One of an outstanding generation of Northern Irish poets, Derek Mahon is perhaps the least place-bound (and brand-identified?) and the most intellectually adventurous, a formidable translator as well as a complex original poet. His poetic technique has often excited critical controversy, and divides opinion between the baggy-looking, epistolary collections he published in the 1990s (The Yaddo Letter, The Hudson Letter, The Yellow Book) and the tightly-structured earlier lyrics of such collections as Courtyards in Delft and The Hunt by Night. But Mahon is resistant to categorisation, and confounds any simple contrasting ideas of "formal" and "free". In this week's poem, "The Seasons", from his latest collection, An Autumn Wind, there are trace elements of both lyric symmetry and rangy travelogue. As in the "letter" poems, a collage of images and quotations replaces an earlier technique of images linked along lines of philosophical, often aphoristic, argument. The register in the first segment shifts between high and low, and the literal and literary elevation of "day-stars like daisies" cedes to the deep but quotidian waters of nuclear subs and Google. More dialogic colour is added with the quotation from Trincolo's monologue in lines six and seven. Do you notice anything familiar about the last line of this section, "There are still corners where a lark may sing"? It's a faint echo, surely, of the first line of "A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford": "Even now there are places where a thought might grow". Writing from Cork rather than Wexford, Mahon continues to see the Irish south as his enablingly "marginal" and unscrutinised landscape. The art of appearing artless is Mahon's mature speciality: wry throwaway quotes (and self-quotes) simply "go with the flow" of his imagism. The casual manner includes the rhyming pattern (non-symmetrical) and the rhymes, a characteristic, unobtrusive mix of para-rhyme, full rhyme, and the hardly-unusual but ever-pleasurable pairing of stressed and unstressed syllables ("brewing"/"sing") The summer of section one is a haunted season with an unpredictable climate, the latter a recurrent theme in An Autumn Wind. While the larks still sing, the impression is that their habitat has shrunk, and the second section extends the environmental concerns, with perhaps an allusion to the "Celtic tiger" season of careless prosperity. Despite the threatening, industrial colours of the "yellow and grey" sky, the rain seems cleansing, and there is palpable relief as the over-populated, rubbish-strewn seaside summer recedes. Autumn is the restorative season. The atmosphere is deliciously muted and studious, with the rhymes "desk"/ "dusk" conjuring the unspoken word, "subfusc". After "high" solitude comes the earthy camaraderie of the Tap Tavern, all the cosier because of disturbances outside. What a marvellous adjective "novelistic" is, when matched with "breeze." The "noir" atmosphere is seductive, if also sinister ("urgent footsteps"), but it is banished by the "pub talk and reveries." Spring is the cruellest season for a contemporary poet. Daffodils still dance, but poems about dancing daffodils don't. Mahon's imagery is odd and unexpected, beginning with a close-up of that "fly-dazzling disc". The exposed shipwrecks seem benign compared with nuclear subs, and, as the yawl "shakes out its linen" alert readers will recall the first stanza of "Glengormley", where "washing lines/ Shake out white linen over the chalk thanes". Like that earlier poem, "The Seasons" is surely centred on a rueful love for the ordinary or "wordly". Mahon in vernal mood is gracious to his visitors, "yachties" and "new girls" alike, and it's satisfying to trace a line from the nuclear sun to the tiny plastic imitation parasols decorating the tall glasses (anyone for a Pimms?) Mahon's poem, of course, inhabits a tradition of seasonal meditation. Virgil's Eclogues, Edmund Spenser's "The Shepheardes Calendar", John Clare's "The Seasons" contribute to the backdrop for the new staging. Mahon finds a happy balance between the genre's required sensory appreciation of contrasts and a reflection of the contemporary meteorological muddle and its angst. There's a millenarian whiff in the air, but the final magical little sentence turns rain into hawthorn blossom, and leaves our imaginations with a joyous seasonal imprint after all. As a further welcome and spring-like prospect, Derek Mahon's New Collected Poems will be published by Gallery Press at the end of April.
For Matthew Geden
Day-stars like daisies on a field of sky.
The nuclear subs are keeping sinister watch
while sun heat focuses on the cabbage-patch.
What weird weather can we expect this July?
Tornado, hail, some sort of freak tempest?
The bonfire month, and another storm brewing:
I hear it sing I' th'wind, and among the leaves.
But out here in the hot pastures of the west,
no Google goggling at our marginal lives,
there are still corners where a lark can sing.
We prospered and made hay while the sun shone.
Now autumn skies, yellow and grey, sow rain
on summer debris, Ambre Solaire, crushed bracken,
we clear the dead leaves from a blocked drain
and tap barometers since the weather's taken
a sudden turn for the worse. Contentious crows
congregate of an evening at St Multose';
the harvest hymns float out from Gothic windows
on Maersk, docked sailing-boats and guesthouses
closed for the winter now the guests have gone.
The reading period, and on the writing desk
quarto and lamplight in the early dusk.
If we don't travel now we hibernate
with other locals at the Tap Tavern
beside an open hearth, our winter haven.
Glowing cinders nuzzle the warm grate
while outside, ghostly in a starlit street,
creaking signs and a novelistic breeze.
Urgent footsteps fade into the night
leaving us to our pub talk and reveries.
A fly-dazzling disc in the open door,
hung on a ribbon, catches the light and blinks
as the sun spokes on gardens and seascapes,
drawing up dew, exposing hidden depths,
old shipwrecks visible from the air. A northern
draught blows flower scents to the blue horizon;
a yawl, Bermuda-rigged, shakes out its linen
watched by the yachties, blow-ins, quiet drunks
and the new girls with parasols in their drinks.
Springs gush in a shower of flowering hawthorn.