The Snow Party and The Hunt. In their place is a dialogical monologue in continuous, discursive style, cast in a tonally unstable idiom that is often cacophonous, inelegant and prosaic.” For Haughton, Mahon’s poem speaks not only of a place, “but also of time, a cross section of a city in crisis,” including a spike in unemployment, HIV infection, and the sweeping and policing of the rising homeless population in the era of Reagan and Giuliani. To call the sequence “cacophonous, inelegant and prosaic” is, therefore, unexpectedly, to call it germane, to signal the appropriateness and relevance of its idiom. As the poem’s title suggests, its form is epistolary, but each poem speaks to a different addressee – a letter to each of his children, to Auden, or John Butler Yeats, William’s father – and sometimes in different voices: for instance, that of the young Irish immigrant Bridget Moore, arriving in New York in 1895, in the fifty-year wake of genocidal famine. Poetry in letter form is a less lonely poetry. This wasn’t writing that simply commanded the page, or from it; it was relational, and, as the poet and literary scholar Siobhan Phillips has said about other poets who wrote letters, “letters are ethical … insofar as that term can indicate a principled attention to intersubjective exchange.” In this way, though I only came fully to realize this later, Mahon’s turn to the informal also subtly raised the stakes.
“Who we are in the world affects our aesthetics,” wrote the poet Elizabeth Alexander, “whether one sees the world as a perennially violent place in need of forms in which to cry out and other forms to investigate a love ethic that can stand up to violence; or whether one sees joy and grief as atomized and private experiences rather than public ones.” In Mahon’s case, it can sometimes be hard to distinguish between the development of “a love ethic that can stand up to violence” and “atomized and private experiences.” Had I, as an undergraduate, taken a verse writing class with either of the two female instructors then on the faculty, one of whom happened to be racialized white, the other racialized black, I might have begun sooner to understand that the intersubjective mode Mahon was working in, exceptional as it was within the limited range of my reading and study, existed within structures of power that shaped, or, rather, skewed measures of literary worth. I didn’t study with either of these teachers, because, indeed, who we are in the world affects our aesthetics, and mine were still invested in sexist and supremacist markers of literary authority and (troubled assertions of) universality.
This isn’t so much a confession, just a fact. I had read a few poems by female poets with advanced degrees and significant publications and awards, and, at twenty-two years old, didn’t think they spoke to my condition. These, too, are subtle-not-subtle forms of racism and internalized sexism. Alexander’s point about who we are in the world should be self-evident (multiverses exist in contemporary physics – why not poetics?), and being such, should temper dominant notions of mastery and literary lineage; poetry comprises not one gold standard, but multiple poetic temperaments and aesthetic projects, and, as Alexander argues, “they should be read accordingly.” No one can or should like everything, but it’s absurd to think that the poems of the instructors I chose could better speak to the condition of a young, poor, queer, immigrant woman than the poems of the instructors I bypassed.
Hearing Stephen Rea deliver “New York Time” in Kilkenny both transported me to the wonder of the world that had opened to me through this encyclopedic poem, some twenty years back, and recalled all that I had missed. I had found (in the poem) a school for my own thought, for an inchoate aesthetic sensibility, a tightly circumscribed social ethic – the equivalent of private piety, versus social justice – and even a kind of accidental spirituality, a way to order life and love. Subsequent experiences reading W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus, Shailja Patel’s Migritude and other works have affirmed that I am drawn to bodies of work that sing, yes, of course, and also invite inquiry both deep and wide: intimate, historical, sending me to the footnotes, the library, the internet, to decipher and unpack every reference. In the case of Mahon’s poem, this might mean listening to Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, or re-watching (the original) Godzilla, discovering the lives of Kim Philby and Eartha Kitt, the dramas of the House of Atreus. I didn’t yet have the language to think through and outside hegemonic literary canons and their claims to and implicit assumptions of the universal – some twenty-two-year old might have known all of these references, but for me these were new worlds within worlds. I think I relished having to look everything up because it was a more interesting way to address what I could only think of as gaping holes in my intellectual and aesthetic formation (and maybe they were, but there were other holes as well).
