Terence Brown, ĎAbsorbing, insightful’ [review of The Poetry of Derek Mahon, ed. Elmer Kennedy-Andrews (Colin Smythe Ltd) in The Irish Times (24 Aug. 2002).

[The poetry of Derek Mahon has scarcely drawn the critical attention it deserves, writes Terence Brown.]

[...] Indeed it is a very surprising fact that as yet no full-scale critical work exists on this poet who has, since the mid 1960s, given us such remarkable works as “In Carrowdore Churchyard”, “An Image from Beckett”, “A Disused Shed in Co.Wexford”, “Courtyards in Delft”, “The Globe in North Carolina”, “Girls on the Bridge”, “The Sea in Winter”, “Achill” (and others will have their own lists of essential Mahon poems). So The Poetry of Derek Mahon is very much to be welcomed as it extends the analysis of this poet’s work that was begun in a special issue of the Irish University Review in 1994. It collects essays by distinguished critics who address such matters as Mahon’s sense of place and placelessness, his imaginative engagement with the material world, his relationship to Ireland and nationalism and to America, the role of translation in his aesthetic, his self-editing, his fascination with painting as poetic subject and allusive resource, his complex intertextuality. The trajectory of the poet’s career is suggested as the writers respond to what Neil Corcoran (in one of the best essays in the book) identifies as “the poised, melancholy perfectionism of earlier Mahon” as well as to the recent expansive, more immediately personal verse of the The Hudson Letter and The Yellow Book (about the success of which critics in this volume are divided). The overall effect of this sustained critical attention is to emphasise the depth and seriousness of Mahon’s achievement (though only one critic, Michael Allen allows, rightfully, that seriousness of artistic purpose can allow “mordant humour”) and to consolidate a reputation that can only increase as critics build on the insights this book affords.

Mahon as poet has always been absorbed in a highly self-reflexive way by the question of the significance of poetry itself, what he once called with characterisitic, ironic panache, its “eddy of semantic scruples/ in an unstructurable sea”. His critics in this volume are engaged by the same problem. For some of them poetry, however compelling in its verbal assurance, however affecting its sausions, can only be read as imbricated with history from which it can never extricate itself in any kind of transcendence. As the editor puts it, summarising this strain of thinking in the volume, Mahon’s understanding is taken to be that “value and meaning are possible only in the historical world: only in the human world of history, time and consciousness can the victims of history be retrieved and saved in human memory” (Stan Smith and Jerzy Jarivicz are eloquent on how Mahon is tragic laureate of historicity). Poetry may alert us to the anguish of the human condition, but it cannot redeem us.

By contrast, some critics in this book hint that the source of poetry in work as mesmeric in its music as Mahon’s can be, may be something in human consciousness that transcends “the mute phenomena” and the flux of time and history, something poetry helps us to experience as the ground of our being (to deploy Paul Tillich’s famous phrase). Among these contributions is Bruce Stewart’s moving investigation of the term “secular mysticism”, which he carefully unpacks to see if it contains anything substantial. He leaves us with the tantalising possibility that it might, which he implies is just what Mahon’s poetry does: “The contrasting spheres of spirituality and semiotics, mysticism and scepticism, metaphysics and cultural relativity are conventionally opposed, yet Mahon succeeds in making them mesh like gears in poem after poem. Is this what is meant by secular mysticism? If so, it might be the right name for his intellectual temper.” Edna Longley, in her essay “Looking Back From The Yellow Book”, argues that Mahon’s poetry “has to be called religious”, meaning more than that it has been in part conditioned by cultural Protestantism. Religion, she argues, “shapes his sounds and rhythms, his symbolism, his response to modernity, his pleas for the spirit to re-enter history”.

It is the strength of Hiroko Mikami’s thoughtful study of Frank McGuinness’s drama (in the same Ulster Editions and Monographs series that has given us the book on Mahon) that she apprehends so clearly the powerful religious vision that informs his work. In a rather poignant conclusion she tells us how difficult it was for her at first as a Japanese student of Anglo-Irish literature in Trinity College in 1979 (the year of the papal visit) to come to terms with a society which struck her as “oppressive and melancholy”.

Work in the mid-1990s on McGuinness, which led to the doctoral thesis upon which this book is based, helped her to understand, from the writings of one she reckons an insider who is also a kind of outsider to the Catholic feeling which made Dublin a difficult place in 1979, has helped her to understand the culture she both loved and hated as a student. And her perspective on the playwright, as one who comes from a culture where religion, as she states it, is more a matter of “dance” than of ideology or dogma, has allowed her to see how McGuinness’s theatre engages with a key religious paradox that redemption in the fallen world of history may be made possible by ritual actions on a theatrical stage. Accordingly, she gives us suggestive readings of such works as Observe the Sons of Ulster and Mutabilitie and is thoroughly instructive on Innocence, which found few Irish celebrants when it was first produced by the Gate Theatre in 1986. Sometimes in her study, Mikami’s fascination with symbolic action and ritual meanings makes her assume theatre audiences in the West can absorb more than they can (so I think she exaggerates the success of the play Mary and Lizzie, 1989), but her insights are nonetheless valuable, coming from one who has engaged so sensitively with a culture she found strange and even off-putting. Her book also contains much valuable bibliographical and archival information.

[Terence Brown is professor of Anglo-Irish literature in Trinity College, Dublin. The Poetry of Derek Mahon. Edited by Elmer Kennedy-Jones. Colin Smythe Ltd, 361pp. £35 sterling.]

[ close ]

[ top ]