Derek Mahon, Against the Clock – review

Against the Clock, by Derek Mahon. Gallery Press. 80 pp. €11.95

Life on Earth is my favourite among Mahon’s later collections. Nothing in Against the Clock seems to me as electrifying as that volume’s “Homage to Gaia”, but this too is a remarkably rich work by a mature master.

In the title poem, Mahon is seen spurring himself to write hard and as well as he can against the deadline of death. He describes how he encourages himself to take example from great poets who, whatever their faults in life and art, kept going to the end as writers. Then he describes how when he loses heart they round on him, telling him that however worthless what he’s doing may be, it’s what he’s here for. This complex, layered poem harbours many ambiguities of feeling, including an ambivalence that reaches back pretty well throughout Mahon’s career: the struggle between dedication to poetry and doubt about its ultimate value. What’s remarkable, though, is how the poem combines subtlety and complication with a powerful sense of spontaneous speech driving to a forceful conclusion. The apparent spontaneity depends on virtuoso artifice, the sheer fluency with which the author inhabits stanza and metre, riding their patterns like a surfer riding waves, using their energy to propel what Yeats called “a natural momentum in the syntax”. As Yeats pointed out, such a momentum is more important than “words in common use” for creating the impression of passionate speech, allowing the poem to carry any amount of heightened language without losing power or conviction. So Mahon can combine the gutsy, down-to-earth energies of slang and elliptical speech with the precision and imaginative reach of a more elevated style. Moreover, steeped in the poetry of different ages and languages as he is, he combines colloquial force with the intricate interplay of perspectives invoked by allusion. In this poem most references are forthright and simple, sometimes reinforced by brief explanatory glosses. However, the reference to “the old faces” brilliantly and unobtrusively makes Mahon’s poem spark against Yeats’ “The New Faces”, and does so to complex imaginative effect, as anyone putting the two together will see.

“Against the Clock” expresses harsh resignation and resolve. In contrast, “Olympia” is a minor miracle of harmony and grace, wittily imagining the poet’s battered typewriter as muse, dancing partner and co-creator. Shifting tones blend in a seamless dance through a complex invented stanza form. Lightly sounded as they are, they evoke discordant impulses and energies reaching back through Mahon’s career but do so in a way that subdues them to the grace of the whole. At the forefront of our minds is the liberating play of fantasy that is such a frequent feature of Mahon’s verse. The opening draws us into the hush of an erotic encounter tense with anticipated pleasure:

We commune, she
and I, in silent privacy,
ribbon and paper glimmering …

When communion becomes dance the metre suggests both the clattering of typewriter keys and the movement of the dancers’ feet, while the surges, checks and whirls of sentences round phrase and line endings suggest the evolution of the dance as a whole. Step by step we’re led from picturing the partners as ageless lovers absorbed in each other and the promise of the moment to seeing them as stiff-jointed elders whose pleasure depends on the vistas of faded experience behind them and the sense of recapturing at least an illusion of past glories:

On we go

(each imprint an antique
ever so slightly out of the true as if
handwritten, as if with its own personal life
stretching back to a past
lost in the mist,

old dust and fluff
hiding with other stuff
in the dark places), page after rackety page,
two crotchety relics of a previous age
jazzing it up again as
in the great days.

There’s a beautiful shimmering between rueful self-deprecation and suggestions of the special value of what is old and has its own personal life, or between the squalid associations of dust, fluff and stuff and the repeated suggestion in Mahon that just such dark corners are the hiding places of creative power.  The lightness of touch owes much to another of Mahon’s favoured devices, the indefinite floating of tonalities and suggestions by use of the counterfactual “as if”.

Self-deprecating or harshly self-dismissive as he can be, Mahon has an unembarrassed sense of belonging to the great tradition of poetry. Without naming themselves as such, some of these poems are clearly Odes, like “A Full Moon in May”, which combines an elaborate metrical form with direct address to the subject – the moon, in traditional mythological guises – to give a simultaneous sense of heightened formality and overflowing passion, fusing lyrical feeling with wider reflection. Both his use of myth and his devotion to regular form seem to reflect a sense of the poem as not merely a personal utterance but both a kind of ceremony and the discharge of a collective obligation, speaking on behalf of a wider community. Such an attitude is explicit in the end of “Ninth Wave”:

Haunted by death, lost love, a nightmare past,
indictments of ourselves, what should we do
with these inheritances but write them through
and sing the praises of our only nurse
in gratitudes of prose and verse?

I would like to thank Patricia Oxley for her permission to post this review, which originally appeared in Acumen 93.

One Response to “Derek Mahon, Against the Clock – review”

  1. Edmund Prestwich» Blog Archive » Frieda Hughes, Out of the Ashes – review said:

    May 26, 19 at 11:56 am

    […] My own response is mixed. As I read poetry, syntax and metre are the bones and muscles that give a poem living shape and make it move. Perhaps it’s Hughes’ relative weakness in this regard that makes me feel that in many of her poems the whole somehow adds up to less than the sum of its powerful parts. Or perhaps it’s her tendency to over-explain, as I would see it, nailing ideas down and flattening them by analysis rather than leaving them to resonate and expand in the reader’s imagination. I’m temperamentally less at home with her tendency to present things in strong colours and absolute terms than with the play of ambiguities, counter-suggestions and conflicting emotions that we find in Derek Mahon. […]

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