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Slouching Toward Bethlehem

Selected Poems

by Derek Mahon
Viking/Gallery in association with Oxford University Press, 194 pp., £14.99

Madoc: A Mystery

by Paul Muldoon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 261 pp., $19.95

How is it that Northern Ireland, a little state within a state with fewer than two million souls, a not inconsiderable portion of whom, split into two tribal factions, spend much of their time and energies at each other’s throats, has managed to throw up a volume and variety of poetic talent which countries twenty times the size would, and indeed do, find hard to match? This is not a rhetorical question; over the past decade or so it has been a topic of continuing and at times passionate debate, within Ireland, and sometimes outside, too. Even as I write, the opinion columns and the letters pages of The Irish Times are crackling with a furious exchange of fire over an essay in a recent edition of the newspaper questioning Seamus Heaney’s right to his pre-eminent position in the Irish—and international—pantheon. Poets still matter here—more, alas, than poetry does.

There are those, especially in southern Ireland, who hold the view that the “Northern School” does not exist at all, that it is a spurious and even fraudulent concept, invented by journalists and academics with the enthusiastic cooperation of a few canny Northern versifiers, most of whom, significantly, have removed themselves from the troubled land of their birth to take up lucrative posts in the balmy groves of academe beyond the western ocean. According to this view, the Northern poets have scrambled to prominence over the rubble left by twenty years of internecine warfare, which in the late 1960s caught the attention of the world, or at least of the world’s press, with the birth of the civil rights movement and a renewed outbreak of the pogroms which had been going on with more or less ferocity for decades; meanwhile poets in the south, as good as or better than their Northern counterparts—Thomas Kinsella, for instance—were ignored or underrated because they were not entitled to wear the dashing red sash of insurrection.

It is true that in those early days of the present sequence of the Northern Ireland “troubles” there was much talk of a terrible beauty being born, and in a famous television speech in 1970 the then taoiseach (prime minister) quoted a line from the poet John Montague to the effect that “old moulds are broken in the North.” The fact that what was being born was not beauty but another rough beast, and that the old molds were still as sound as gunmetal, was beside the point. Voices were being heard that had for long been suppressed, and many of those voices spoke in verse.

It was not all romance and rebellion. The poet and critic Seamus Deane has pointed out the irony that it was the postwar British education system that trained the young (nationalist) men and women of Northern Ireland to understand the oppressive nature of the regime under which they were living, and to stand up and challenge it; that same system presented to the sons and daughters of the North’s small farmers and lower-middle-class townsfolk the great sustaining heritage of English literary culture. A few years ago the poet Tom Paulin caused a great fuss by insisting that he be allowed to include all of Paradise Lost in an anthology of revolutionary verse which he was editing for Faber. The empire, as Salman Rushdie remarked in another context, strikes back.

Yet the puzzle remains, despite the doubters (in Ireland we call them begrudgers): of the Irish poets now writing who have made a reputation outside Ireland, a disproportionate number were born in the North, among them Ciaran Carson, Seamus Deane, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, John Montague, Paul Muldoon, Tom Paulin. What is the explanation? Was it the postwar Zeitgeist, operating even in this far corner of Europe, that produced such a remarkable chorus of singers, or is the phenomenon the result of a general Irish tendency toward extremes which came to one of its periodic crises in the 1960s—in other words, did that which made the bomber also make the poet? Or are the begrudgers right, is it all just something got up by the press? The volumes under review, by two of the very best contemporary Irish poets, may not provide us with an answer, but certainly they may help us to tease out the question.1

Derek Mahon was born in Belfast in 1941, and was educated there and at Trinity College, Dublin. He has been a teacher, and has lectured in Britain and the United States, and for a number of years worked in literary journalism in London; he now lives in Dublin. His first collections of poems, Night-Crossing, appeared in 1966. Since then he has produced a dozen or so books, including translations from the French of the poetry of Gerard de Nerval and Philippe Jaccottet, and of plays by Molière. A previous selection, Poems 1962-1978, was published by Oxford University Press in 1979.

Selected Poems is a far from a self-indulgent book; indeed, the poet has if anything been too severe in what he has chosen to leave out. Yet, if there are omissions one might regret, the harsh pruning that has been done does allow us to see clearly the organic growth of Mahon’s work over the past twenty-five years or so. This is less a book for dipping into than for reading straight through, as if one were reading a life—which in a way, of course, one is.