And what of the poem’s casual mention of “aristocratic Negro faces, not like ours” (addressing Auden), and other references to American black culture that predate contemporary literature’s shift (thanks to sustained pressure from historically marginalized writers) of the Overton window on the subject of who speaks for whom, and as whom, and how. These words that present problems to me now didn’t always (I had glossed over a similar move in Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay,” and there are ample other, graver examples). Nor was I attuned to notice and interpret absences, to ask critically of a work: If there is authority here, where does it come from? That is, if a poet evokes other previous or contemporary voices in order to render a moral and aesthetic universe, is that universe devoid of women? People of color? How does one see and render a foreign (to the author) place? This is not a question of box-ticking, but of how art represents, and re-presents. It may be helpful here to draw from the sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s materialist interpretation of racism (a lens one could recast for a complex system of social oppressions, in fact), wherein “actors in superordinate positions (dominant race) develop a set of social practices (a racial praxis if you will) and an ideology to maintain the advantages they receive based on their racial classification” such that “the foundation of racism is not the ideas that Individuals may have about others but the social edifice erected over social inequality.” Bonilla-Silva’s metaphor of the “foundation” here is worth emphasizing: his theory in no way implies that individuals’ ideas are irrelevant – merely that they, alone, form a too narrow definition of racism. And what about poetry’s foundation? Coming to terms with my own moral and aesthetic formation through poetry can only take place, ultimately, in light of this materialist interpretation of language itself, this question of who/what is present and who/what is absent, and how things came to be this way.
Mahon’s work has helped me live. And it has existed, like much of what I have read, within social structures designed to reproduce systemic disadvantages based on my gender, as well as my systemic advantage as a racialized-white person – an immigrant, like Mahon, but one whose possibilities of assimilation into a dominant culture in very real ways surpassed the possibilities of people of color, including those those born in the United States. Even when, in my twenties, it hardly felt that way to me.
Let me speak, then, to that in Mahon’s poetry which has helped me live, turning, as I do, to his most recent collection from Gallery Press, Against the Clock (Mahon’s third collection to win the prestigious Irish Times Poetry Now Award). Like many of his previous collections, Against the Clock is full of “principled attention to intersubjective exchange” between the poet and the world. Its exchanges include not only correspondence with living friends like Hugh Haughton and with Robert Graves, Montaigne, and other “Greeks and Greats” (Victor Hugo, Bertolt Brecht, Walt Whitman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others), but also engagements with visual art, such as that of Basil Blackshaw, Charles Tyrell, and Peter Lanyon; and with water, birds, botany, and the enduring allure and negative capacities of abandoned or neglected spaces, whether in the world or in the imagination. It is also full of advice in different registers from the vantage of an aging poet. In “Working Conditions,” for instance, addressing a younger cadre, he prescribes, “A beloved presence, the right kind of light / preferable from an eastward-facing window” and “at least / some slight knowledge of other languages / dead or alive, though the dead are best.” “Brave New World,” meanwhile, offers some guidance for how to live within “the manic growth of corporate space / and playstations”: “So face the brave new world with a wry grin … / but undermine the system from within / or hide away” far from the system’s hyper-pixelated glare. Wry grin, subversive verse, retreat: Mahon has known them all. The negative capability that combines all three remains his fiercest mark on contemporary poetry.
