An appetite for the large themes of life
POETRY: John McAuliffereviews Life on EarthBy Derek Mahon, Gallery Press, 63pp. €11.95pb, €18.50hb
DEREK MAHON'S new collection, Life on Earth, announces, with its brilliant title, an appetite for the big themes that govern all life on earth.
It begins with ancient precedent, an abbreviated version of Ovid's monologue for Ariadne. In it, the Greek princess, who first helped Theseus to kill the Minotaur, then eloped with him, is now abandoned on the island of Naxos, where she watches him sail away to greater fame. It is a striking and original vantage-point and Mahon's short, selective, magpie translation is sympathetic to Ariadne's isolated exile, stuck between her fatherland and her lover, a sort of anti-Odysseus who can never go home, who lives seemingly without alternative in the aftermath of great events.
In Life on Earth, these great events are both personal and historical: there are poems here which cope with lost love from a solitude to which the speaker has become accustomed: Trigorin and The Lady From the Sea present characters from Chekhov and Ibsen respectively who are forced to decide between a wild intensity and routine existence, and choose the latter.
Their routine and mildness are appreciated and prized in these powerful poems. This perspective, where drama must always remain in the past, recurs throughout: there is a memorable postscript to the excellent Calypso, a poem from Harbour Lights which began "Homer was wrong" as it established that happiness may be found in a life lived in the interlude; the new book's Circe and Sirens sounds no less authoritative when it declares "Homer was right" and prefers the "sublime disgrace" of exile and pleasure to a life of epic action and new tomorrows.
Mahon's readers, still in thrall to the genius of his early work, will find he nods at memorable poems repeatedly. He recalls to the page, for instance, the fly, a familiar and humbling figure for human endeavour, which first appeared in Tractatus in 1982 (where it was "giving up in the coal shed"), was last sighted in Resistance Days in 2005 (where it was stuck "in the window-frame . . . [buzzing] with furious life") but now, in Somewhere the Wave, finally flies the coop in a comedy of scale: "niftier on the pane/ than the slow liner or the tiny plane", it is released from its human room and ends up hearing whale music and quoting Heidegger: ". . . escapes to the airstream, / the raw crescendo of the crashing shore / and a 'radical astonishment at existence' - / a voice, not quite a voice, in the sea distance / listening to its own thin cetaceous whistle".
He begins Goa with the line "Even now I think of you with a kind of awe", surely echoing, even rhyming with "Even now there are places where a thought might grow", the opening line of A Disused Shed in Co Wexford. Biographia Literaria responds to and echoes his early De Quincey in Later Life as much as it summarises Coleridge's life, seeing the Romantic aftermath of drug addiction in a larger aesthetic and familial context. And his revision of a 1980s poem, A Lighthouse in Maine, recasts that thin, spindly poem as a squat, two-storey structure which may in fact be closer to the Hopper painting that inspired it.
But Life on Earth is more than an addition to, or reworking of, the corpus. The sense of living in the aftermath of great events applies equally to the poems' response to an ecological collapse which has already occurred: where once he thrived on descriptions of a posthumous, post-human planet, Mahon's new ecology celebrates, with some gusto in forceful end-rhymed stanzas, the coming post-petroleum age, writing perhaps the first hymns to alternative energy supplies in the bravura sequence which is the centrepiece of the book, Homage to Gaia. In Its Radiant Energies, the poem which provides the book with its title, he observes:
raises its many faces
to worship the hot sun
while the brilliant Dirigibles imagines a future for the Hindenberg-style airship:
Our time will come again
with helium in the sack
instead of hydrogen
while slow idealists
gaze at refrozen ice,
reflourishing rain forests,
the oceans back in place
The sequence engages with new and old vocabularies, and with a wider world absent from contemporary writing, but it also reconnects to MacNeice (another, new kind of London Rain), includes an ode to Björk, and a sort of parodic afterthought, Homage to Goa which begins and ends "The ceiling fans go round and round" (alluding perhaps to "The wheels of the bus go round and round") while saying with an uncharacteristic but convincing sincerity, "Given a choice of worlds, here or beyond, / I'd pick this one not once but many times".
The other sequences, "Art Notes" and "Quaderno", are less comprehensive or satisfying although studded with terrific details: the poems about paintings harvest the abundance of cloud images of Harbour Lights, while "She sits there tinkering with an ice-cream" begins the first poem of the latter sequence with great verbal brio.
Other arresting individual lyrics include Research which revisits the shore poems of Harbour Lights, A Country Road, whose human ecology concludes, "like the wind blowing through / we belong here too", and the lovely short poem, Tara Boulevard, whose closing lines stay in the moment and on the road as they vividly conjure Gone with the Wind, Coleridge (again), the photographer William Egglestone and Elizabeth Bishop: ". . .'O'Hara's Gas and Body Parts' / light up at dusk on Tara Boulevard, / red neon scribbling to the thundery air."
• John McAuliffe's second collection of poetry, Next Door, was published last year. He co-directs the centre of new writing at the University of Manchester and is an editor of the Manchester Review