There is no doubt that the publication of Derek Mahon's The Poems (1961-2020) (Gallery Press, 536pp, €22.50pb/€35hb) is a major occasion in Irish literature. Bringing together, in their final forms, the poems that Mahon himself wished to be read, it is not a traditional "collected poems", excising as it does many poems from his oeuvre, with its contents not being demarcated according to the original published volumes. Instead, The Poems is presented as a final, sweeping testament.
The effect of Mahon’s revisions, whether one thinks them an act of violence or an act of improvement, is to create a career-spanning book that is unusually cohesive, modern and considered in the way that a single collection might be: that is, in terms of idiom, music, crescendo, topicality and timelessness. Here we meet one of Ireland’s finest poets in what he considered to be his final form. It is an astonishing achievement.
Readers familiar with Gallery Press’s earlier New Collected Poems (2011) will recognise much of the structure of this volume. Indeed, the revisions and choices of ordering made in that volume appear to stand here. There is one poem missing (‘Schopenhauer’s Day’), but otherwise The Poems, 1961-2020 looks to be New Collected Poems and Mahon’s penultimate and final collections, Against the Clock (2018) and Washing Up (2020), combined.
Heralding the arrival of The Poems, Gallery has also published a second volume. Autumn Skies (156pp, €13.90pb/€20hb), a collection of 30 brief essays by 30 writers responding to a chosen Mahon poem, was originally intended to celebrate the occasion of the poet's 80th birthday, but serves now as a memorial tribute.
With the poems reprinted alongside the essays, the book acts as an excellent introduction to Mahon’s work, surveying both classic poems (“Afterlives”, “A Disused Shed in Co Wexford”, “Harbour Lights”) and lesser known works. Some of the essays (such as John Fitzgerald on “The Sea in Winter”) admit to a fondness for earlier versions of poems that Mahon later revised, testifying to the arresting power of the first encounter.
It is rare for a poet to be able to write a poem such as Penshurst Place, with its sumptuous traditionalism, its lilting rhythms and ornate atmosphere, its descriptions of
rich silence after rain,
lute music in the orchard aisles,
the paths ablaze with daffodils,
to be able to write of courtiers and turtle doves, and then to also, elsewhere, draw the reader into a bitter, disillusioned complicitly, as in Afterlives, with its famous (and, after Mahon’s revision, somewhat neutered) exclamation, “What middle-class shits we are”.
What is rarer is to be able to pull off both these registers within a few pages and still remain recognisably oneself, but Mahon does this with apparent ease. It is this varied and exacting idiom that draws the reader close to Mahon. Like many of us in real life, he can be both blisteringly angry, exasperated, tender, genuinely funny, lyrical, political, romantic, and apocalyptic. Unlike most of us, he can do this within a poem too.
Mahon crafts a language, as Vona Groarke writes, that “shimmies between instruction and evocation”, a poetry that can be what Andrew Jamison calls “lamentation, lambasting and love poem all at once”. Autumn Skies is full of such pithy and perceptive descriptions.
Not only this, but it is particularly good to see Paul Muldoon pointing to the ironies and dissatisfactions of a poem that thronged social media last year, Mahon’s Everything Is Going to Be Alright.
Enlisted as a saccharine and zen anthem of the pandemic (during which everything was, demonstrably, not alright), the poem’s repeated “There will be dying, there will be dying” seemed oddly dismissive or unfeeling. Read by Muldoon as a lyric of “absentminded desperation rather than conviction”, the poem is recovered as ambivalent, hesitant, doubtful and failing, and is all the better for it.
As a poet, right through to his final collection, of complex and committed environmental and social politics, with the formal range and grace of the finest practitioners of the art, Mahon’s departure leaves us with a sense of aftermath. Perhaps that is fitting.
Over and over his imagination returns to destruction and loss to envision a world that will replace our own. There is a hope beyond the human where nature will be reconfigured without us, where the perspectives of deep time illuminate both the pettiness and the vital importance of our global life.
There is so much to enjoy here, and so much to learn from. Like the aspens in his collection Life on Earth (2008), this is a voice that sometimes “whistles fast and loud/ with forecast and astonishment”, and at other times hunkers down in the dirt. In Mahon’s poetry, we have been left a lasting, rich and challenging legacy.