This is poetry of great richness, elegance, and technical brilliance. The elegaic note is pervasive and strong. Losses abound. Seamus Heaney has described his poetic self as “a woodkerne / escaped from the massacre”; Mahon in his work is more the flaneur, strolling the streets of cities not his own—Dublin, London, Paris—with stick and slouch hat and a weight of woe in his heart:

Europe, after the first rain of winter,
shines with a corpse-light.
A cold wind scours the con- demned playground;
leaves swarm like dead souls
down bleak avenues as if they led
to the kingdoms of the dead.
(“October in Hyde Park”)

What the cosmopolitan gains in breadth he may lose in depth; the sensibility at the heart of these poems is unhoused. Something which is not quite guilt, more a kind of heartsick regret, haunts the pages:

Perhaps if I’d stayed behind
And lived it bomb by bomb
I might have grown up at last
And learnt what is meant by home.
(“Afterlives”)

This is uncharacteristically bald. There is a more subtle, and perhaps more telling, treatment of the “Northern question” as it applies to the individual, and in particular to the individual-as-poet, in the marvelous poem “Courtyards in Delft,” in which Mahon contemplates, and in the end comes to inhabit, a painting by Pieter de Hooch. The picture presents a trim, ordered, “Protestant” view of the Dutch city, all silvery light and scrubbed surfaces (“We miss the dirty dog, the fiery gin”). In the final verse the poet, with great skill and a deceptive ease, swings the viewer’s—that is, the reader’s—gaze away from the canvas and on to scenes nearer hearth and home:

I lived there as a boy and know the coal
Glittering in its shed, late- afternoon
Lambency informing the deal table,
The ceiling cradled in a radiant spoon.
I must be lying low in a room there,
A strange child with a taste for verse,
While my hard-nosed companions dream of fire
And sword upon parched veldt and fields of rain-swept gorse.

Here art and memory are set against the hard facts of imperialism and insurrection, of the Dutch King Billy’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne three hundred years ago and its reverberations in the present day, when young men, descendants of the defeated in that battle, slip off into the fields to practice the art of death.

Mahon has more than once used paintings as the subject for poems; perhaps there is something in the quality of stillness in pictures, “the chaste / Perfection of the thing and the thing made,” which inspires him. In his poem “The Forger,” about a painter who spent his life producing fake Vermeers, we are afforded a glimpse of what may be a reflexive manifesto:

Now, nothing but claptrap
About “mere technique” and “true vision,”
As if there were a distinction—
Their way of playing it down.
But my genius will live on;
For even at one remove
The thing I meant was love.

Among Mahon’s literary forebears are Ovid, Spenser, Yeats’, Beckett, Auden, and, especially, Louis MacNeice: the first poem here, “In Carrowdore Churchyard,” finds the poet standing at MacNeice’s grave and thinking

This, you implied, is how we ought to live—

The ironical, loving crush of roses against snow,
Each fragile, solving ambiguity.

This elegy is set very deliberately at the head of the collection, I think. MacNeice, the melancholy, courageous, self-destructive cosmopolite (and, probably not incidentally, another Northerner who spent part of his life, sometimes profligately, on London’s Grub Street) was a model for the early Mahon, with his Protestant background and his yearning toward the wider world beyond Belfast’s stony fastnesses. As with MacNeice, Mahon’s poetic thought, in the early poems at least, falls naturally into stanzaic form. In the work of the 1960s and early 1970s he shows a remarkable technical mastery:

Wonders are many and none is more wonderful than man
Who has tamed the terrier, trimmed the hedge
And grasped the principle of the watering can.
Clothes-pegs litter the window- ledge
And the long ships lie in clover; washing lines
Shake out white linen over the chalk thanes.
(“Glengormley”)

Note how the witty music of the first lines become more complex, spikier, in lines 4 and 5, and how all gathers to a sort of thudding halt in the last four, footfalling words of the final line. One is struck again and again by the musicality, the sensuousness—simply, the beauty—of this verse:

Even on the calmest nights the fitful
prowl of planes is seldom still
where Gatwick tilts to guide them home
from Tokyo, New York or Rome;
yet even today the earth disposes
bluebells, roses and primroses,
the dawn throat-whistle of a thrush
deep in the dripping lilac bush.
(“Ford Manor”)

Mahon is always poised, but his poise is that of a man balanced on the edge of the abyss. As is the case with so many of the great masters of this century—Rilke, Celan, Beckett—what gives Mahon’s work its secret weight is absence, the hollow heavy ache of all that is not there: happiness, love, family, the cherished place, Heimat, whatever (“…the world we know / Is coming to an end”). All losses are bravely borne, but fully acknowledged. Ovid is an emblematic figure:

Better to contemplate
The blank page
And leave it blank

Than modify
its substance by
So much as a pen-stroke.

