by Patrick McGuinness
from Poetry London, Summer 2012
‘Tous les mégots de siècles se ressemblent’, wrote Huysmans in Against Nature, the 1884 novel that became the Decadent bible. A rough translation would be ‘every century’s butt-ends look the same’. The Mahon of the 1990s, of The Hudson Letter (here renamed ‘New York Time’) and The Yellow Book (here clunkingly retitled ‘Decadence’), made much of the resemblance between his own fin de siècle and the ‘mégot’ of the nineteenth century. In that sense there also seemed to be something symbolic about bringing out a Collected in 1999, on the centennial – on the millennial – cusp. But if there are plenty of false starts in poetry, there are also plenty of false endings, as the first Collected proved.
Mahon’s ‘New’ Collected is almost a hundred pages longer, even with the omission of several important poems, including ‘A Kensington Notebook’, and all but a few of his versions and translations (published separately as Raw Material). Also missing are the faux translations of a Hindi poet, Gopal Singh, invented for An Autumn Wind. This new edition shows Mahon’s capacity for off-key self-editing, but also his well-documented penchant for wasteful and infelicitous revisions. Like the first Collected, this book is unsignposted. Though chronological, the table of contents does not divide the work into volumes. The gaps between collections, a year or two here, a decade or so there, are collapsed, books wash into and out of each other like outlines in a watercolour. There’s a certain logic to that; at nearly four hundred pages, this Collected feels both monumental and oddly fluid. Some may find this disorientating, but it is fitting enough for a poet who comes in waves rather than segments.
Seasoned finisecularists would in any case have realized that if Mahon knew his endings, he’d be back soon enough with a new one, because if there’s one thing a fin de siècle is rarely about, it’s the ‘fin’. The last decade or so has been one of Mahon’s most productive, with Harbour Lights in 2005, Life on Earth in 2009, and An Autumn Wind a year later, as well as a number of adaptations, translations and plaquettes. This makes a kind of sense, as Mahon’s ‘Yellow Book’ pose – part-languid observer of a rising tide of Celtic Tiger tat, part ironic Luddite (preferring, in one poem, the fur on the edge of the typewritten letter to the computer screen) – was never really about endings and exhaustion, but about what could be made, lyrically, from what he called ‘the forest of intertexuality’ (‘Hangover Square’). Mahon has always been in search of the clearing in the intertextual forest, and managed to make poems even when there were no clearings to be found. In this respect he is a great fin de siècle writer, because, where other poets might simply have walked away, rebelled, or tried to start afresh, he always turns that choking surfeit of models and examples to his advantage. There are no clean slates, and one thing Mahon has kept faith with from his earliest work is this sense of the crowdedness of the terrain.
It’s not just about being Ireland’s ‘most European’ or ‘most French’ or ‘most cosmopolitan’ poet, since these phrases don’t tell us much about Mahon, and take criticism of his poetry in predictable directions. It’s more about the way in which Mahon negotiates cultural saturation, how he plays his game of constantly sorting the gold from the detritus, weighing them up, and finishes up by keeping both. This is why there are so many landmarks in his poems, what Baudelaire called ‘Phares’ or ‘Lighthouses’, by which the artist navigates, but against which he also risks shipwreck: other writers, painters, poets, the ancients and the moderns, and all their accumulation of great works and monuments. But there’s also a lot of, well… rubbish: trash, junk, scraps, cast-offs, lost things: a clutter in search of a contex; and his poems give voice to that too. Mahon knows that a culture’s dustbin is the double of its library: its disused shed the forgotten twin of its museum.
The Mahon of the 1990s seemed to be all about lists and inventories and enumerations, as if telling a rosary of never-quite-last things. But already in a poem from the 1970s, ‘Beyond Howth Head’, he described himself as:
rehearsing for the fin de siècle
gruff jeremiads to redirect
lost youth into the knacker’s yard
of humanistic self-regard.
