Not at Rest
Derek Mahon’s new volume of poems, Against the Clock, again proves him one of the greatest contemporary masters of poetic form. Preoccupied as he is with his advancing age and the “final deadline” looming in the future, the suppleness and subtleness of his flexible rhythms and rhymes keep the subject from becoming ponderous. Mahon knows all about the dark side of life, but has an extraordinary ability to set his style against it, as it were, so that his formal ingenuity provides a counterweight. It would be false to say that the darkness is vanquished — it is not. A Mahon poem does not engage in illusionary antics or light-headed optimism. It knows the type of world in which it must reside. But its own energy carries it through with panache: “life is short and time, the great reminder, / closes the file of new poems in line / for the printer and binder” — and these lines in parenthesis no less. Rhymes as unusual as “reminder” and “binder” abound in this volume, and display one of Mahon’s greatest talents: his ability to take so-called traditional forms and subject them to change and play. At this point in his career it seems effortless. His play with the units of poetic form is creative to the point of ingenuity — but not quite, since Mahon sets himself against ingenuity for its own sake, or wordplay that is not anchored by deep feeling. And yet “play” is the right word for what this serious poet allows himself to do, and perhaps must do.
Some of the poems here were already published in Rising Late, but this volume has a slightly different focus. A sense of artistic calling permeates Against the Clock. Several poems refer to the poet’s work, and manage to strike a tenuous balance between the prescriptive demands of a typical ars poetica and the tonal variation of a typical Mahon poem. Here again, his rhymes are illustrative: in “Working Conditions”, an “inconstant beat” rhymes with, but warns against, trying to be “too ‘great’”, while the rhyme of “time”, “tedium” and “wisdom” needs little gloss. Writing that proclaims itself as “too ‘great’” and wise can indeed seem tedious. Mahon is never one to hold himself above us, or even above his time and place ‑ he has, in another poem, learned how to rhyme “.com” with “home” in a deftly ironic self-situation.
Mahon’s signature subject in his twenty-first-century poems is the despoliation of the earth, the disappearance of spaces where a thought might grow (to paraphrase his most famous poem), and his identity as an older poet (one hesitates to write “elderly” given the extraordinary energy of his style — his voice would never be called elderly) in a world that so often changes for the worse. Curiously, however, he does not focus his energies on sharp-tongued critique. It is there in phrases and glimpses, or in general atmospheres of discontent and dreams of transformation: in his call for a new “age of revolution”, his dismissal of “brash insensitives” focused on profit-making and his dislike of the corporate world, or in the title “Trump Time”, we glean the particulars of Mahon’s social vision. His accumulative technique might lend itself to tirade, but he refuses to let his grievances take over his verse or to write long, hectoring expositions. Against the Clock thus reveals its signature concern with time and age obliquely as well as overtly: its time is too short to spend on anger, or, God forbid, politics. Mahon is too knowing, however, to wish himself into another age, as he sums up in a nearly perfect couplet: “Would I prefer the old times? Certainly not. / The further back you go the worse they get.”
Rather his dream is one of escapism and transformation, in which abandoned or isolated places nourish an art that has always been tempted by flight from the here and now. Hence the volume prioritises contemplation over action, attunement to the luminous and not-yet-spoiled over lament or invective. The past may be well and gone, but in Mahon’s poems of happy remembrance he proves himself capable of revivifying a particular moment at will, filling it with light and colour, at least for the space of the poem. Does this signal a newfound peace, or at least a compromise with time itself? Mahon would say no: in one poem of nostalgia he writes candidly, “Nothing will ever set my mind at rest, / not even this antique photography / of a lost world.” We cannot argue with such a deeply felt admission. But would we truly wish his mind to be at rest, free of tension and contradiction and impossible desire? Would we wish the elderly Yeats to be placid? Would we wish the young Auden free of guilt and fear? Mahon’s frustration and anger define him as a poet of his times, and they help us readers to delineate the contours of his authorial persona. They are also necessary counterweights for the moments of radiance occasionally on display, for his ingenuity, his humour and his humane wish to be the “servant of a restored reality”. Perhaps the very notion of restoration has something utopian about it. Here, too, Mahon is cognisant of the perils of both nostalgia and blind hope, and this may be the reason why he finally accepts his position in an unrestored here and now.
