“A mile from where you chatter, somebody screams”: Derek Mahon and the Play of Perspective

Writing prose about poetry, especially prose that is academically critical in nature and not a spontaneous overflow of interpretive emotions, is one of the most daunting tasks possible for a student of literature. The task becomes doubly difficult when one is dealing with an elusive poet like Derek Mahon who is a virtuoso in the evasive arts of pluralizing meaning. This is why I feel that one must, at the very outset, state in brief terms one’s position on poetry, how it functions, and what it does in the web of semiotics in the world; this will aid me in forming a rough schema with which I will contextualize this paper’s approach to its content.

This paper’s position on poetry stems from the idea that poetry is an elaborate meditation on the complexities of human phenomenology and linguistic signification. Poetry is the world folding back upon itself to showcase the vagaries of sights, sounds, smells, ideas, emotions, fragments, memory, creativity, society, history, politics and a plethora of other things that constantly interact and react in the beakers of our minds. It creatively organizes and formalizes these elements not simply to produce a mimetic representation of what “is” (because there is no stable, singular, objective “is” in the (post)modern world) but to bring out a creative insight into how a particular ‘that which “is”’ functions to create an order of things and how one actively moulds it through poetry. Art in general is a simultaneous, interconnected process of phenomenological introspection and a creative transformation of the order of things. Poetry looks at the world from a playful, constructivist rather than a rigid, essentialist point of view.

Derek Mahon is a poet who is all too aware of this. His whole world is a stage, a painting, a construction site from where he flits in and out of at various vantage points in a masterly poetic dance. Accordingly, the central kernel around which this paper is woven are the ways in which ‘perspective’ plays in the poetry of Mahon. The idea is to analyse the various vantage points of poet, poetic subjects and readers that are present through a heteroglossia1 of voices within the poems and are used as different focal points through which the phenomenological stimulus of the poems is looked at. My argument ultimately is that Mahon creates an ever shifting kaleidoscope of perspectives through various techniques in his poetry in order to grant access to a similar worldview of ever shifting perspectives to his readers; a worldview that is a collection of evolving, freewheeling, unmoored points of view. The poems aim to sensitize readers to an idea of relativism through a play of perspective. At one level, this is an attempt to make orthodox Ulstermen see beyond the rigid, sectarian divides of Northern Ireland and to deal with the conflicts that this topos has been a victim to over the ages. That is however never the ultimate destination of Mahon’s work which resonates way beyond into much larger existential concerns. The theme of conflict transformation is nevertheless one of the major chords that echo in his work, a chord that this paper attempts to tease out.

I

I was first struck with Mahon’s preoccupation with the idea of perspective when I looked at his interest in the visual arts. The most important aspect of this art form is the concept of perspective since it is primarily built around the idea of visuality. At the very obvious level, his ekphrastic poems like “The Hunt by Night”, “Girls on a Bridge”, “Courtyards in Delft” are his interpretations of particular art works by a hugely varying spectrum of painters. A painting is a carefully thought out interpretation of a collection of visual signs gathered from the world. These poems showcase an agglutinization of three layers – first is the visual content-in-itself, second is the painter’s interpretation of it and third is Mahon’s poetic coating over these two layers. An intermingling of multiple perspectives thus forms an agon in these poems.

Mahon’s engagement with art creates an interesting poetic event. Richard York notes that in publishing poems like these, Mahon expects his readers to be visually sensitive and observant of the various intricacies of perspective, light, colors, shadows, textures and frames, all of which contribute to the production of meaning in art (York 132). Even if one isn’t really an art scholar and is simply coming to Mahon’s poems, in order to understand them one will inevitably have to spend some time with the paintings he references. The experience of reading these poems is like walking in an art gallery with Mahon as a tour guide doling out cryptic poetic interpretations to the reader who must work his way through this maze like exercise of perspective building.

A detailed analysis of these ‘ekphrastic poems’, no matter how tempting, is beyond the scope of this paper. I will however mention a few brief inferences that are related to the larger arguments that this paper will illustrate. The most famous of these poems is the one based on Uccello’s c.1470 painting Hunt by Night. This painting is considered to be a watershed moment in the development of perspective, depth and dimensionality in Western art during the early years of the Renaissance. The painting literally showcases a move from two dimensions to three as the paltry two dimensional hunters gradually start gaining depth while they move towards the central darkness of the forest in the painting where the alleged prey is hiding. Perspective grows within the folds of this painting and Mahon’s poem crystallizes an entire history of art around this motif of hunting in visual representations as it charts its growth from cave paintings. “flickering shades…in a cave”, to Uccello’s aristocratic hunters of the fifteenth century who are “rampant to pageantry” and finally to similar scenes sanitised on nursery walls in the modern world where “ancient fears mutated to play/horses to rocking horses/tamed and framed’ (Mahon 133).

