The sublime sneaks in


POETRY: PHILIP McDONAGHreviews An Autumn Windby Derek Mahon, The Gallery Press, 79pp, €11.95pbk, €18.50hbk

THE EARLY Derek Mahon is a cosmopolitan poet, in the Greek sense of cosmopolites: the “citizen of the world” who brings a universal perspective to his society. A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford can be read as the response of such a cosmopolites(and caring person) to the narrow yet trusting nature of Irish society at that time.

In mid-career, Mahon’s easy way with cultural references continues. But personal grief, a “life lost”, seems the counterpart of a world in which (as The Yellow Bookhas it) “patience, courage, artistry, solitude” are “things of the past, like the love of God”.

How can a poet think globally and write locally in “the pastiche paradise of the post-modern”?

One of the most enjoyable things about An Autumn Windis that it responds to this question, taking further Mahon’s work over the past decade. Mahon remains a western poet of his time, warning of “oil wars and water wars”, “corporate buzzards” and a culture “slowly running down despite / what the best economic brains / devise”. As before, Mahon turns to nature as a source of healing (“Gaia demands your love” / “listen to the leaves” / “the still living whole”). As before, he looks to other civilisations to achieve a wider perspective. Groups of poems are devoted to China and India respectively.

But something else is asserted as well, over and above the elegance of thought, range of reference and lyric beauty of which Mahon is always capable. “Listening to an autumn wind / shaking the window,” the poet concludes, in Under the Volcanoes:

Everything can be remedied . . .

. . . the most unpromising

material shaped into a living thing

outlasting winter to a temperate spring

My favourite poems here – A Building Site, New Space, The Thunder Shower, At the Butler Arms– have as their starting point a memorable moment out of which comes a vision that is at one and the same time artistic, philosophical, and historical.

The “building site” was formerly a religious institution:

Of the old convent nothing

remains on this dark day

But activity among the ruins offers “giddy glimpses” of something new:

A momentary, oblique

vision of an unknown

eternal dispensation,

the infinite republic

of primary creation

In New Spacea studio opens on a garden:

It’s all the one, the clay, the cloth,

art, music, and organic growth

nursing the venerable ideal

of spirit lodged within the real

A thunder shower, from “diatonic crescendo” to “a few last drops”, becomes an allegory of a certain kind of futility:

The voice of Baal explodes . . .

frantic to crush the self-sufficient spaces

and re-impose his failed hegemony

in Canaan

Wind and water play an important part throughout this collection. Descriptions of the tsunami, winter flooding in Cork and an Indian washerwomans dream of “point-of-use filtration” fit naturally with passages in which nature’s elements carry or may carry an extra weight of meaning. At the Butler Armsfinds the poet unable to cross to Sceilig Mhichíl because of “strong winds”. “Six / centuries of the ‘crude bronze crucifix’” play into the present as we view through the poet’s eyes:

the last rock of an abandoned civilisation

whose dim lights glimmered in a distant


to illuminate at the edge

a future life

In finding such illumination, even “at the edge”, Derek Mahon reacquires the dual citizenship, local and universal, of the cosmopolites. But now it is often the local (“how could you get inside their bony heads?”) that sheds light on the universal.

Tributes to Montague, Heaney, and Longley are grouped under the title Autumn Skies:

This is how it begins,

devotion to the real things

of a clean-swept morning:

leaf-drip and birdsong,

work sounds, the rich

air of a country kitchen.

In the work of the Ulster poets, the “old reality” sought out by Synge in Synge Dying, the “self-sufficient spaces” that Baal could not destroy, have prevailed. As the poem dedicated to Longley expresses it,

linen, cloud, and snow

absorb the blood and sweat . . .

now we can die in peace

In Under the Volcanoes, Mahon reprises his famous “rage for order”, a sort of karma of the poet, as if to link the Irish commitments of his early career to the assurance with which he now approaches the planetary question.

“I’m less in love with the sublime,” Mahon tells us in New Space. But the sublime recurs – not least, a snapshot of the dying Synge “fighting for life / in the fey breezes and raw winds”. Does An Autumn Windsuggest, as well as the autumn of a poet, the wind neither “fey” nor “raw” that enlightened the prophet Elijah?

At the beginning of the 21st century, Derek Mahon is as indispensable a political poet as he was half a century ago, when a “strange child with a taste for verse” embraced Irish identity in the face of much contradiction.

Philip McDonagh is a poet and diplomat, currently Irish Ambassador to Russia. His collection The Song the Oriole Sangis forthcoming from Dedalus