Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Derek Mahon – Cease All Resistance

In the opening poem “Resistance Days” Derek Mahon says that there is “no art without the resistance of the medium”. I believe that this phrase haunts the collection and offers a way into its overall structure. References to film, filmic vocabulary and filmic vision abound, as do references to the history of his influences and the legacies of his own poems. In this collection Mahon seeks to confront this question of influence head on. The high mandarin style he is fated for is stretched and indented with colloquial and quasi-technical vocabulary, telephones, answering machines and contemporary communications issues of all kinds. Mahon knows and understands that the world is information saturated, that old Ireland is disappearing, and yet in the end, he is drawn back into the old rag and bone shop of the heart. One cannot help but wonder if the Harbour Lights are a longing for Safe Harbour, and if in the end this Harbour is friends and family, place, or some more philosophical comfort.

In a recent article the Scottish poet Dan Paterson said that it is ridiculous to assert that good poems “show not tell”, after all, didn’t Donne just flat out assert things in an interesting fashion, involve us, challenge us? Mahon might fall into this camp of telling in this poem. He lists, he references, gives us the physical and cultural objects to build out the picture. The opening poem “Resistance Days” in its directness gives us these initial frameworks of reference. In a lament for the sixties, the beats, Simone and Satre, Mahon sits in a Paris café, in love with the culture that still resists the complete free market economics of the USA. He is in flight from corporate Christmas, and one suspects from Post-Modernism itself. Mahon name-checks Casablanca, Ricks, Rimbaud, Beu Geste, being bored by Bowles beneath the sheltering slats, the fake sheikery of television, movies and books, and ends up here, post-existentialism, post-millennium, where in a key remark, dissent too is marketable. Capitalism with Ché Guevara T-Shirts. So far, so post-colonial, so post-modern. And here lies the problem: he makes these references without getting the fizz and pop of the post modern, the rebellion doesn’t seem his, it seems recherché. It is without any grounded sense of ‘the real’ that I feel Mahon first needs to establish as a common ground, from which we can gauge this distance traversed from the ‘real and authentic’ to the ‘information-saturated and the sham”. His ‘real’ is steeped in Bonnefoy and Eluard, his movies star are Adjani and Binoche instead of Kidman and Roberts, but they do not evoke. He flatly asserts Binoche and Adjani are real film stars, thus French cinema and French culture are superior also, and then, he says:

After so much neglect, resolved anew
Creature anarchy I come back to you
Not the faux anarchy of media culture
But the real chaos of indifferent nature.

Later, I think he is trying to assert a less deliberated aesthetic, a journey of perception straight through to presentation:

For instance my own New Years resolution
Is to study weather, clouds and their formation
Going straight to video with each new release
Untroubled by the ignorant thought police.

After such a false start to the collection we arrive with relief at the poem “Lucretius on Clouds” which is the real thing, a poem that connects the thinking constructs of the past with the thinking constructs of the present. Was Lucretius so far wrong when he said that we are penetrated by a divine breath? For what are neutrinos but the residue of the big bang? It would seem that the entire first half of this poem consists of an extended conceit that we, space, and air, are inter-related. As we are penetrated by them, so too are they penetrated by us. I use the phrase advisedly for this commingling is decidedly sexual in its overtones. Our spit, sweat and semen flows into the water, water becomes cloud, so as we too fill with bill and gristle, so too do clouds fill with our detritus. The ending of the poem is lovely:

Sometimes the two things coincide, of course,
The violent pushing and he rushing wind-force,
And then you get a cloudburst which persists
With clouds upon clouds, tempests upon tempests
Pouring out of the heavens, soaking the smoky air
While the earth breathes back in bubbles everywhere.

The final image reminds me both of Seamus Heaney’s Frogspawn, and the odious frogs of Wallace Stephens. As a culminating image it is a lesson in its kind. The philosophical ruminations never drift too far into the abstract without either reference to a ‘myth-meme’ (‘sieves at the rivers’, golden fleece’ ); a bolting image (“They give off sizzling rains/ as wax held to a brazier melts and runs”); or reference to physicality (‘windpipe’, ‘gland’, ‘pores’, ‘ducts’, ‘channels’, ‘rooms’, ‘corridors’). The style of the poem in its construction shows distinct signs of internal cyclicality, as in his linen jacket being soaked by fog, and the air under pressure attaining the texture of linen. The poem tumbles forward within itself reflecting its very subject matter.

The poem is also a good example of the work Derek Mahon makes his vocabulary perform. He uses words are often links between different bodies of knowledge and different times:

Clouds take shape in the blue sky and gather
Where flying bodies get tangled up together.

This refers both to the ‘bodies’ of the mythical gods and the ‘bodies’ of scientific discourse. In another part of the poem, clouds are gathered up, blown by a ‘Devine breath’ where ‘particles’ rise from rivers and where

Hills, for instance: the higher the peak
The more industriously they seem to smoke.