— Magdalena Kay, Dublin Review of Books
Derek Mahon’s latest work testifies to the unflagging spirit of a fine poet
The muse is a capricious drab, fickle in her comings and her goings, but it can be said for her that at least she is not ageist. Derek Mahon in the title poem of his superb, thrilling and fizzingly exuberant new collection draws our attention to the old stagers who gave her the glad eye and were rewarded for their tenacity and presumption. Having mentioned Sophocles, 90 when he wrote Oedipus at Colonus, and Ovid, banished to the Black Sea coast but “who fought on for a reprieve”, Mahon calls out the roll of honour:
“So many exiles! So many reprobates!
for whom, to their credit, it was never over:
Dante and Coleridge, Hugo, Whitman, Yeats
and persecuted, proud Akhmatova
who sang to the black nights.”
Mahon, who was born in Belfast in 1941 – “(phew!)”, as he exclaims – published his first collection, Night-Crossing, in 1968, and went on to become recognised as a singular and ringing voice among what was a golden generation of “Northern poets” that included Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Seamus Deane and, at something of a stretch, John Montague, 12 years Mahon’s senior, and also, stretching in the other direction, Paul Muldoon, 10 years his junior. After schooling at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution – the fabled “Inst” – Mahon went on to study in Trinity College Dublin, and at the Sorbonne in Paris. He lived and worked in London for some years, then returned to Ireland and eventually settled in Kinsale, where he now lives.
The volumes he published between 1968 and the mid-1980s, including Beyond Howth Head, Courtyards in Delftand The Hunt by Night, contained transcendently fine and beautiful work. There are critics who will claim, surely with justification, that A Disused Shed in County Wexfordis the greatest single poem by an Irish poet since Yeats. Indeed, one of his contemporaries speaks of reading it when it was still in typescript and announcing to his wife that he was going to give up poetry altogether, so impressed was he by Mahon’s mastery – he changed his mind, though, to our great benefit.
In the intervening years, Mahon wrote copiously, and published widely. The Yaddo Letter(1992) and The Hudson Letter(1995) were particularly notable. Much of the work of these years might be considered “public poetry”, in which the poet concerned himself with issues of the day, social, political and artistic. The poems, many of them gathered into sequences, bristle with names of people and places and the dates and occasions of public events – “Radio and TV/spoke of El Niño”; “in the moon shadow of the World Trade Centre”, etc – so that one is reminded of late Auden, and even perhaps of Billy Collins and other “colloquial” poets of the day.
Yet there was, in Mahon’s middle period, the slight impression of a poet making brilliant poetry but also marking time. A number of great artists experience a tremendous blossoming towards the end – Yeats and Janacek are two such that spring to mind – and many of the poems in the tellingly titled Against the Clock sound a note of surprise at and gratitude for a resurgence of facility and an infusion of unlooked-for, late grace. Olympia,as intricate and elegant a virtuoso performance as anything Mahon would have executed in his salad days, is a witty paean to his typewriter:
“We commune, she
and I, in silent privacy,
ribbon and paper glimmering. I wait,
she waits, for a first word to communicate
itself with a hesitant beat
to the white sheet.”
The poem is as light as the tap of a fingertip on a keyboard – though goodness knows there was nothing very light about those old manual models – yet it manages to communicate something of the heat and urgency of artistic creation, while maintaining the classical restraint which was the mark of Mahon’s poetry from the start. Olympia, a goddess and a machine, bears him onwards through
“page after rackety page,
two crotchety relics of a previous age
jazzing it up again as
in the great days.”
One can almost hear the “clackety clack” of “the dance/of keys”, and the ageing poet’s cackle of delight at his refound energies.
The writing in these poems is not really “late style”, as considered by Edward Said in his book of that title, which, in Said’s version of it, tends to generate masterpieces that nevertheless are broken or incomplete – the Aeneid, Bach’s final fugue, Proust’s À la recherche– but rather a return to earlier powers. There is nothing in late Mahon of Yeats’s “why should not old men be mad?”, for although the poems in Against the Clockreturn again and again to the theme of age and ageing – “Now that you’re seventy-five,/sails idly fluttering . . .” – there is a youthful spring to the metre, and an almost boyish, mischievous joy in the handling of language and the devising of imagery:
“You thought you’d done, the uneven output
finished at last, but that wasn’t the end,
was it, since we’re obliged to stick it out
until the pen falls from the trembling hand;
so just get on with it.”
