Derek Mahon RIP

Oblique light on the trite…

Irish poet Derek Mahon (1941-2020) just passed away. I liked his poetry very much.

Courtyards in Delft

Mahon’s best poems are typically a couple of pages long, stylish and lyrical ruminations set in traditionally shaped stanzas and using rhyme or half-rhyme. They are comfortably conservative in form and approach, such as one of his greatest hits, Courtyards in Delft.

The delight is in the detail, as lovingly and clearly described as words can manage, struggling as they do to convey anything like the lush fullness of the oil painting the poem is based on. It’s about the verbal capture of winning details.

… late-afternoon
Lambency informing the deal table,
The ceiling cradled in a radiant spoon.

Courtyards in Delft is also an example of Mahon’s engagement with the European civilisation of the past – not in a show-off way, but a comfortable, accessible approach which brings old paintings, poems and stories wonderfully alive in the present.

The Mute Phenomena

But the Mahon poems I really love feature something more – his distinctive handling of the gritty detritus of modern life, forgotten trash, discarded and ignored like the hub cap which has a starring role in ‘The Mute Phenomena’.

The Mute Phenomena

Your great mistake is to disregard the satire
Bandied among the mute phenomena.
Be strong if you must, your brisk 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’s susceptible, Pythagoras said so.

An ordinary common-or-garden brick wall, the kind
For talking to or banging your head on,
Resents your politics and bad draftsmanship.
God is alive and lives under a stone;
Already in a lost hub-cap is conceived
The ideal society which will replace our own.

The Mute Phenomena is a loose adaptation of a sonnet by the nineteenth century French poet Gerard de Nerval (cf what I said about his engagement with the art and literature of the past), with the half-rhymes loitering in the middle distance till full rhymes come swimming right into focus, bringing with them the power of the details they describe.

In a blunter-than-usual tone, Mahon addresses his favourite subject, which is the weird, ominous and visionary aspect of everyday objects, the eerie sense you sometimes have that they are immensely present in our lives – the tin opener, the microwave, the allen keys – right here and now, in your hand, as you need them – but at the same time are strangely transient.

They break, we chuck them away and get a new one, and in doing so we throw away something of ourselves. For a moment, we catch ourselves half-aware that we, too, are throwaway implements. In fact our whole society is in the process of throwing itself away.

The wordless phenomena, the clutter of stuff we surround ourselves with, knows this very well. The mute phenomena watch us and mock our absurd pretensions to permanence or meaning. Silently, when we’re not looking, our possessions are sniggering at us.

A Garage in County Cork

I grew up in a petrol station so I’ve always loved A Garage in County Cork for the very strong memories it evokes of the sights and smells of my own boyhood.

The sadness of abandoned buildings is a time-honoured subject, from Anglo-Saxon laments about Roman ruins through to Wordsworth’s elegies for Tintern Abbey etc. What makes Mahon distinctive is 1. the underlying humour of applying this sentimental approach to the very unromantic subject of an abandoned gas station, and then 2. the power of the details – the rain dancing on the exhausted grit, the sodden silence of the abandoned kitchen garden, rainbows on oily puddles and, a line I’ve loved for nearly 40 years, the vision of ‘Tyres in the branches such as Noah knew’.

Surely you paused at this roadside oasis
In your nomadic youth, and saw the mound
Of never-used cement, the curious faces,
The soft-drink ads and the uneven ground
Rainbowed with oily puddles, where a snail
Had scrawled its slimy, phosphorescent trail.

Like a frontier store-front in an old western
It might have nothing behind it but thin air,
Building materials, fruit boxes, scrap iron,
Dust-laden shrubs and coils of rusty wire,
A cabbage-white fluttering in the sodden
Silence of an untended kitchen garden —

Nirvana! But the cracked panes reveal a dark
Interior echoing with the cries of children.
Here in this quiet corner of Co. Cork
A family ate, slept, and watched the rain
Dance clean and cobalt the exhausted grit
So that the mind shrank from the glare of it.

Where did they go? South Boston? Cricklewood?
Somebody somewhere thinks of this as home,
Remembering the old pumps where they stood,
Antique now, squirting juice into a cream
Lagonda or a dung-caked tractor while
A cloud swam on a cloud-reflecting tile.

Surely a whitewashed sun-trap at the back
Gave way to hens, wild thyme, and the first few
Shadowy yards of an overgrown cart track,
Tyres in the branches such as Noah knew —
Beyond, a swoop of mountain where you heard,
Disconsolate in the haze, a single blackbird.

Left to itself, the functional will cast
A death-bed glow of picturesque abandon.
The intact antiquities of the recent past,
Dropped from the retail catalogues, return
To the materials that gave rise to them
And shine with a late sacramental gleam.

A god who spent the night here once rewarded
Natural courtesy with eternal life —
Changing to petrol pumps, that they be spared
For ever there, an old man and his wife.
The virgin who escaped his dark design
Sanctions the townland from her prickly shrine.

We might be anywhere but are in one place only,
One of the milestones of earth-residence
Unique in each particular, the thinly
Peopled hinterland serenely tense —
Not in the hope of a resplendent future
But with a sure sense of its intrinsic nature.