Take “Trump Time.” This three-part poem begins with a stern reminder of what Ozymandias preferred to forget: that empires decline, fall, and fade: “Nineveh, Tyre and Carthage are long gone; / also Troy and the hanging gardens of Babylon.” Not only is Britain hardly exempt from the fate of its predecessors, but even “Angria too will have an end at last.” Angria? The poem’s title might otherwise look like a typo for “Anglia”; its references to Whitman, Fitzgerald, Gershwin, and Louis Armstrong, however, strongly hint at a purposeful conflation of the United States with one of the paracosms found in the juvenilia of the Brontë sisters (Anne Brontë herself appears more explicitly in another poem), casting the United States as a kind of speculative fiction. (Neither of which rules out the more obvious pun on “angry.”) The poet imagines, a decline that could – and by Mahon’s standards, this is an upgrade – withdraw the U.S. from the world’s attention (on which it imposes itself in the form of military, corporate, religious and celebrity campaigns), so that “the wider world / will think of other things, as it did once.” In the quiet generated by that thought, the second part considers the possibility of reflection, even of spirituality – states of being requiring precisely the kind of intimacy with the living world that conditions in “Trump Time” (with what another poem calls “the clamor of crazed voices” and the “petulant rage/ for world dominion”) preclude:
Where a spring rises, in the little wood
of birch and sycamore beside the house,
I stand and listen to the undying source
whispering there. I’d travel if I could
through the lost ages to a distant time
when it was sacred to a pre-Christian god;
I’d tie a token on a thorn and climb
back to the present, sure in the belief
we can still touch the origins of life,
relish perspective, silence, solitude,
far from the bedlam of acquisitive force
that rules us and would rule the universe.
I can’t read this stanza without thinking of one of the finest moments in “The Hudson Letter/ New York Time,” at the closing of a courtly love poem, when Mahon’s lines (“but when the earth renews itself in spring / and whitethorn flowers to hear the blackbird sing/ I too sing… .”) echo with the homely, humble, horse-drawn familiarity (to those formed in Western, English-language idiom) of other blank verse, of the Lord’s Prayer, of Chaucer’s “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote …” Mahon’s longing calls to mind what the philosopher Giorgio Agamben has referred to as “the museification of experience,” the impossibility, in modernity, of true intimacy with reality, of penetrating through this intimacy (touch) to “the origins of life.” The poem’s poignancy comes from the knowledge that, of course, we can’t travel back, and even if we could, how do we know that we, once returned, would recognize the token – how do we know it isn’t in fact already here?
Whatever its possibility for fulfillment, however, such longing is evidently far removed from the “petulant rage / for world dominion” personified by an American president. What the poem enumerates as “perspective, silence, solitude,” and their attending experiences of life, can exist only in spaces outside the purview of “acquisitive force”:
Such things survive, beloved of poet and artist,
only where their despoilers haven’t noticed –
in a yard or a hidden cove, out on the edge,
the rushy meadow and the fallow acre
ripe for development as industrial plant.
Hence the tension, in this and other poems, between two kinds of attention: the kind the poet gives to “the undying source / whispering” and the other, the rapacious attention of the “despoilers.” The site of resistance is the place itself, though the threat is never far. “Rushy meadow” and “fallow acre” are “ripe for development,” never secure in their state of abandonment. This theme recurs throughoutAgainst the Clock. “What on earth shall we do / with this silent conventicle?” the poet asks in another poem, “Install a picnic table, a building site? / No, this is where the angel will alight. / Just let it be.” Each disused space holds two potentialities: to be the place where “a thought might grow,” or to be devoured by the madness of the capitalist desire for infinite growth on a finite planet.
This motif picks up another resonance in the collection’s title, as “Against the clock” might refer to Mahon’s increasing preoccupation with an ecological crisis both impending and already here. “The Rain Forest,” “Ophelia” (referring to Storm Ophelia, which, in 2017, battered the South Irish coast where Mahon lives), and “Ivy” go there most directly, with “Ivy” drawing implicit connections between the colonial era (the sixteenth-century Baron Mountjoy, First Earl of Devonshire, in “The Rain Forest”) and the destruction of the natural world for the accumulation of capital (“Does money grow like leaves? / Old trees are daily felled for cash”), resulting in accelerating extreme weather patterns, and post-human horizons:
When all is ruin and the owl
looks on with an indifferent scowl,
rats and mosquitoes will abide
in the great cities where we died
and ivy cover earth and stone
with its dark cloak, oblivion,
rippling sedately in the sun.
Ivy will be the final flower
of life, as it has been before.
Bays and oak leaves? Not a chance.
When history bows to circumstance
it will be ivy that survives
the evidence of our vanished lives.
