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Poems by Derek Mahon


Poet's Choice

By Robert Hass
April 19, 1998

Derek Mahon belongs to the same generation of Northern Irish poets as Seamus Heaney. Like Heaney, he was born in Belfast and educated at Trinity College in Dublin. I have been thinking about his poems in these days when the world is holding its breath over the Belfast agreements, waiting to see if more sectarian violence will bring them down. In some of his poems Mahon speaks – with irony so deep it's hard to gauge – about hope for the future, for a normal future, as if he were trying to cast a spell. This one, for example::

Everything Is Going to Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

One of his best-known poems is an elegy for another Northern poet of an earlier generation, Louis MacNeice. It was this poem that brought Derek Mahon to mind. I was thinking of the way he plays with the idea of "future tense":

In Carrowdore Churchyard

Your ashes will not stir, even on this high ground,
However the wind tugs, the headstones shake.
This plot is consecrated, for your sake,
To what lies in the future tense. You lie
Past tension now, and spring is coming round
Igniting flowers on the peninsula.

Your ashes will not fly, however the rough winds burst
Through the wild brambles and the reticent trees.
All we may ask of you we have; the rest
Is not for publication, will not be heard.
Maguire, I believe, suggested a blackbird
And over your grave a phrase from Euripides.

Which suits you down to the ground, like this churchyard
With its play of shadow, its humane perspective.
Locked in the winter's fist, these hills are hard
As nails, yet soft and feminine in their turn
When fingers open and the hedges burn.
This, you implied, is how we ought to live.

The ironical, loving crush of roses against snow,
Each fragile, solving ambiguity. So
From the pneumonia of the ditch, from the ague
Of the blind poet and the bombed-out town you bring
The all-clear to the empty holes of spring,
Rinsing the choked mud, keeping the colors new.

(Derek Mahon 1979. Reprinted from "Poems 1962-1978," by Derek Mahon. By permission of Oxford University Press.)

Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate, is the author, most recently, of the collection "Sun Under Wood."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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