I gave this a whirl after reading some of the obituaries following Mahon’s recent death. I had not heard of him previously, clearly this was my loss. I can’t describe all of what I read here as a joy, some of it certainly is, while some of it is difficult, even obtuse. I think what I feel most is admiration: his was clearly a fierce intellect and seems to have approached the written word with rigour. When the poems do connect on an emotional level they are pretty much everything you’d wish for from a poem.
Some of the poems have a certain renown – The Courtyards of Delft, A Disused Shed in Co Wexford, Antarctica – to name three, and they are fine poems but I was more taken by the quieter The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush:
While I sit with my paper and prawn chow mein / under a framed photograph of Hong Kong / the proprietor of the Chinese restaurant / stands at the door as if the world were young, / watching the first yacht hoist a sail…
Or Leaves (see below), or the unexpectedly rolling versifying Beat-style Winter (from New York Time), where:
The lights go out on the Jersey shore / and, as Manhattan faces east once more, / dawn’s early light on bridge and water tower… /
while I make tea and wait for the ghastly news / at eight…
Apparently, recently, Irish national TV news played out its news of the national lockdown in the face of the ongoing pandemic with Mahon reading his poem Everything is Going to be All Right, which includes the lines:
There will be dying, there will be dying, / but there is no need to go into that.
Without question he was a fine poet but I think it would be a tall order to read many of these poems in one sitting. While I can’t speak for any of the individually published collections, this Selected Poems is something I will undoubtedly return to for many years.
The prisoners of infinite choice
Have built their house
In a field below the wood
And are at peace.
It is autumn, and dead leaves
On their way to the river
Scratch like birds at the windows
Or tick on the road.
Somewhere there is an afterlife
Of dead leaves,
A stadium filled with an infinite
Rustling and sighing.
Somewhere in the heaven
Of lost futures
The lives we might have lived
Have found their own fulfilment.