‘Industriously’ gives agency to the hill and also brings in the hidden image of the modern chimney stack. In another line, the slightly out of register “evanescent” switches on the philosophical discourse, then we are tilted into an early 19th Century empirical tone with the use of words such as ‘quantity’, ‘entity’, and ‘ether’:

Heaped up in greater quantity
They reveal themselves as a visible entity
Trailing snowy summits into the ether.

The use of vocabulary consistency builds these links between the older knowledge constructs, the relatively recent, and the contemporary. As with his other Northern Ireland compatriots it is also always worth taking some time to look at the rhyming schemes and rhyme words to see if which relationships are being reinforced (breezes/ rises; peak/smoke; quantity/entity; either/weather).

Man is confronted by the scale of nature; man is under the disinterested pull of nature; Man is lost in the recognition that he is nature; man knowing that the nature he is able to recognise is all that he can know of nature. The questions are eternal. They were as relevant and real to the ancient Roman as the modern Rural Irishman looking out to sea at Kinsale. Man speculates on what might be true, on how things are and how things come to be. In turn these questions are things of our nature and Mahon presents these to us in a wholly satisfactory poem.

Another poem in the collection “Lapis Lazuli” is an obvious homage to Yeats and is also mostly successful in its execution. I’d like to pick out some of the outstanding lines in the poem before raising some of my concerns. Looking at the unpolished gem he says “The willow-pattern wisdom is still unknown”, and

The twinkling sages and the branchy house
For this is the real thing in its natural state
The raw material from which art is born.

Later still in the poem

We need the glitter of these secret depths
Like the loved woman of our private myths.

Mahon remonstrates with us to slow down, to reflect on the very basic ‘primordial’ questions, perhaps to develop imagination rather than fancy, to be:

On dark dawns that look for that subtle gleam
And blinking noons obtuse to its dark dream
When slow thought replaces the money-shower,
We want the key to that impervious heart:
With ultramarine what need have we of art?

These lines again contain a differential diction; Mahon’s inflected scientific diction (obtuse: perhaps a reference to an obtuse moon or Gibbous moon in Yeats terms); his use of the colloquial ‘money-shower” (in Ireland you would refer to a group of politicians or other people as a shower of idiots); the phrase “slow thought” suggests and refers to ‘when thought comes dripping slow’. The final lines of this third stanza in their summing up with a question are Yeatsean their core.

All the lines command, they have such confidence, it is as if Mahon gains complete control of his influence by owning up to it. Mahon more than I, more than his presumed reader, already knows and understands these points, so he swerves from the influence in the first line of the fourth stanza. “Heat lightning photographs the astonished sea”. The looming catastrophe in the background is an ecological one as opposed to the national struggle of Ireland, and WW2. And what is to be our attitude to the death-throws of civilisation, a post-modern laugh?, or when we are really faced with the early signs of this collapse do we count ourselves “among those/for whom a spectre, some discredited ghost/still haunts the misty windows of old hopes?” Perhaps in the end we must agree that people, that other people, are impenetrable to thought, to language, that our sparks are beyond our common understanding but are real none the less.

Where Yeats says that those that make (art) are gay, that it is in the building that the pleasure is, Mahon seems to be saying what need has Lapis Lazuli (nature) of our intervention? It needs no shaping, it is made by time, it is a complex-chemical-geological process. We need only admire, not shape and destroy. Yet the poem feels sometimes like a tour around Yeatsean themes rather than any position or response to the original. Yes there are correspondences, and I may have read some where none were intended, but it feels like having gone with Mahon throughout the poem, in the fifth and final stanza we are stranded at the train station, abandoned in the Gare du Nord as in some French film that doesn’t end so much as stop. Perhaps because there is nothing risked in terms of form, in terms of letting in the chaos of nature, that the espoused lack of shaping and making is not allowed to manifest its own manifesto that in the end proves a little disappointing.

Another poem seeking to re-represent a Yeats poem, is “The Cloud Ceiling”, where the ur-poem is ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’. From scene settings, to language and semantic structure, the parallels and correspondences are well worked, and made work. The beginning is exceedingly good, and at times reminds me of “Baggot Street Desertia” by Thomas Kinsella. The opening represents the nascent daughter, coming to form and being in the womb;

An ocean-drop, dash in the dark, flash in the brain,
Suspension in the red mist, in the light-grain,
A twitching silence in the hiding place,
Fine pearly nigh-glow of the forming face
The pushing brow, the twirling ears and knees…
Space-girl, soap on a rope, you like cloud-swing,
Bath-water and world music; a kidney-bean,
You lie there dreaming on your knotted string
Listening hard with shut, determined eyes –
A soul of barely determinate shape and size.

