Four Poems by Derek Mahon
Four Poems by Derek Mahon INTRODUCTION Derek Mahon belongs to the same generation of Northern Ireland poets as Seamus Heaney. But, whereas many of Heaney’s poems are rooted firmly in the rural landscape of Ulster where he grew up, Mahon’s poems reflect his childhood spent in Belfast. His familiar places were the streets of the city, the Harland and Wolff shipyard where his g-andfather and father worked, and the flax-spinning factory where his mother worked.
Later on, Mahon would come to study at Trinity College Dublin and from there he spread his wings to travel and work in many different places, from France, Canada and America, to London and Kinsale in Co. Cork. , •”DAY TRIP TO DONEGAL” Tie shift, in both meaning and feeling, that :sxes place between the first and final lines of ~ s poem makes it memorable. The title :=e~s ordinary: Day Trip to Donegal suggests :- :~ :od days out at the seaside or even a school trip with classmates and teachers. ~–~ opening stanza is conversational in tone.
I :– ,al at his seaside destination, the poet s n familiar surroundings. There were to be seen” and “as ever” the hills “a deeper green/Than anywhere in the : : – seems at this point that we are r: – r :: share a pleasant day at the seaside in Donegal with the poet. However, just as we . – rev. ~”~ comfortable with this expectation, -:::••• appears. We are disturbed by the 2. Deration in the final line and the image : ^reduces: “… the grave/Grey of the sea Me grwnmer in that enclave. ” – – : — : _s -“rial line of the opening stanza , a similar scenario in stanza two.
The poet watches the fishing-boats arriving back at the pier with their catch. This familiar scene is often described in attractive terms by songwriters and painters. But here Mahon startles us in the second line by describing the catch as “A writhing glimmer offish”. The word “writhing” is very vivid. The fish are seen as suffering and this notion becomes more intense in the concluding lines of the stanza where he sees them “flopping about the deck/In attitudes of agony and heartbreak”. A story is told about Mahon as an only child who spent a lot of time alone.
His imagination had free rein and in the bicycle shed in the garden at home the Mahons also kept coal. Apparently the boy Derek Mahon suffered guilt when he went to the shed to get his bicycle. He felt pity for the coal which was, to him, imprisoned in that dark, cold, shed. His compassion was evident even then; he felt sorry for the coal! In Day Trip to Donegal we see that the poet’s day is changed by the sight of the caught fish. He feels compassion for them in their dying moments. In stanza three the return journey to Belfast is described.
This poem is poised between two worlds — the seaside one in rural Donegal and the urban one in Belfast. Have you noticed how Mahon chooses to describe his arrival back in Belfast? “We changed down into suburbs/Sunk in a sleep no gale-force wind disturbs. ” There is a suggestion here of a “tamer” world than the wild gale-beaten one of Donegal. The phrase “changed down” refers to the gear-change of the car, but it also shows how the poet is struck by the difference between the rural and the urban worlds he has experienced on that particular day.
The sleeping suburbs seem slow and quiet after the drama of the Donegal landscape. Exam & Career Guide 241 I t/2 _i O Z LU LU h-U LU U Nightmare Stanza four picks up again on the disturbing imagery of stanza two. There is an intense feeling of terror here as the poet recalls his dream after his day out at the seaside. In his nightmare, the sea is seen as a powerful force of destruction. We can be chilled by his description of the sea performing its “immeasurable erosions” — “Spilling into the skull. ” The combination of words here is powerful: “immeasurable erosions” and the alliteration of “spilling” and “skull”.
The choice of the word “erosion” is worth noting here. It suggests eating away at something — the action of the sea on the coastline over many years. Why does the poet draw a parallel between himself and the eroding coastline, at the mercy of the infinite onslaught of the sea? Could this be an oblique reference to the political circumstances in which he lived in Northern Ireland? We remember that Donegal was described in stanza one as a “green enclave”. He has travelled there from Belfast — another political entity to which he returns after his day across the border.