Note how the penultimate stanza reuses an old trope of the kind associated with Ovid’s great and very entertaining work, the Metamorphoses. In the Metamorphoses Ovid brought together all the Greek myths and legends in which people changed into animals or objects, and there turned out to be hundreds – just the stories about Zeus turning into a bull or a swan or a shower of gold and so on took up a whole section. And there’s an entire category describing the Greek gods wandering the world in disguise, as mere mortals and, when they encounter love or sadness or hospitality, transforming humans into flowers and trees and natural phenomena, into narcissus and echo and rainbows and weeping willows.

So in the penultimate stanza Mahon picks up this ancient trope but gives it a cheeky modern spin. Contemplating the two petrol pumps out front of this abandoned old gas station, he ponders what a perfect couple they make, standing together since their inception, through thick and thin, come rain or shine, an inseparable couple. If Ovid were alive today, he’d be writing poems about petrol pumps – and so the cheeky conceit of applying Ovid’s trope to two grubby symbols of our modern, petrol-driven world.

And in doing so, Mahon himself metamorphoses the old story into an entirely modern form – with his habitual wry smile and cheeky grin, playfully juxtaposing ancient and modern, high and low registers, the acme of Western culture cheek by jowl with coal sheds and leaking old sacks of cement – one of the things I value most in his poetry.

How to live

How to Live is a short poem freely adapted from one of Horace’s odes, another example of his calm, confident and smiling engagement with the art and literature of the past. (About a third of the works in the Selected Poems are translations, especially from Latin writers and 19th century French poets.)

How to live

Don’t waste your time, Leuconoé, living in fear and hope
of the imprevisable future; forget the horoscope.
Accept whatever happens. Whether the gods allow
us fifty winters more or drop us at this one now
which flings the high Tyrrhenian waves on the stone piers,
decant your wine: the days are more fun than the years
which pass us by while we discuss them. Act with zest
one day at a time, and never mind the rest.

You don’t have to like every line in a poem, it’s fine to like just certain lines, as you might like a particular passage in a pop song or piece of classical music. Thus I actively dislike the first line because I don’t know how to pronounce Leuconoé and it takes its time getting into a rhythm – although he immediately makes up for it with the phrase ‘the imprevisable future’.

(Regarding ‘imprevisable’, many of Mahon’s poems feature just one special, rare or obscure word, such as ‘esurient’ in the Delft poem, winking out at you from behind a cloud on a dark night.)

The sentiment of the final line is a little too obvious for me, a little too close to ‘Keep calm and…be happy, drink tea or whatever…’. I prefer ‘The days are more fun than the years’ because it is a little more oblique, less expected, makes you stop and reflect for a moment…

And because it is positive. So much poetry is gloomy or ends with a dying fall, the poet flopping down on their knees and asking us to feel sorry for them. Mahon’s poetry encourages us to be cheerful, smile, rejoice at the cornucopia of paintings and sculpture and great literature in a score of languages from all across Europe — and at the same time to be aware of the weirdness of the human environment, the uncanniness of everything we’ve built and designed and buy and use and throw away. 

The rusty hub-cap, the dung-caked tractor, the sodden kitchen garden, the old wooden gate, the oily puddles, the scrubbed and polished deal table – our lives are made up of these kind of details which we briefly register and then get on with our agendas. But Mahon stops, pauses, sees and captures them in lucid phrases which not only bring them to our attention but make us realise that all these things we’re surrounded by are full and charged with meaning, that we move through a manmade world packed with strange, teasing and undefinable meanings.

Tractatus

And it’s that sense of a world full of lovely, smiling, teasing mysteries which Mahon’s poetry wonderfully conveys. ‘The world is all that is the case’ is the first line of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s first book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, published in 1922, in which he set out to tabulate the rules by which everything which can be stated derives meaning, according to a theory of language & meaning which he set out in a series of carefully numbered propositions.

Twenty years later Wittgenstein conceded it was a misconceived project, the product of a young man’s overconfidence, and he returned to philosophy after the war with a completely different model, the notion that ‘meaning’ is generated at multiple levels, by a multiplicity of language and meaning ‘games’ whose basic rules can be grasped but whose possible combinations and outcomes are infinite.

So Wittgenstein himself came to realise that the world is much, much more that can be captured by one mind, one language, one system. The two stanzas of Mahon’s short poem dramatise the movement from early to late Wittgenstein (though not in a systematic way, any symmetry is unbalanced – what is God doing in the poem, it says nothing particularly interesting about him?)

Instead the highlights are the typically Mahonesque juxtaposition of one of the ‘great achievements’ of European civilisation – the huge Greek statue of Winged Victory – with one of the most insignificant things imaginable, a fly expiring in some coal-shed somewhere. And the second stanza is devoted to the big image which blots out everything else, a huge vision of the sun sinking enormous and burning hot into the wide Atlantic with a vast turbulation of roaring steam.

Tractatus

‘The world is everything that is the case.’
From the fly giving up in the coal-shed
To the Winged Victory at Samothrace.
Give blame, praise, to the fumbling God
Who hides, shame-facedly, His aged face;
Whose light retires behind its veil of cloud.

The world, though, is also so much more –
Everything that is the case imaginatively.
Tacitus believed mariners could hear
The sun sinking into the western sea;
And who would question that titanic roar,
The steam rising wherever the edge may be?

What does it mean? Quite a lot can be spun out of its entrails and guileful juxtapositions – Wittgenstein, ancient sculpture, nature, religion. On one level it is an invitation to learned analysis and disquisitions. But on another, it just is – calmly, confidently, amusedly, enrichingly, as awesome, preposterous and lovely as the fat old sun sinking into the sea with a titanic roar.


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