From the mystical Carl Sagan voice over of the opening four lines, to the break in tone of “space-girl, soap on a rope”, we begin to feel the mind of the poet groping for adequate visual resonances, the knowing that the child is the size of a kidney bean, the invisibility of the now chemically known presence, and it brings a real sense of wonder and mystery to the lines. What dimension does this daughter occupy? Tellingly, it is one of ‘light-readings’, ‘a-tonal composition’, ‘quantum gravity’, ‘unspoken words’, far from ‘story boards’, but none the less, Mahon still seeks to represent the ‘unknowable’ in terms of relatively known, though non-literary fields and discourses:

Awaiting the moment when the burbles start,
The camera action, the first signs of art;

There follows in stanza three descriptions where the daughters entrance to the world is described as probably only cartable though myth, away from photographs and presumably video cameras and digital recorders, and this theme is briefly revisited in stanza five only to be eventually dismissed with;

Will you be Echo, Grainne, Rosalind? No,
You won’t be any of these; you will be you
As, ‘kitten-soft’, you float from your mother ship
Thirst pockets open for the infinite trip.

Interestingly these lines introduce a well known brand of kitchen towel that has a featured bubble texture, that is described here in its advertising terms, as a ‘thirst pocket’, in that it better soaks up spills. Although this is clever in the manner that Paul Muldoon is clever, you have to wonder if the seemingly unmediated introduction of the advertising language doesn’t defeat arguments made earlier in the collection. Perhaps another ur-poem influencing here is Muldoon’s Sonogram, one that made a great impact at the time it was published. Where Yeats wished his daughter all sorts of useful things, that she “live like some green laurel/ rooted in one dear perpetual place”, that she be beautiful but not too beautiful, Mahon but wishes that she go easy on her old man (Mahon like Yeats is late to fatherhood), because more than likely he will be dead before she is grown. After the loving detail, the obvious sense of wonder the poet has for his daughter, and the sense of respect he gives to her other-hood, the finale seems nasty, brutal and short. But that’s the point.

Mahon has in previous collections, and especially more recently, taken care to include ‘machine-things’ from the everyday. From trains such as the Eurostar to answering machines (a perennial) to questions of information and data, Mahon wants to be read as contemporary and engaged. “High Water” gives us a fine example of how this can be accomplished in a line:

Starved for pedestrian silence and in flight
From the totality and simultaneity of data,
We stand on the Gesuati steps at high water
Inhaling the rain-rinsed air or the Zattere.

I was looking forward to a poem about the issue of information, the ever present, but the poem, in my opinion, shades off into a mannered flourish, where

A paper moon dissolves in cloud canals,
The colours facing as they come to light.

There are other weak poems in the collection, mostly the short ones where Mahon does not give himself room to weave. They seem like attempts at “In The Metro”, but they just provide some surface tension: for example, A Garden God (in full)

A bomber fly flits from the ruined mouth;
From the eye-socket an inquisitive moth.

I might be over reading here, but I believe the point might have been that there is nothing we can say about nature, but our soul searches out from our eyes. It is the eye that interrogates the world; it is the eye that seeks to frame the question. But does the ‘bomber-fly’ do any work in this reading of the lines? Is it an Eliot-ruined mouth? And this is the problem with most of Mahon’s epigrams: because they don’t have an underlying aesthetic in the high modernist style, they tend to come off a little bit less achieved.

The poem “Langue d’OC”, a courtly love poem from the 12th Century, in a language now famously dead, and “A Game of Cards”, a 17th century lyric translated from Tadhg O Ruairc which plays on the double entendre’s of card play to get its point across, are both well rendered. It is in “The Widow of Kinsale” that not only the tone and vocabulary of these two earlier poems find their modern resonance, but in the acknowledgement of female sexuality. of . The reality of a ‘lively woman’ living in and through the Ireland of the 1950’s and 1960’s, is perhaps as much a call back to the old rag and bone shop of the heart as anything else.

Young ones now think only
Of fashion and easy money –
As we did once, except
We never had much of it:
Real people were the thing
To hear them talk and sing.

A widow, once desired, still sexual, has honesty and a tone that is recognisable to anyone who cares to hear it:

I was a fierce temptation
To wild, generous men
Of my own generation;
Lovingly I would watch
While driving them insane.

Her consolations are the novels of William Trevor (“that lovely man”), her children, and the primordial nature of the shore. Again however, Mahon ends the poem in the Mannerist gesture:

And the ebb-tide withdraws
With a chuckle of bony claws.

Up until the final line, the tone (of the widow) is one of slightly humorous reflection in the vein of ‘look at what time has done to me, a woman that is still a young woman in her mind’. The image is supposed to the link to the phrase of the opening stanza where she describes herself as “a rock exposed to the sun/ sardonic, cold and stiff, I go with the ebb of life” but the cruelty of that chuckle has not been earned in the poem to that point.

The two final poems Harbour Lights and The Seaside Cemetery, (after Valery) deserve more attention than I can give them here, and I will return to these two poems in a future posting. Perhaps it might seem to be a bit unfair on Mahon, picking out the mannerisms and not-quite-grafted post-modernism, but I am in no doubt that Mahon and his northern compatriot Michael Longley will enable a path for the younger Irish writers to come out from under the shadow of Yeats, Kavanagh, and Heaney.

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