York notes that a juxtaposition of multiple perspectives takes place in all his other ekphrastic poems as well (135); De Hooch’s Courtyards in Delft focuses on the interplay of the perspective of the outdoor with the indoor while the poem “Girls on a Bridge” very wittingly places two paintings by Munch; Girls on a Bridge and his extremely popular Scream side by side (see Fig 1) due to both paintings sharing a similar setting on bridges. “A mile from where you chatter / somebody screams” (Mahon 135) creates an intense tension between the playful chatter of the girls in the first painting and the existential angst epitomized by the scream in the latter one. Mahon creates a spatial proximity between the two scenes to create an intense interaction between meaningfulness and meaninglessness in the interplay of language with a supra-linguistic scream. It also points towards the need for individuals on their separate bridges preoccupied with their particular situations to try and become aware of things happening on parallel bridges around them. All of this is tangentially connected to his meditations on the Irish conflict of course and is also broadly a part of his larger interest in the Ovidian play of perspective and metamorphic shiftiness.

Mahon-Munch

The form of these painting-poems is also very interesting; York feels they represent a throbbing, pulsating body with its natural ebb and flows (136). In each stanza, the lines first gradually lengthen and then shorten, like a wave form. The whole idea that Mahon brings to his audience time and again is that art is not static but is rather an “event” which is organic, open and semantically fluid. Artist, art, audience and context are created and recreated each time the event of art occurs. The form of the poem must be such that it can accommodate this performative metamorphosis that art continuously goes through. This is also why Mahon constantly revises and edits his poems over time. He resists any form of essentialism to seep into his work. A play of perspective can only occur in such scenarios where the event is not stable, static and fixed.

II

To see how the idea of perspective developed in Mahon’s poetry, I tried to zone in on its development in Mahon’s psychobiography and found that each moment that he considers pivotal in his life as a poet and as a human being involved a radical shift in perspective not just mentally but also physically, in terms of the spaces he was interacting with.

As is not surprising, his childhood in a Protestant Belfast family in the 1950s involved him being immersed in the Protestant-Unionist rhetoric. In an interview given to Eamonn Grennan in the Paris Review he says that “as I went through my teens I saw them with my own eyes. A part of my visual experience was Election Day in Belfast, those lorries full of Unionist supporters, the polling booths…I didn’t look at these people as terrifying B-Specials – they were my family. I had an uncle who was a sergeant in the B-Specials. My cousin Conacht and I used to play with his unloaded revolver in their house” (Grennan).

Certain shifts in perspective however ensured that Mahon did not stray towards the sectarianism that his habitus was leading him towards. He says that as a child he started observing objects a lot. He had no siblings, his father was a devout follower of the protestant work ethic at the shipyard in Belfast, and his mother was busy with housework most of the times. This is when Mahon became a “strange child with a taste for verse” (Grennan 96). Instead of being involved with other humans as a young child, he started observing animation in the objects around him: “the way the light falls from the window onto the kitchen tap and interacts with the cold water” (Grennan). To disconnect oneself from human community and to start connecting with the inanimate world by locating animation in it is a really unique kind of perspective shift. The next shift from narrow minded sectarianism came in secondary school where he says that:

I first began in that teenage way to develop what you might call a political awareness. This was helped by…an uncle who…had been at sea in the Merchant Navy…He was a sort of bachelor-student, the kind of man who wanted to read literature…He was a self-taught man, a left-wing autodidact…He had quite an effect on me at one point, prompting me to become conscious of the political situation (Grennan).

This uncle’s travels away from Northern Ireland granted him perspective, made him look at home in a different critical light which he was able to transfer on to young Derek.

This is when he started to look at religion not from a believer’s point of view, but from that of a critical observer on the outside who realizes the whole thing to be a performance or a role-play, which is what allows him to easily dramatise the persona of a devout Protestant in the scathing satire he writes of religious fervor in “Ecclesiastes”. When asked about his family’s relationship with religion, he says, “There was a certain amount of churchgoing, although they went for the look of the thing – it was expected that you would show your face in church once in a while. They were serious about being respectable and being seen to do the right thing, but they weren’t really serious church people.” (Grennan).

The major breakthrough in Mahon’s perspective came when he himself left Belfast and went to Trinity in Dublin to study along with Michael Longley: “I was bewildered by the place at first, bewildered by Trinity. I thought that Dublin was beautiful…It was a happy alternative to Belfast. In fact, some of us who went down together from the North developed anti-Northern jokes among ourselves” (Grennan). They started a literary magazine together at Trinity called Atlantis whose manifesto read: “Our aim is to see Ireland in an international perspective, to lift its drowsy eyelids and disturb it into a sense of relationship and awareness” (Grennan).

