Vona Groarke, review of Harbour Lights by Derek Mahon, in The Irish Times (7 Jan. 2006)

Details: Vona Groarke, ‘majestic reminders aid the ennui’, review of Harbour Lights by Derek Mahon, in The Irish Times (7 Jan. 2006), Weekend, p.10; available online [orig. access date unknown].

One of Derek Mahon’s greatest skills as a poet has always been to know how to slip himself into a poem. His presence in so many of his great poems has been achieved with remarkable tact, In Courtyards in Delft, he enters in the last stanza as the “strange child with a taste for verse”, and typically, he is positioned in the margins, in half-light, manipulating his own presence to allow him the authority and immediacy of an “I” that has none of the bombast or rhetoric that abandons so many lesser poets to their self-absorbed dead-ends.

This deftness is not always in evidence in recent collections, where the lesser poems skirt with soap-box poetics and read, at times, like journal entries that do little more than showcase the poet’s habits and opinions. In “Resistance Days”, the first poem and something of a hangover from recent books, Mahon seems determined to put himself over as wavering between ennui and pique. At least he is generous in his targets: America, technology, advertising, Wyndham Lewis (“A real barbarian”), “digital movies and unnatural nosh”, tourism and the Christmas season all get it in the neck. He seems very much taken with this idea of himself as a latter-day Hamlet, tetchy and forsaken. This is not the Mahon of his best poems. While there’s always been a cautious disenchantment with the trappings of modernity, there has also been a respectful allowance for the material world, for the watering can, the petrol pump, the lorry changing gear, the prawn chow mein. As secular mystic, (Mahon’s phrase for Philippe Jaccottet, although clearly applicable to himself as well), he has been wont to seek and find transcendent potential in even the most unpromising bric-a-brac. It comes as something of a reassurance then to find him in “Hampstead Graves”, acknowledging “the penetrable mysteries” of “deckchair and brick”.

Exactly half-way through the book, the curmudgeonly figure from the “Deux Magots” is suddenly bouncing “on sneakers up a winding stair” and declaring that, “even at sixty I can still walk on air”. He turns now from the geography-primer neutrality of lines such as “Steam rises from the sea, as becomes clear/ when clothes on the shore absorb the salty air” (“Lucretius on Clouds”), to a different register of language in The Cloud Ceiling that fairly bristles with intimacy. Clearly, his newborn daughter has commanded his somewhat jaded gaze to focus on more engaged and energetic life.

We’ve painted a cloud ceiling, a splash of stars
and a thin convective stream, not a bad job

Mahon can still survey the bothersome details, “the porn and veg” that are refracted echoes of Yeats’s “rag and bone shop / of the heart”, but also, something more. This double-take, noticing at once the “shivering dump” and the “one faint star in it”, is typical of a book that looks several ways at once. Harbour Lights cannot easily be pinned down. Paris, Morocco, London, Kinsale, the south of France all provide settings. The title poem admits to “living part-time in a subversive past” and indeed, so many settings in this book are on loan. Mahon nestles vicariously into Elizabeth Bowen’s wartime London, smuggles Basho into Kinsale whose dreamy woods (lest we find our bearings too easily) are described as being “straight out of Chekhov”. Everything, it seems, can be moved around like tokens on an elaborate gaming board. Mahon even engages in a little voice throwing, having Jean Rhys address us from Kettner’s pub, and the Widow of Kinsale dredge up the Hag of Beara to come along in her “old-fashioned Rover / to Bantry or even Dingle”.

With dislocation comes translation, the re-interpretation for a brand-new audience of what was once earthed in its own tradition and context. Among this collection’s triumphs are its translations. “The Seaside Cemetery”, a version of Valéry’s “Le Cimetière marin”, glistens with the contest between an ethereal, symbolist French and a more grounded, material English. “Red Cloud (after Bonnefoy)” and “White Cloud (after Brecht)”, risk nostalgia with breathtaking poise.

“New Wave” is surely this collection’s high-water mark. Its capacious sweep recalls the ambitious and aching beauty of such touchstone poems as “A Disused Shed in Co Wexford”, “The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush” and “The Globe in North Carolina”. Part film-noir, part narrative photography in the style of Robert Doisneau, the poem plays with light and shadow in a sequence of crepuscular, sea-side scenes in which the narrative voiceover is withheld so that the images are given to us without the judgment of the giver.

The sky, its racing stripes and ice-cream colours,
thin cries of children from the beach below,
and the hurtling gulls, are too heartbreaking;
they shut the shutters and return to the dark.

This rivals the most memorable achievements of his long career and reminds us, happily, just how majestic a poet Mahon can be.

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