In the nightmare he is the helpless victim at the mercy of the relentless sea. It mutters “its threat” — the poet does not enjoy a peaceful sleep after his day-trip to Donegal. Instead he has a kind of nightmare, a surreal vision which is frightening and sinister. The nightmarish journey continues into the final stanza. Now the sea has become a metaphor for the poet’s own view of his life. He is alone and drifting, has not taken enough caution to prevent this danger and feels surrounded on all sides by the “vindictive wind and rain”, i. . , the malevolent forces that control his life and which cannot be placated. The poem ends on a note of hopelessness and despair. There is no promise of rescue. His predicament recalls that of the fish described in stanza two — “flopping about the deck/In attitudes of agony and heartbreak”. • “ECCLESIASTES” The title of this poem situates it immediately in the context of religion — Ecclesiastes being the title of a book in the Old Testament, used frequently by preachers in their sermons.
The context of the poem is the Ulster of the religious preachers and the churchmen which Mahon knew very well, being an Ulster Protestant by birth. The opening three lines of the poem are full of feeling. We notice the repetition of God and the rhythm created by “purist” and “puritan”, and “wiles and smiles”. Mahon is imagining himself as a member of the preaching classes and he tries in this poer-look closely at his identity as an Ulster Protestant. There is self-mockery in h s _s= of the phrase “purist little puritan”.
The preacher is narrow minded (little) and rigid his attitudes — a “purist” puritan would be 3 extreme version of an ordinary puritan *^ would have been very strict in religious :. -•’ moral matters. There is mockery and contempt as he describes the preache’ (Ecclesiastes) as “God-chosen” and “God-fearing”. He sees himself as occupying tr-e high moral ground while at the same t~-= basing his morality on fear rather than genuine conviction. The world inhabited by the Ecclesiastes (preachers) is a grim one. The images in ine 4 and 5 convey this most powerfully.
The choice of the word “dank” (meaning da-x sr damp and cold) for the churches and the “tied up swings” on Sundays paint a joyless picture. Sunday was a particularly gloorny ~ in Protestant Ulster as it was strictly designated for prayer and church-going. Pleasure of any kind was frowned on. Marc then contrasts this life-denying way of lrvr>f with the real life of the world — – “the heat i the world”. He mentions how such a rigic code of behaviour allows those Churchmer to avoid the humanising interaction with women and the “bright eyes of children”.
He continues with this train of thought in lines to 16. His tone is very critical. He sees tr-e preacher as using his public morality tc 2*c the real challenges of life — the call on eac of us “to understand and forgive”. The red bandana and stick and the ban? c referred to represent the antithesis of the preacher’s life. The red is a lively contrast n the “dork doors” mentioned before and the bandana and stick would be used on journe to brighter, livelier places than the dark r of Antrim which are washed by the cole “January rains”.
This dark, cold place is the natural habitat of the preacher. He is following in the tradition of his forebears — “the heaped graves of your fathers”. Here he can “close one eye and be king”. This is an allusion to Erasmus, who once said: “In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is King”. Is this a reference to the closed mm and the bigotry of Mahon’s Ulster? The preacher can lord it over the ordinary peoc whose “heavy washing flaps” in the housing estates. They are credulous. But Mahon’s preacher has nothing to offer them. The ft imagery of the poem is filled with contemp 42 Exam & Career Guide cts the preacher “stiff with rhetoric” forth to the captive audience yet lothing whatever to offer them — ng nothing under the sun”. eamus Heaney writes about Ulster :es in the memory of The Forge, in scape of Bogland, The Harvest Bow and Mahon, on the other hand, has a vision of Ulster — and he shares >n with us in Ecclesiastes. It is a place ;tants and Puritans and Preachers. He :dges that this is part of his own oo, and we find that he has a very ew of the narrow, life-denying f the culture which formed him. IT SHOULD BE” m, the mindset of another type of explored. This time it is that of the jrderer — who kills another man ie sees as a just cause. When ;ntions the Moon in the Yellow ire reminded of the Irish Civil War. :hat name was written by Denis ;et in 1927. Its story is of a man e who tried to blow up a generator ydroelectric station which was and was a symbol of the progress Irish Free State. Blake was shot by >f the Free State called Lanigan. The = officer of the Free State is the ir in this poem, as he justifies his nd even takes pride in it. : of Murder titeous tone is struck at the