Darken our blinding light a bit
and turn the volume down so we can hear
ourselves thinking, if we’ve a taste for thought;
even now the obscure silences might survive
where an original thought can thrive.
These are the final lines of ‘Radiance’, a new poem that arrives about halfway through Derek Mahon’s final, posthumously published collection Washing Up. Readers will hear in them an echo of his best-known work, the virtuoso, unforgettable ‘A Disused Shed in County Wexford’, specifically the line with which that poem begins: ‘Even now there are places where a thought might grow’. The impulse, in ‘Radiance’, is the same, but it is expressed differently. Where ‘A Disused Shed’ was a kind of allegorical opus, a conversation with victims of suffering throughout history—‘Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii’—in the latter poem Mahon turns his attention to contemporary concerns, ‘airports and sports facilities, hi-tech premises’, to the accelerating pace of daily life. Published forty-five years apart, these two poems are testament to Mahon’s lifelong project of finding a space for the imagination and protecting that space. That the poet managed to do so—in the face of the violence of the Troubles, in the face of decades of personal and political strife, in the face of illness—is no small thing. What is even more remarkable is the fruit of that imagination: the corpus of poems, essays, and plays with which he leaves us, a corpus that confirms him as one of the finest writers of the twentieth century. And now, we have a new addition to that body of work with Washing Up, a collection that surveys the poet’s life and influences; ruminates on our present moment; anticipates an unforeseeable future.
In addition to being written in Mahon’s unmistakable idiom, the collection also returns to familiar themes. The natural world is an enduring concern, as might be gleaned from a cursory perusal of the contents page: poems include ‘Natural Resources’, ‘Natural Selection’, ‘Sand’, ‘Open Air’, ‘Among the Rocks’, ‘Algae’, ‘Down in the Woods’, ‘Another Cold Spring’, and ‘Winter Garden’. The book showcases the poet’s hallmark formal dexterity, too. It includes diary extracts, translations, verse letters, and a poignant, joyful elegy for his old friend Ciaran Carson. And it begins with the bravura ottava rima of ‘The Old Place’, a tender address (‘for Hugo and Eliza Duff’) to two children who might want to read it, the poet hopes, some day when they’re all grown up. ‘It will be time enough to read it then’, Mahon writes,
and recall, briefly, the old author of it
framed in the window at his writing table
who was at peace here in a world ill-at-ease
with itself, its past, a future yours to know—
a sort of hermit, working not for profit,
who was content to engage those few notable
readers who saw the point of the exercise.
You’ve other things on your mind, but even so.
Here as elsewhere in Washing Up, Mahon’s characteristic self-deprecating wit enlivens the poem, but it’s tempered by the earnestness that becomes increasingly prevalent in his later work, where clarity of vision is coupled with a newfound (apparent) peace of mind. He once noted that no sensitive person could help but feel like a tourist in their own country, but now it seems like he has—at last—found a home. ‘A sort of hermit’? Yes and no. The poet might be somewhat isolated from the world beyond the window, but he has hardly shut it out; he remains attentive to its goings-on. These poems consider ‘strip mining and data mining’, ‘faux-democracies’, ‘the high-tech requisition of real lives’. They consider the Covid-19 pandemic, and the resultant Irish lockdown, ‘this enforced parenthesis’. But, to my mind, the most affecting poems in the book are those that ruminate on illness, death, and the survival of artistic work. Sometimes, these themes are approached from an angle. ‘Nacht und Träume’ reflects on the death of Schubert: ‘you wrote fast to fill with love / the night-time skies’ acoustic void / in the short time you had to live / before your final winter ride’; the epistolary ‘Byron to Moore’ imagines the former dispensing advice to his peer: ‘Someone will say you make a music-box / of the wild harp, but never mind such folks: / think of the thousands who will keep your line / a-singing, and the lamp lit at your shrine’; ‘Oedipus at Colonus’ gives new voice to an old character: ‘Death awaits us at the end of the road; / only in death are we beyond catastrophe.’ Other poems strike a more personal note. The poem which lends the collection its title, ostensibly concerned with the everyday act of washing up, also meditates on what it is to be washed up, a self-portrait of the poet as ‘a relic of pre-digital times / fond of anachronistic rhymes’. Similarly, ‘Around the House’ holds the domestic and the existential in tension: ‘bed is for rehearsing / the song the angels sing / since time must have a stop.’ The moving, funny ‘An Old Theme’ is more direct still:
I shall die soon enough on a windy night
not quietly but furious at the outrage,
kicking and screaming as the lights go out.
Never mind; contributing my own calcium
to the world soup with rosemary, sage
and thyme, I will have time to come
to terms with the elemental afterlife—
grimly, of course, if not without relief.
The loss that Mahon anticipates here—his own death—is huge. Last year, as lockdown was introduced, an old poem of his called ‘Everything Is Going To Be Alright’ attracted a good deal of attention: going viral on social media, read out on the RTÉ news, performed by the actor Andrew Scott. First published in the late 1970s, readers now looked to it anew as a source of comfort, a reprieve from the ambient fear the Coronavirus had provoked. RTÉ called it ‘a poem for our times’. People described it using words like ‘soothing’ and ‘uplifting’. There were those who read in it, in fact, a kind of blithe optimism. This is how it begins, after all: ‘How should I not be glad to contemplate / the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window / and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?’ The lines which follow, however, have always seemed to me to deflate the poem, to undermine any contention that things are going to work out fine: ‘There will be dying, there will be dying / but there is no need to go into that.’ That was that, I thought: the whole poem was a kind of dark joke. Not blithely optimistic but a send-up of blithe optimism. When I went back to it, though, it struck me that I’d misread the poem too. It might have been a joke, but it wasn’t only that. In spite of its cynicism, there is beauty here, as well: ‘The sun rises in spite of everything / and the far cities are beautiful and bright.’ Not optimism, but—to recognise the distinction made by Václav Havel—maybe something like hope. It occurred to me then that Mahon’s are the kind of poems with which one spends a lifetime, the kind of poems that might reveal themselves to you over years: wrongfooting you, surprising you, delighting you. The best of them are poems not only ‘for our times’ but for all times, for all seasons.
All this renewed interest in ‘Everything Is Going to Be Alright’ came before its author passed away, and before the publication of Washing Up, and all this was on my mind as I began this review. How to write about a poet whose work so many hold dear, how to write about a book when it’s a last book? Is it possible—is it even desirable—to write about such a collection in isolation, to gloss over the context for it? Perhaps not. For Washing Up is the culmination of a life dedicated to language, the final word from an extraordinary talent, the once ‘strange child with a taste for verse’—a parting gift. Just as in the poem that garnered lockdown fame, there is a knowingly ironic sensibility on display in the collection. But there is hope, too. The book ends with ‘Word to the Wise’, a comradely address to President Michael D. Higgins that meanders through discussion of the statesman’s achievements, the challenges facing Ireland, and the challenges facing people across the globe, ‘at this critical time / of world coercion, multinational crime / the feral capitalism and climate change / so many take as only natural.’ A grim tableau no doubt, but, the poem tells us, things don’t have to be this way. A different future is possible: ‘Strange, / only the imagination can set us right / and that means poetry, some version of it.’ The dreadful irony, of course, is that these lines are taken from the last new Derek Mahon poem in the last new Derek Mahon book we’ll ever read. The world goes on waltzing in its bowl of cloud, and although it has lost this remarkable poet, it is the richer for having his poems in it. They might even help to set us right.