Even at these early stages, one notices a radically different cosmopolitan artistic position in Mahon from the Yeatsian or Heaney-esque model of parochial, ruralist Irish poetry. Elmer Andrews notes that Mahon would fall more into the Louis Macneice-ian model of being a tourist in one’s own country that is emblematic of the condition of modern man (Andrews 7). Mahon gradually learnt to let go of the centeredness that earlier poets vied for in terms of their voice being the voice of a poet-vates or a guiding prophet like Homer or Milton. Mahon in fact mocks that “wretched rage for order” (47). He has come to terms with the lack of order in the world and has changed gears towards finding a system where instead of a singularity of order, a heteroglossia of voices can be accommodated.

This heteroglossia first started to emerge when his shifting to Dublin led to the development of a new voice: “Of course, there was a struggle going on within myself…between a surly Belfast working-class thing and a…debonair [Dublin one]…there was a clash in me between the one and the other…In those early poems there’d be one man on one page and a totally different person on the next page” (Grennan).

The ultimate distancing happened when Mahon moved out of Ireland completely and went to stay in New York. This is what led to the Hudson Letter which is centered on the theme of homelessness. Mahon says that “…my Hudson Letter topic…turned out to be…the whole sexual-metaphysical homeless ache we live with as a species. I could see my boring little provincial home-fixation as, paradoxically, one of the big themes” (Grennan).

If one notices a pattern here, Mahon has visually been zooming out first from his family, then from Belfast into Dublin, then out of Ireland and finally into New York. His move from a sectarian setting to a preoccupation with a cosmopolitan existential ache was possible only because of the perspective building caused by this visual panning out. From within Belfast, Mahon could perhaps have only seen Ulster from the fractured perspective of Protestant Unionism. It is when he moves out that he starts to see Northern Ireland as a totality instead of seeing it through Catholic and Protestant partialities. From New York, the homeward pull is never towards the Catholic side or the Protestant side, but towards Ireland as a whole.

This motif of distanced viewing to gain a panoramic perspective is repeated time and again in his poems. In “Spring in Belfast”, he says that “We could all be saved by keeping an eye on the hill” (15). The emphasis on “all’ here is Mahon’s own and the hill in question is the Cave hill of Belfast, the idea being that if the Protestants and Catholics of Belfast could see their city as a totality from the distance of the hills, they would perhaps move beyond the partial views of the city they get from their respectively orange and green tinted windows. A similar visually distant panning out is suggested in “Derry Morning” where Mahon ends his mournful elegy to the city with the lines “A Russian freighter bound for home / Mourns to the city in its gloom” (99)

Thus, in his journey through the ages Mahon engages in a constant unmooring of the self till a point when he simply does not feel anchored to any particular centre at all. This zooming out ultimately allows him to focus on cosmic, existential issues rather than being preoccupied with earthly, sectarian ones. He carries on in the interview, saying:

It’s practically my subject, my theme: solitude and community;…But it is important for me to be on the edge looking in. I’ve been inside, I’ve spent lots of time inside. Now again, I appear to be outside; perhaps I’ll be inside once again…What I did was to reject the world I was shown, though I later came back to it in various ways. But I went off on this solipsistic trip, on which I in some sense still am. So all of those dedications (the huge number of poems he dedicates to people) amount to the creation of a new family (Grennan).

III

In this final section, I would like to briefly examine one poem by Mahon to illustrate the point about plurality of perspectives that I have been talking about.

“As It Should Be”

We hunted the mad bastard
Through bog, moorland, rock, to the starlit west
And gunned him down in a blind yard
Between ten sleeping lorries
And an electricity generator.

Let us hear no idle talk
Of the moon in the Yellow River:
The air blows softer since his departure.

Since his tide burial during school hours
Our children have known no bad dreams.
Their cries echo lightly along the coast.

This is as it should be.
They will thank us for it when they grow up
To a world with method in it (49).

At the surface level, there is a single authoritative voice of a mob here which has just carried out an execution. This singularity is crushed in the poem through various uses of irony that Mahon brings in. The first two lines paint a picture of heroic proportions which would seem to romanticize and legitimize this adventurous hunting done in a natural setting “we hunted the mad bastard / through bog, moorland, rock to the starlit west”; however the subsequent two lines which represent the actual act of killing completely de-romanticize this image with a focus on its absentminded, mechanical brutality: “and gunned him down in a blind yard / between ten sleeping lorries”2.

At various points in the poem this collective mob voice seems to be reassuring its own self about what it has done, which reveals fractures within the seemingly certain tone that otherwise pervades the poem: “Let us hear no idle talk…This is as it should be…A world with method in it.” The cyclical logic of the crux of this voice’s argument “This is as it should be” dismantles its authority, while people who wish for a “world with method in it” are mocked by Mahon as having an obsessive “wretched rage for order” in other poems.