There is a marked consolatory note in nearly all the poems here. The light is not dying but resurging, and even when it does begin to fade we feel it will not be raged at but accepted as a part of the natural order of things, the precursor to another Ovidian metamorphosis. The collection is wonderfully varied. There is a poem to the poet’s daughter, one on Hurricane Ophelia and one on Being a Dog; there is even a lament on the Time of Trump. All testify to the unflagging spirit of one of the very finest of Irish poets, living or dead, “still singing, still going strong”. Against the Clockgives cause for national celebration.
— John Banville, The Irish Times
The passing of time is the central concern in Against the Clock by Derek Mahon. The title poem sees its writer up against a deadline for a specific poetry collection and considering the ultimate deadline for a life’s work. It balances the practicalities of poetry with the vocational, and the metre is exact and rewarding. “There are those grim moments when you think/contemporary paper games too daft for you,/not serious, and real values on the brink — /a naff culture not worth contributing to, time to go back on the drink.”
The collection brings Mahon back to the Northern Ireland of his youth, and further back into mythology and folklore. The lines are packed with potential meaning and concrete history. The poems are not archaic, however, and modern references stretch as far as the inclusion of a web address.
Data is a particular delight that both complements and admonishes its title. “I’m noticing once again the singular things/I noticed as a boy: the hidden springs,/the sound of silence, nap of tablecloths,/sea taste of iodine, the scents of clothes,/raw grain of wood, a scrambling interface/of ebbing tide and incoming tide race.” It is one of several standouts in a collection that gives more with each reading.
— Eithne Shortall, The Sunday Times
‘The poems in Derek Mahon’s Against the Clock have his signature elegance, irony and melancholy; they also display a new lightness, as though he has come to accept the world in terms that are rooted and visionary, open to suggestion and rich with memory and knowledge.’ — Colm Tóibín, The Irish Times (Books of the Year, 2018)
‘The most thrilling literary event of the year is the unexpected late harvest of marvellous poems from Derek Mahon, Against the Clock. The clock that’s ticking is both his own allotted time on earth and our unrelenting destruction of the Earth itself. But he is wonderfully undefeated, finding an unsentimental solace wherever he can and turning it to wit, wisdom and beauty. There is no rage against the dying of the light because his own light is very much on. We need consolation in our world and I’ve found myself turning again and again to these profoundly consoling poems.’ — Fintan O’Toole, The Irish Times (Books of the Year, 2018)
‘One of my books of the year is Derek Mahon’s Against the Clock (The Gallery Press). In urbane, apollonian style, Mahon’s work enters a continuing plea for the coherent, the well-made, and the attentive. From the disciplined but flexible iambic couplets of Jersey and Guernsey to the tiny atmospheric lyrics of Rain Shadows, Mahon’s faultless ear and mastery of line and form are reassuring. This is poetry fully aware of its moment – “There are those grim moments when you think / contemporary paper games too daft for you, / not serious, and real values on the blink” – but still willing to assert poetry’s value in a world in which it and the qualities it stands for seem ever more marginalised.’ — Caitríona O’Reilly, The Irish Times (The Best Poetry of 2018)
Derek Mahon returned with Against the Clock (The Gallery Press), poems which charm with tough visions, freewheeling free thinking and down-to-earth wisdom about the ecological deep time which will see out poetry, the anthropocene, the wood pigeon, Cork’s immigration centre and Aeneas’s steersman Palinurus, other subjects of this big, bare-headedly buoyant book. — John McAuliffe, The Irish Times (The Best Poetry of 2018)
Derek Mahon’s Against the Clock had all the hallmarks of Yeatsian amplitude and reinvigoration; a stylish vision of the world around the Cork-based poet’s 21st century life. — Gerald Dawe, The Lonely Crowd (Books of the Year, 2018)