So much going on it could make a soul dizzy
POETRY: New Collected PoemsBy Derek Mahon, The Gallery Press, 391pp. €20
ALMOST 40 YEARS AGO, in 1972, Derek Mahon’s second collection of poetry, Lives, was published with a cover photograph of workers leaving the Belfast shipyard in 1911, Titanicin the background. It was a bold decision, ahead of its time, following on from the photographic portrait of the 27-year-old Mahon that heralded his maritime-entitled debut, Night-Crossing(1968). In his writing since, Mahon has imaginatively shuttled back and forth between these twin worlds, between the mighty forces of modernity, focused in Belfast around the easterly shores of a chastening lough and its intimate coastline, within which generations of ordinary men and women lived and worked, and the poetic sense of self withstanding and absorbing the urban tides of industrialism and its accumulated pressures, products and freedoms. No matter where his poems have taken him – from and to London, New York, Goa, Cork – these forces are at play, sometimes up front, other times under the surface of the poem. At times they clash:
Not long from barbarism to decadence, not far
from liberal republic to defoliant empire
and thence to entropy; not long before
the great money scam begins its long decline
to pot-holed roads and unfinished construction sites,
as in the dark ages a few scattered lights –
though it’s only right and proper we set down
that in our time New York was a lot of fun.
– American Deserta
History for Mahon is personal, and in this New Collected Poemsthe delight in sticking to his guns becomes apparent the more one sees this book in its own right, no longer umbilically connected to those cherished early “slim” volumes such as The Snow Party(1975) or The Hunt By Night(1982) and their revered place in the reader’s literary past. New Collected Poemsfollows on from the impressive success of Collected Poems (1999), and in the process Mahon has shifted the imaginative fulcrum of his oeuvre towards more recent work – the extraordinary run that began with The Hudson Letter(1995) and The Yellow Book(1997) and continued into the new century with Harbour Lights(2005), Life on Earth(2008) and An Autumn Wind(2010). New Collected Poemsmaintains this momentum and has all the culminating power and magisterial presence of a world remade in the poet’s own light.
Grand absolutes, though, fall away in the simple pleasures of reading Mahon. If you want “big” Yeatsian stanzas, they are here in abundance; jewels of haiku, go no farther; lyrical languor, sparking irony, wry humour, demotically discursive derring-do, Zen-like epiphany, the art of poetry is displayed in all its teeming variousness on every page. Not as a manual of affectation and demonstrative style but as a craftsman who sees language as the raw material that has to be properly used; as a consequence, the work is phenomenal. If Joyce really did think that Dublin could be reconstructed from Ulysses, Mahon’s New Collected Poemswill similarly provide time-capsule proof of late-20th- and early-21st-century transatlantic life.
Although in New Collected Poemsthe reader discovers the physical and natural landscape alongside a creaturely life, the overwhelming sound is of a voice dramatically portraying the odds on the planet surviving, the aesthetic mismatch between the market and art values, the vacuity of much that is being pushed at us as “popular”, a critical dialogue between past and present, between the western world and the east (like Louis MacNeice, Mahon has found an India of the mind), between Swiftian misanthropy and Wildean playfulness, the freedom of the visual arts and the dedicated antiheroic figures of literature. The cultural wars are zipping like lightning through this poet’s world as never before. There is so much going on in New Collected Poemsit could make a soul dizzy.
Some may grumble about poems that have been cut adrift from the mother ship – A Kensington Notebook, for one – but 370 or so pages of Mahon’s poetry contained within this New Collected Poemsis a revelation. As a book of convergences, detached from its separate roots in individual volumes, New Collected Poemsshows Mahon as sprightly and as engaging as he was at the very beginning of his writing life, in the 1960s. Dreams of a Summer Night, the concluding poem, finishes on
I await the daylight we were born to love:
birds at a window, boats on a rising wave,
light dancing on dawn water, the lives we live.
These last four words of N ew Collected Poems, “the lives we live”, recall what the great American poet Wallace Stevens said about how poetry “helps us to live our lives”. New Collected Poemshelps too; it is a massive poetic achievement, no mistake.
Gerald Dawe is a poet and fellow of Trinity College Dublin. His Conversations: Poets Poetrywill be published later this year