The other presences in the poem are the “mad bastard” and the “children” whose voice we never get to hear but whose absence nonetheless makes itself felt. On a first reading, one tends to get seduced with the rhetoric of the mob’s voice but on a few more readings one starts to question who this mad bastard is and whether he/she/it has actually done anything to deserve death. The children for whom this whole exercise is allegedly being carried out also puncture the authority of the mob as the mob only assumes their gratitude in the future for what it has done. It is absolutely uncertain whether such gratitude will ever come or not. This mob voice attempts to work as a centripetal force in the poem to create a monolithic narrative, but Mahon’s use of irony as well as the paradoxical ‘absent presence’ of the vantage points of the children and the mad bastard act as centrifugal forces which overpower that voice and result in a heteroglossia and a pluralization of meaning in the poem.

What this play of perspective does is that it leaves the reader anchorless. The poetic event created here is the arrangement of signs without one but various threads running through them, connecting/disconnecting them in multiple ways, defying a reader’s wretched rage for a singularity of order. They unsettle the reader and force one to focus on the very elemental process of semiosis itself. The play of perspective in his poetry alerts us to the event of poetry, the coming together of author, text, context and reader to engage in a process of meaning making. Due to the bucket loads of irony and heteroglossia that he drops all over this event, the whole thing becomes too wet and fluid for any clotting of perspective to take place. At the meta-level then, this forces one to question all other forms of rigid opinions and certainties that one follows in one’s symbolic order.

His poems drive in the idea that any certainties of perspective – Catholic, Nationalist, Republican, Democrat, Right or Left wing – are only a particular way of looking at the world. There are a myriad other ways of doing the same. Mahon wants to rattle against the stubbornness of the position in “Spring in Belfast”, “there is a perverse pride in being on the side/of the fallen angels and refusing to get up” (15), with the Ovidian manifesto in “Heraclitus in Rivers”, “Nobody steps into the same river twice / The same river is never the same…Similarly, your changing metabolism / Means that you are no longer you…the idea of language, All these things will pass away in time.” (105)

Through engaging in a poetic process in the event of poetry either as poet or reader, one becomes sensitive to such an idea of perspectivism and the complex webs of symbolic orders that envelop our planet. When such a withering away of certainties occurs, one is faced with the overwhelming question of forming an order of one’s own. One must hope that this new order has the possibility of being a better one; an order that is not created in what Sartre calls mauvaise foi or bad faith. One hopes that it will have the possibility of evolution, a possibility of humans growing up and learning to live without feeling a dire need to kill other humans who simply do not share their order of things. That, I think is how Mahon’s vision over his poetic oeuvre tries to deal with the Northern Irish conflict.

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Notes:

1 I broadly use Bakhtin’s idea of heteroglossia in language as a tussle between centripetal and centrifugal forces (Bakhtin 12) as a theoretical tool to unpack Mahon’s creation of a plurality of perspectives.
2 This simultaneous glorification plus undercutting is a typical Mahon move seen in various poems. In “Glengormely”, the first line, “Wonders are many and none is more wonderful than man”, gets suddenly undercut by the mocking tone of “who has tamed the terrier and trimmed the hedge” (16). Similarly, in “Derry Morning”, Mahon writes beautiful elegiac verses on a town destroyed by rioting, “the mist clears and the cavities / grow black in the rubbled city’s broken mouth” (99); but in “Rage for Order” he mocks his own poetic self in a riot setting by saying: “Somewhere beyond / the scorched gable end / And the burnt out / Buses there is a poet indulging his / wretched rage for order” (47).

Bibliography:

Bakhtin, M. M., and Michael Holquist. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas, 1981. Print.
York, Richard. “Derek Mahon and the Visual Arts.” The Poetry of Derek Mahon. By Elmer Kennedy-Andrews. Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe, 2002. N.p. Print.
Mahon, Derek. New Collected Poems. County Meath: Gallery, 2011. Print.
Grennan, Eamonn. “Derek Mahon, The Art of Poetry No 82.” The Paris Review N.p. (Spring 2000). Web. 04 Sept. 2014. <http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/732/the-art-of-poetry-no-82-derek-mahon>.
Kennedy-Andrews, Elmer. The Poetry of Derek Mahon. Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe, 2002. Print.

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Anuj Gupta has done his Master’s degree in English Literature from St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi; he completed his Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Hindu College in 2013. He is a member of the editorial team for Ivory Tower, a journal of poetry. His research interests include mythology, pop culture, cultural studies and modern philosophy. Apart from being an amateur literary researcher, he is also an independent musician and a freelance guitar teacher. He may be contacted at anujgupta@ivorytower.in

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