Derek Mahon, “After the Titanic” – 1

You can find a text of “After the Titanic” here.

Friends and I were discussing this poem and a number of others by Mahon a few weeks ago and it produced interestingly mixed reactions. Several liked it the best of all the poems in the batch under consideration. One or two found it more limited in resonance than poems like “A Disused Shed in County Wexford” and “The Snow Party”. I find it both extraordinarily rich and extraordinarily delicate, crammed with complex, interweaving  emotions twined around a series of simple vignettes or imaginative mises-en-scène in a way that combines a suggestion of the expansiveness of a novel with the spearpoint concentration of the lyrical poem.

Fast as we move from one scene to another, each opens out in our minds like one of those Japanese paper flowers that seem to bloom almost magically when dropped into water. Take “As I sat shivering on the dark water”. As we pause at the end of the line the phrase fills itself with images of the stunned survivors in their lifeboat staring at the ship, then at the space where the ship had been, shivering in shock and fear, in physical cold and the horror of loss, feeling the abyss of water underneath them and the tiny frailty of the vessel they’re in. I think that for the speaker himself this is not only a revelation of the abyss of annihilation under all life but also a sudden and appalling opening of the abyss of weakness within himself (this is suggested by the emphatic isolation that makes us dwell on the word “Hero” even as the rhythm makes it almost impossible to pronounce it with any force).

Other phrases in the beginning of the poem aren’t as immediately arresting. They take a little more time to have their effect but as you reread the poem they open out almost as much, like the imagined scene of the humiliation at the enquiry, or the scene of getting away in a boat (this last, of course, subject to the irony that the whole point of the poem is that in a deeper sense the speaker never did and never could get away). In “I sank as far that night” the figurative idea of a moral collapse is carried by a stunning image of the miles of darkness through which the Titanic and those sucked down by her sank in literal fact.

Such images get their power from their dramatic intensity. Others are made haunting by their incongruous lyricism, a sweetness of tone both heightened by contrast and made desolate because sweetness has lost all meaning for the speaker: he’s survived as a kind of ghost cut off from life by remorse and shame. A particularly lovely mental picture is that of the sea leaving broken toys and hat boxes at the speaker’s door. “Silently” and the allusion to the idiomatic phrase about laying blame at someone’s door makes the sea an imaginary person and makes us visualise the depositing of flotsam as a human ritual of mourning and reproach, the more eloquent for being speechless. At the same time, we have a more literal image of holiday detritus simply being washed up on the beach: it’s  the speaker’s guilt that interprets all flotsam as a reproach, like Nerval’s Judas seeing his treachery written on every wall he passes [1].

Personification and the suggestion of ritual make this a moment of heightened poetry. Mahon’s ability to combine different modes in a seamless whole is a mark of his genius and this moment is followed almost immediately by one in a very different style. I suggested earlier that the poem sometimes works in an almost novelistic way. A moment which seems to me particularly novel-like in its shift of viewpoint is when we suddenly see the speaker through his gardener’s eyes. For a moment we step out of the prison of the speaker’s mind into the ordinary world where rain and flowers and sunny June evenings still matter, where neighbours and tourists indulge their prurient curiosity about the notorious recluse and the gardener enjoys sharing his privileged information. There’s a jolting contrast between their world and the speaker’s obsessed self-involvement. We’re almost immediately dragged back into the haunted prison of his mind for most of the rest of the poem (he himself has never got outside it, eavesdropping like a ghost on others’ whispered enquiries about him, though we’ve been given a glimpse of their living world as it were over his shoulder) but there’s a startling twist as he suddenly turns on us with a direct challenge: “Include me in your lamentations”.

 



[1] It also webs in with Mahon’s many other evocations of marine flotsam, and so with one of his master image clusters.

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