By Michael Stephens
THE YELLOW BOOK, by Derek Mahon, Wake Forest University Press, 57 pp.
When one speaks of Irish poetry in the second half of the 20th century, the names that invariably come to mind are Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, and, of course, Derek Mahon. Yet if I’ve had a visceral, almost too-easy response to Heaney, Muldoon, and Ni Dhomhnaill, I’ve had to struggle with Derek Mahon’s poetry. Often I found his work not only too formal, but even a bit old-fashioned. This old-fashionedness did not translate as quaintness — Mahon has never been a poet of an ersatz Celtic twilight — but rather as a voice that did not seem to be of its time.
Perhaps Derek Mahon was simply being modern in an age that outgrew the modern. I found the darkness, his bitterness, too mannered, not heartfelt. In that sense, I perceived of him as a poet with tremendous technique, even virtuosity, but the overall effect was to leave me cold. Yet, saying that, I need quickly add that none of these feelings I’ve had in the past obtain in regard to the present book by Mahon. “The Yellow Book” is as brilliant as poetry gets, searing, seeing, righteous, morally on fire, heartfelt, and, as is always the case with Derek Mahon, technically virtuous.
Mahon’s voice is easily allusive, sometimes too polysyllabic, and “The Yellow Book” (the pleasures of the text, periphrasis and paradox”) does not change that quality of Mahon’s work. Yet I feel crabbed saying that, for the polysyllabic has never been a negative quality when it came to my praising Joyce or Beckett, two writers who had their fondness for the dictionary and the thesaurus; two writers whose spirit, too, is found in these poems.
Here I am, looking at “The Yellow Book,” saying to myself, not only is this book good, it may be one of the best books of poetry published in the last two decades. The names I would associate with these poems are poets such as Robert Lowell, W.H. Auden, and, in antiquity, the monologues of Robert Browning.
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And just as I’ve changed in my opinion about Derek Mahon’s poetry, I also think Mahon has experienced a sea change himself. A technically gifted poet has become a poet whose technique is so good, it hardly matters, but whose emotions have come, at last, to the fore.
The old and new do not coexist in these fin de siecle poems so much as they collide, exploding next to each other. The explosions are nothing if not dramatic, creating the kinds of tension that make for the high art of poetry. A poem such as “Axel’s Castle” ends with a reference to “echoes of Coole demesne,” but this Yeatsian reference is immediately jammed next to lines of poetry about foreign investment, computers interfacing, and an answering machine.
In another poem (“shiver in your tenement”), Mahon writes of “the days before tourism and economic growth,” before deconstruction and the death of the author, “when pubs had as yet no pictures of Yeats and Joyce.” Elsewhere in this poem, Mahon asks, “What, in our new freedom, have we left to say?”
I recall reading a recent Beckett biography and marveling at the fact that Derek Mahon was one of the Cursed Progenitor’s final visitors. Reading “The Yellow Book,” I can’t think of a more fitting companion for Samuel Beckett than Derek Mahon, particularly when the poet writes such lines as “Yours is the nonchalance of complete despair.” Yet I also have to admit that, before reading “The Yellow Book,” I found Mahon’s relationship to Beckett almost unfathomable, even unreal. What did they have in common? I asked. I don’t ask that question now.
In “To Eugene Lambe in Heaven,” Mahon makes still another Beckettian observation, declaring that Lambe was “one of those perfect writers who never write.” Perhaps I really mean Mahon writes like Oscar Wilde, not Samuel Beckett, when he writes this way. After all, the sensibility of this volume owes so much to that other fin de siecle world, the one where Wilde flourished.
But what do I find so different about his book compared to Derek Mahon’s previous ones? I suppose it is the tone. I felt a personal bitterness creeping into Mahon’s poetry over the years, an impotent rage. Here, though, there is not so much bitterness or rage as there is moral outrage, a tone of great artistic indignation, a voice of a time and a people, more than a merely subjective outcry. Mahon inhabits these tonal variations beautifully, for the outrage is not so much personal as universal, with even a biblical edge.
This does not mean that the poet is not capable of a deeply personal question in these poems, for instance, “Should I not be bitter?/What do psychiatrists want? — An age of prose.” (“An Bonan Bui”) Yet in a poem entitled “Remembering the ’90s,” Mahon wistfully says, “The most of what we did and wrote was artifice,” echoing that great artificer himself, James Joyce. In one other instance, Mahon refers to New York as “a lot of fun,” and in another instance, says that tragedy “is enormous fun,” ever reminding me of that Frank O’Hara observation that he wished his time was more serious, and yet it, too, was a lot of fun.
That fun aside — and Mahon’s pleasure in writing these poems comes through and is even infectious to the reader — this book is serious from beginning to end. What makes it serious is the dramatic condition it portrays, particularly the tragic nature of all life. “At the Gate Theatre” specifically addresses the place of theater in our time, and like so much else that is lost in our culture, Mahon regrets how tragedy has lost its centrality in an age of sound bites and admen. Mahon believes that drama’s “fierce eloquence yielded in no time to the comic Muse,” the death of tragedy and the birth of the blues.” Tragedy, he writes (and I’ve mentioned already), was enormous fun, “though now we’ve no use for the tragic posture.”
Dionysus has come to tell us that “our long servitude to the sublime/is over.” Mahon may echo Yeats’s “Lapis Laxuli” here, yet the real answer to what does replace tragedy comes in a later poem entitled “At the Chelsea Arts Club,” where the poet — sounding Audenesque — observes that “everything aspires to the condition of rock music.”
Again, The Yellow Book’s gravity reminds me of the great Irish moralists, such as Jonathan Swift, but also the great Irish prose writers such as Joyce and Beckett. Who but a Mahon or a Beckett could rhyme “art” with “fart,” and get away with it?
Maybe I’m finally turning into an old fart
but I do prefer the traditional kinds of art.
If this is traditional, I’ll take it. Put another way: is there any other way to go? Amid the skirl of bagpipes, we have ads for Marlboros and Coke. Yet thank God we also have Derek Mahon, running just ahead of the rough beast slouching into Dublin, telling us, if not to repent, at least to open our eyes and see what is really happening. Thank God, too, that Mahon, with this book, has provided us with a map to escape the rough beast, and to find our way home, “those with homes to go to.”