A great deal of Mahon is, in an appropriately French vein, poetry about what it is to be a poet, with all the grandeur and prestigious futility that implies. There was an irony in earlier Mahon about the ‘role’ of ‘the poet’; and also a kind of charm. If he was jaded, he was at least freshly jaded – as he writes in ‘Sunday Morning’, he flies:
The private kite of poetry –
a sort of winged sandwich board
El-Grecoed to receive the word;
an airborne, tremulous brochure
proclaiming that the end is near.
The analogy is clever, surprising, but stays just this side of the laboured. It’s more Laforgue than Huysmans.
Mahon has his totemic times and places: in ‘Kensington Notebook’ it’s the Modernist London of Pound and Ford Madox Ford, Hulme and Eliot. In ‘The Yellow Book’ it’s the Dublin-Paris axis of Irish writers who, as Pound put it, had ‘gone to school on the French’: Yeats, Synge, George Moore. But it’s also about their forgotten contemporaries, the English ‘poètes maudits’ like Dowson and Symons and Lionel Johnson. And there’s something defiantly niche about invoking Richard le Gallienne in order to situate oneself in the 1990s, playing out one’s own anxieties about posterity, about legacy, about reputation, but distancing them by casting them in period costume. The cast of second- and third-order characters make interesting foils for the greater presences such as Yeats and Synge, but Mahon’s point is that they’re all connected. It’s where he’s at his most Poundian too: interested less in the big names aspicated by the canon than in the interaction of people and energies, the ambience and atmosphere of a period. What Pound called ‘the tone of the time’.
Mahon concentrates on productive in-betweenness and on the stimulations of exile – Ovid in Tomis, Pound in Kensington, Synge in Paris – but also on the meeting-places and meeting-moments of different cultures. This gives sequences like ‘Decadence’ and ‘New York Time’ an occasionally supine, name-dropping smugness that some critics objected to, especially when it came with an accompanying pose of weary superiority:
I sit here like Domitian in a hecatomb of dead flies,
an armchair explorer in an era of cheap flight
Mahon’s Des Esseintes persona, with his misanthropic elitism, has something of de Maistre’s Voyage Around My Room about him too: an attempt to come to terms with the Great Indoors that constitutes a literary inheritance. As for the Great Outdoors, I’ve always thought Mahon’s poems about nature have a sense of surprise about them, as if he’s just put his book down, walked out, and found that the sea, the trees, the mountains are – yes, look! – still there. Mahon’s poems about places – his coasts and mountains, his seascapes and landscapes – seem to me just as mediated as his poems about paintings. Can one be ekphrastic about Nature? I don’t know, but Mahon’s Nature feels looked at as if it were a picture of Nature. This is what makes his poems about the natural world interesting, unlike poems such as ‘World Trade Talks’, where he tries out some eco-abstractions about global warming and the despoliation of natural resources.
Some found 1990s Mahon flippant and self-regarding, his answer to the enormous social and economic changes in Ireland and Europe little more than churlishness and abdication. What also contributed to the monotony of those books was their delivery: heavy couplets dragging themselves from rhyme to rhyme, their virtuosity all reflex and no reflection. But there was another way of looking at those poems, and that was to think of them as fugues on the idea of originality, on the very possibility of originality in a saturated culture – certainly this was the paradox of the late nineteenth-century writers: that what was most original about them was the fear that there was no margin left to be original. That was always a Mahonian anxiety, and we see it in his earliest work. It was a brave thing to face up to then, and it seemed to me to remain so in the 1990s. To revisit that theme as Mahon did in the late twentieth century, with its implied culture- and situation- rhymes between two fins de siècle, was to add a third instalment to the double bluff of literary impotence. Is this what he meant, in ‘Hangover Square’, by ‘surviving even beyond the age of irony / to the point where the old stuff comes round again’? Maybe. Either way, Mahon’s triple bluff – whereby one returns to the possibility of originality by a kind of via negativa of repetition and paralysis – bypassed many critics, who saw him as a monomaniacal grouch chasing a single idea across metres of typewriter ribbon.
