Derek Mahon, “Life on Earth” – “Homage to Gaia”

It seems too late to write a review of Life on Earth, though Pound did once define poetry as news that stays news. Anyway, as a volume it’s given me steadily renewed pleasure for nearly two years now.

The “Homage to Gaia” sequence in particular seems to me to show a kind of greatness that is almost opposite in nature to the kind that we find in Mahon’s earlier work, for all its continuities with that earlier work in terms of preoccupation and theme.

It’s partly a matter of sheer technical mastery. Again, there is continuity as well as difference. Mahon has always counterpointed different registers and styles within poems, as in the first three lines of Poems 1962 – 1978:

‘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.

There, however, the counterpointing is sharply ironic. The high style of Greek tragedy is jarringly juxtaposed with the banality of sixties suburbia. Something new in the later poems is the smooth grace with which Mahon integrates elements that in earlier work he would have brought into overt conflict. For example, in “Its Radiant Energies” he moves from lines that might have come from a scientific paper (“even an average annual / thousand kilowatt hours / per photovoltaic panel // looks feasible in time”) to the gravely reflective anthropomorphism of “What you notice about / the panes is their composure” and to the bravura intertesselation of the scientific and the fantastical in “star-gazing, rain-laced, / light-drinking polysilicon / raises its many faces / to worship the hot sun.” When you isolate those phrases, their differences of semantic field and imaginative mode stand out very clearly, but when you read them in context, instead of jarring against each other they are brought together in an opalescent shimmering of registers and tones, each one as it were clearly distinct at its centre, like the colours in a rainbow, but blending into its neighbours where they meet. Harmonising these incongruous materials while at the same time allowing each phrase to live and breathe in its own right demands enormous poetic skill.

More radically, though, the contrast with earlier Mahon depends on a changed way of feeling. The new integration reflects an extraordinary suppleness of response in the way the poems approach the world. The Mahon I fell in love with was a bleak, biting poet of alienation and loss, haunted by dreams of an impossible perfection outside history and by the sadness of incomplete lives. I think the intensity with which he articulated this bleak vision made him one of the great poets of the last century. But the new poetry of acceptance complements and enlarges that greatness, rather than contradicting or falling off from it.

This is because the poems don’t so much see the world differently as react differently to what they see. Continuity with the earlier work is pervasive but one aspect of it is particularly germane here. “A Swim in Co. Wicklow” near the end of the Collected Poems of 1999 has an epigraph from Montale, “The only reality is the perpetual flow of vital energy.” This takes up and generalises Mahon’s longstanding obsession with metamorphosis, mutability and decay. “A Swim …” seems to try to make us feel the idea as something positive and energetic, but to my mind doesn’t quite succeed. It has a lugubrious feeling of making the best of things. In contrast, in the first poem of the “Homage to Gaia”sequence the capitalised title “ITS RADIANT ENERGIES” positively shouts the joy of energy and light. And the climax of this poem is an utterly astonishing achievement, a prayer to the sun that commands imaginative assent and is full of imaginative power in the twenty-first century:

Great sun, dim or bright,
eye in the changing sky,
send us warmth and light!
We can never die

while you are roaring there
in serial rebirth
far from our atmosphere.
Remember life on Earth!

Apostrophe to a deified sun! The sun as lion king! Lines ending in exclamation marks!! What is so extraordinary here is the way Mahon has reanimated and reclaimed devices and modes of feeling that few contemporary poets would dare deploy.

He does it partly through the rhythmic and metaphorical force of the lines themselves, of course. But it also grows out, of and is underwritten by, all that went before. As well as being personified and addressed as a god, Mahon’s sun has its being in the lexis of modern physics with which Mahon has shown himself so at home. So his recourse to the pathetic fallacy is undeceived and undeceiving. Full-throated as it is, it stands out clearly and simply as a metaphor and as the expression of a powerful but consciously subjective response. I hope it won’t seem like a cheap play on words if I say there’s a deep pathos to this. I talked earlier as if “alienation and “acceptance” were opposite responses, and in one sense that’s true. The bitterness and despair with which Mahon expressed alienation in earlier poems has gone. But another way of looking at it would be to say that Mahon has become reconciled to the alienation implicit in his still feeling impelled to address the insentient sun as if it could understand him.

Everywhere one looks in “Homage to Gaia” one finds echoes of scenarios, perceptions and feelings from Mahon’s earlier work, but instead of the heavy, brooding intensity of emotion that underlay those earlier poems we have an energy and intensity whose very essence is in a swooping, dancing mobility of perception and feeling. It’s as if an emotional realignment has released Mahon to ride on that perpetually swirling flow of vital energy instead of trying to batter a way against it. The exuberance of the ride is reflected in the nimble shifts of tone, the eager, darting, playful polyvalence of the language, and the extent to which the whole volume is suffused by humour. Though darker tones are constantly present too, though “the great waste beyond” is always an implicit shadow to the light even when it is not overtly evoked, as it is in the superb “Ode to Björk, they don’t choke the joy but heighten it by contrast. Something similar applies to all the best poems in this extraordinarily fine volume, though in its lightness and conduciveness to swift, decisive shifts of emphasis within a clear overall arc of argument the particular metrical and stanzaic form of “Homage to Goa”, seems particularly appropriate to the new vision and sensibility.

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