Over the years, Mahon has frequently bridged the taut music of W. B. Yeats with the sometimes corny humanism of W. H. Auden, and here, too, the meter of the dead man (Yeats) is “modified in the guts of the living” (Auden). It’s worth hearing the genealogy:
Irish poets learn your trade (Yeats, “Under Ben Bulben”)
Sing whatever is well made,
Earth receive an honored guest (Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats)
William Yeats is laid to rest
When all is ruin and the owl (Mahon, “Ivy”)
looks on with an indifferent scowl,
Engagement with tradition is many things, a way to claim authority, to pay tribute to what has nourished and shaped one’s work, or just to move the pen forward when one is stuck: form orders thought. But there’s another reason to use this particular form, which, in each instance given here has been elegiac. It is a point that another Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, has made directly and playfully in his poem after the death of Joseph Brodsky:
Trochee, trochee, falling: thus (Heaney, “Audenesque”)
Grief and metre order us.
Engagement with tradition, in Mahon’s sense in Against the Clock, is a way to elegize a death – a Great Dying, as this age has been called by many climate scientists, who compare our age to the End-Permian Extinction – in an unimaginable future without humanity.
There is, as always, more to unpack – including Mahon’s deep aesthetic investment in the Greeks and the Greats, or, rather, his work’s fidelities to literary worlds and epistemologies in which women inspire but otherwise have little agency. About the Greeks, the historian Amanda Foreman reminds us that “from the goddesses Athena to Aphrodite, there is no other civilization in the ancient world that gave images of female power such a central role, and yet at the same time so ruthlessly excluded real women from public life.” With notable exceptions – including, in Against the Clock, a meditation on the author Anne Brontë (praised for her drawn self-portrait and “a faith sustained”) and “On a Drowned Girl,” an imitation of Brecht’s poem about Rosa Luxemburg – if the feminine appears in Mahon’s poetry, it is largely as a disembodied principle, or a feminized thing. In the new collection alone we find “Diana, Artemis, Astarte …” (“A Full Moon in May”), a female typewriter (“Olympia”), a murderous (fictitious) widow (“Homage to Joseph Kell”), and in “Ophelia,” simultaneously, Hamlet’s “royal girlfriend” and the weather that bore her name.
It is risky to talk about male poets’ treatment of female subjectivity in relation to how they view their own mothers; here, one does not have to speculate. Speaking with Eamon Grennan, Mahon says: “My mother stopped working when she got married. That’s what they did then. She became a housewife … and very house-proud in the obsessive way that a woman in that position often is.” What his account doesn’t acknowledge, or evades, is that it wasn’t simply “what they did then.” In many cases it was the law: in Ireland and Northern Ireland, the so-called “marriage bar,” lifted only with the Sex Discrimination Order of 1976, denied (middle-class) women the right to work once they were married. It’s hard not to draw connections between the (all too common) pathologizing of women under the thumb of patriarchy and a sublimated idealization of the feminine in creative work. Mahon is by no means alone in this, or other troubling tendencies. Though there are also, as I say, exceptions – most poignantly in “A Birthday,” a poem to a flesh-and-blood daughter, “whose recent photo rests” – and here Mahon activates another, humbler meaning of his title – “against the clock.” It is so like Mahon always to return to the material stuff, even in language.
Mahon’s contribution to poetry, to human culture, can be described as an aesthetic intervention within the idea of a known self in conflict with an alien other: an encounter that takes place at the heart of the various interlocking structures – (Protestant) Christianity, national identity and citizenship, global capitalism, antagonisms of North and South – that have shaped his work. This space, in which the political, the theological, the ecological, and the aesthetic all meet, is one that the philosopher Gillian Rose has called “the broken middle,” a phrase that acknowledges the fracture and rupture within every human endeavor. But rather than attempting to resolve the tension, the theorizing of the broken middle aims simply to hold one in that space (a position that is itself an ethical one, in its refusal to look away from suffering), long enough to register, feel, grieve, and – finally, as these poems can and do – to sing out of the brokenness.