Woven of wood-nymphs,
it speaks volumes
No-one will ever write.

I incline my head
To its candour
And weep for our exile.
(“Ovid in Tomis”)

Here and there the anguish is presented in direct statement:

My children, far away,
don’t know where I am today,
in a Dublin asylum
with a paper whistle and a mince pie,
my bits and pieces making a home from home.
I pray to the rain-clouds that they never come
where their lost father lies; that their mother thrives; and that I
may measure up to them
before I die.
(“Dawn at St. Patrick’s”)

Mahon’s finest and most affecting clarities, however, are achieved by oblique means. The best single poem written in Ireland since the death of Yeats is, I believe, the unprepossessingly titled “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford.” Here in six ten-line stanzas all of Mahon’s poetic gifts come together in a great elegy for the lost ones of the world. In the grounds of a burned-out hotel the poet and a friend stumble upon a shed where “A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole”:

A half century, without visitors, in the dark—
Poor preparation for the cracking lock
And creak of hinges. Magi, moon- men,
Powdery poisoners of the old regime,
Web-throated, stalked like triffids, racked by drought
And insomnia, only the ghost of a scream
At the flash-bulb firing-squad we wake them with
Shows there is life yet in their feverish forms.
Grown beyond nature now, soft food for worms,
They lift frail heads in gravity and good faith.

They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!
“Save us, save us,” they seem to say,
“Let not the god abandon us
Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.
We too had our lives to live.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naive labours have been in vain!

Out of such solving ambiguities Derek Mahon makes a world and finds a way poetically, and brilliantly, to express it.

Mahon is best when the play is serious, and his gayest dances are the stateliest ones; when he is merely playful the results are not always happy (this volume would not have suffered greatly for the omission of “The Joycentenary Ode,” despite its clever wordplay). Paul Muldoon, on the other hand, prances in buckskin and feathered headdress, shaking a fistful of bones in our faces, and chanting a strange, impenetrable music. He wears the mask of the Trickster, but when we get close enough—which it is not easy to do—and peer into the eyeholes, we encounter a surprisingly mild, shrewd, pale blue gaze in which there may be more of Firbank than of Lévi-Strauss.

Muldoon is ten years younger than Mahon. He was born in County Armagh (one of his poems is called “Armageddon, Armageddon”), and was educated at Queen’s University, Belfast. He worked for some years as a radio producer with the BBC in Northern Ireland, and now lives and teaches in the United States. His first book was New Weather (1973); since then he has published four collections as well as a Selected Poems, and has edited The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, in which he showed himself characteristically unconventional, excluding from the volume all but a handful of his colleagues—and that in a land which, according to Flann O’Brien, can boast at any one time a ten-thousand-strong army of poets.

Muldoon’s poetry is hard to grasp. It may convey something of the flavor of his work, of its diversity, its sudden switches and disconcerting lapses into dialect, real or invented, if I quote the opening and closing lines of his 1983 collection, Quoof^2. The first poem, “Gathering Mushrooms,” begins:

The rain comes flapping through the yard
like a tablecloth that she hand- embroidered.
My mother has left it on the line.
It is sodden with rain.
The mushroom shed is window- less, wide,
its high-stacked wooden trays
hosed down with formaldehyde.

The closing, long poem, “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants,” ends thus:

Next of all was the han’ “Be Japers.”
“The sodgers cordonned-off the area
wi’ what-ye-may-call-it tape.”
“Lunimous.” “They foun’ this hairy
han’ wi’ a drowneded man’s grip
on a lunimous stone no bigger than a…

“Huh.”

Muldoon’s poetry is fiendishly eclectic. He will place charming verses about his childhood in Armagh beside such things as “7, Middagh Street,” a long cycle set in the house in New York shared during the war by a gallimaufry (one finds oneself using such words when speaking of this poet) of people including W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee, Salvador Dali. He is also one of the few contemporary Irish writers who have dealt directly with the Troubles:

The UDR corporal had come off duty
to be with his wife
while the others set about
a follow-up search.
When he tramped out just before twelve
to exercise the greyhound
he was hit by a single high-velocity
shot.
You could, if you like, put your fist
in the exit wound
in his chest.
He slumps
in the spume of his own arterial blood
like an overturned paraffin lamp.
(“The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants”)

It is a measure of this poet’s skill and daring that he can set a passage such as this into a poem loosely based, so the publisher’s blurb tells us, on the Trickster cycle of the Winnebago Indians—a poem dense with jokes, travels, names, outrageous rhymes, sudden tendernesses:

He will answer the hedge- sparrow’s
Littlebitofbreadandnocheese
with a whole bunch
of freshly picked watercress,
a bulb of garlic,
sorrel,
with many-faceted blackberries.
(“The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants”)

There are direct echoes of the North and its tribulation in Madoc, but the true “Northern note” sounds more audibly in the disjunctions and the febrile energies that drive the poetry; the line struts, falls, goes on again, broken but still moving, like something skittering away from the scene of a catastrophe that had as much of comedy in it as of horror. The book opens with a short prose passage, provocatively called “The Key”; following that come six short, splendid poems done in the by now familiar Muldoon manner: inventive, quirky, humorous, and frequently mystifying. Then we launch out on Part Two, “Madoc: A Mystery,” a 240-page cycle based (very loosely) on an idea conceived and enthusiastically canvassed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his friend, the minor poet Robert Southey (author of a long verse-narrative called Madoc), to set up a utopian community in the United States. This brotherly group were to be called the Pantisocrats (“Coleridge created the word from the Greek roots pan-socratia, an all-governing society…”3 ), and they were to settle on the banks of the Susquehanna river in Pennsylvania.

The idea fired the imagination of a great many otherwise serious people in England in the 1790s (even Southey’s dog Rover was an enthusiastic Pantisocrat), until the mercurial Coleridge suddenly lost interest in it. What Paul Muldoon has done is to imagine that Coleridge and his friends, instead of contenting themselves with evenings of utopian talk over punch and tobacco in the Salutation & Cat, did go to America to found their Pantisocracy. Woven in with this conceit are bits of science fiction, word puzzles, glimpses of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and much, much more. The whole thing has a loony elegance and obsessive playfulness, an air of something concocted for a jape by the brightest boy in the class, one of those febrile geniuses who laugh a lot and have a tremor in their hands and who we suspect will never really come to anything in the end.

The poems in the cycle, none of them long, some of them two- or even one-liners, are each headed by the name, in square brackets, of a philosopher, scientist, poet, explorer…. I do not see, except in few instances, that the poems refer to their patrons. Here are two examples, chosen pretty much at random:

[James]

The pile of horse-dung at the heart of Southeyopolis
looks for all the world like a dish of baked apples.
[Kristeva]

“Signifump. Signifump. Signifump.”

(Well, yes, structuralism, the signifier and the signified and all that—though I doubt the elegant Ms. Kristeva would be pleased by the hint of “frump” here.) Sometimes a wan little joke emerges:

[Archimedes]

Coleridge leaps out of the tub. Imagine that.

I have to confess that I really do not know what to make of Madoc: I do not know what I am meant to make of it. Granted, it is continuous with Muldoon’s previous work; here are all the old fascinations, with primitive ritual, “alternative” philosophies, hallucinogenic rigamarole, and madcap voyages; here too is the peculiar, inimitable music of Muldoon’s voice:

Southey brushes the glib
from behind the stallion’s ear

and takes aim
de dum. A flash in the pan. A thunder-clap.

Blood-alphabets. Blood-ems.
A babble of blood out of the bro- ken fount.

Yet I cannot help feeling that this time he has gone too far—so far, at least, that I can hardly make him out at all, off there in the distance, dancing by himself. Yes, art should be resistant, poetry should hold back something of its essential self. The trouble is, Madoc demands that the reader work in ways that seem inappropriate to the occasion: one pictures work details of Ph.D. students already setting to, tracking down the references, preparing glosses, grinding keys. Such treatment will kill Muldoon’s poetry. He is at once an artist of great gaiety and of high seriousness, and in his best work these two qualities are inextricably combined. Madoc, however, is a little too playful in its profundities, and many of its jokes are weighed down with leaden solemnity.

The wraith pokes its tongue in Southey’s ear—
“Rhythm in all thought, and joy- ance everywhere”—
before leaving only a singe on the air.

We have strayed far from Northern Ireland. This is neither surprising nor to be regretted. For poets such as these nationality is not much more than a label. Both Muldoon and Mahon comment in their own—that is, poetic—ways on the tortured little country of their birth. However, both maintain, against the urgings of those (especially in Ireland) who confuse poetry with polemic, an admirable tact and obliquity in their treatment of what lesser poets might seize on as rich material, as “good copy.” And if there is a Northern School, both show in the maturity and cosmopolitan range of their work that they are by now alumni.

  1. 1

    There are some splendid and invigorating essays on the Northern poets—and much besides—in Edna Longley’s Poetry in the Wars (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1986); the book awaits US publication.

  2. 3

    Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (Viking, 1990).

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