For me, there was something searching and profound about the way those books meditated on time and memory, on what stays and what goes, and on the way culture somehow composts down into a mulch you can live on even though it smells of decay. Perhaps because it smells of decay. Mahon’s endings were imbricated with beginnings, and his 1990s poems continually seemed to ask whether we were caught in a cycle or stuck in a decline. The answer appeared to be: both. We were in Beckettian time – stasis braided around degradation – and though there was nothing minimalist about Mahon, he had Beckett’s compulsive rephrasing itch, the constant iteration, reiteration and (here comes the redemptive triple-bluff) re-reiteration, whereby, by dint of repetition, one says something new for the first time once again. And in any case, even those airless, inert couplets of his had a tamped-down monotony, kneading the words into predictability, and there was always enough deadpan and savagery to liven things up. It’s hard not to admire a poem with lines like ‘Today is the first day of the rest of your life? / Tell that to your liver, tell that to your ex-wife’.
There was a collective sense of relief when Mahon came up with something more wholeseome perhaps, but also more muscularly late-Yeatsian, with Harbour Lights and the poems of the 2000s. The recent poems have been more limber, less clogged up; still allusive but less freighted with cultural cargo. The title poem of Harbour Lights promised, with its echo of Mallarmé, another fugue on urbane impotence – ‘The flesh is weary and I’ve read the books’ – but the end of the poem is much more open and hopeful. If this is what we want – and I think I still prefer Mahon’s Yellow Nineties – then poems like this are better able to integrate personal with collective experience than those of the previous decade. Recent poems such as ‘Sand Studies’, ‘Somewhere the Wave’ and ‘Thunder Shower’ are beautifully modulated, elemental poems about the inner and the outer worlds, and seem to come from a different place. Some of the poems even mention package holiday destinations such as Tenerife and Lanzarote, so perhaps our armchair traveller has deigned to take Ryanair after all. The misanthropy has abated too.
Criticism generally attributes this sort of thing to ‘late style’, but that’s to miss the point that Mahon came to late style pretty early on. From the start he had this tendency, prevalent among the Northern Irish poets, to write the middle-aged-sounding letter to another poet. The ‘Epistle to…’ format tended to assert poetic community. It’s the kind of trope some academic will one day call ‘performing poetivity’. For poems as awkward as ‘The Yaddo Letter’ (here renamed ‘Yaddo, or a month in the country’) the same academic may well coin the phrase ‘performative privacy’ for the mix of raw sincerity, mawkishness, pomp and bad faith that Mahon falls prey to when this strategy fails him. Some of the epistles have lately turned to elegies (as for James Simmons), which asserts another kind of community: where you once had predecessors, you now have predeceasors.
Mahon was epistolizing almost from the start, but it’s something he does more and more in his late work. The self-location has, also, a stocktaking dimension to it, where the poet sits and contemplates the brokenness of his life (‘Dawn at St Patrick’s’), but also the serendipitous, aleatory ways in which other broken things reach him and contribute to new kinds of wholeness. What struck me reading Mahon through once more was that I imagined him as a poet who was always moving from place to place. Looking at it more closely I realized that, in fact, none of his poems are about the actual moving; they’re all about the ‘having moved’. Hence the tendency to start with an ‘I sit/ stand/ lie reading/ writing/ observing’ gambit. Having located himself, like the pin of the school compass dug into the paper, the poet can begin to circumferate.
Baudelaire had his ‘Phares’, Mahon has his ‘Harbour Lights’, with all those implications of homecoming and prodigal return that critics picked up on. So much of Mahon is indeed about getting one’s bearings, but also about reminding us that the wreckage and detritus, the spume and flotsam, can tell us as much in their way about how to orientate ourselves as any harbour or lighthouse.
Poetry Editor: Colette Bryce
Assistant Poetry Editor: Martha Kapos
Reviews Editor: Tim Dooley / Scott Verner