Independent Researcher | Published: 17 March, 2023
ISSUE 18 | Pages: 25-36 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2023-11467
2023 by Ciarán O'Rourke | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Literary critics have generally cast Derek Mahon as a humanist in dialogue with existentialist themes, or as a poet of exile, while highlighting the qualities of irony and skepticism that permeate his work. This paper is receptive to such readings, but proposes an alternative emphasis, situating Mahon as an anti-capitalist writer, his poetic ventures often serving to critique and counteract what he called “the bedlam of acquisitive force / That rules us, and would rule the universe” (2018a: 59). This discussion surveys Mahon’s long-standing respect for a variety of anti-capitalist poets and thinkers, from Brecht and Pasolini to Naomi Klein; sheds light on his penetrating investigations of warfare and ecological despoliation as offshoots of imperial and capitalist expansion; and explores his advocacy of poetry as a corrective to what he viewed as the glib commercialism and intellectual complacencies accompanying market-driven globalization, or in his words, “the explosive growth of high finance / directing thought” (2020h: 67). Over the course of this paper, my objective is to present a “new” Mahon: a poet whose self-described “left-wingery” informed, and found expression in, his work and practice (2017d: 82).
La crítica literaria generalmente ha presentado a Derek Mahon como un humanista en diálogo con temas existencialistas, o como un poeta del exilio, al tiempo que destaca las cualidades de ironía y escepticismo que impregnan su obra. Este artículo es receptivo a tales lecturas, pero propone un énfasis alternativo, situando a Mahon como un escritor anticapitalista, sus aventuras poéticas a menudo sirviendo para criticar y contrarrestar lo que él llamó “el manicomio de la fuerza adquisitiva / Que nos gobierna, y gobernaría el mundo” (2018ª: 59). Esta discusión examina el respeto de larga data de Mahon por una variedad de poetas y pensadores anticapitalistas, desde Brecht y Pasolini hasta Naomi Klein; arroja luz sobre sus penetrantes investigaciones sobre la guerra y el despojo ecológico como vástagos de la expansión imperial y capitalista; y explora su defensa de la poesía como un correctivo a lo que él veía como el comercialismo simplista y las complacencias intelectuales que acompañan a la globalización impulsada por el mercado, o en sus palabras, “el crecimiento explosivo de las altas finanzas / que determinan la dirección del pensamiento” (2020h: 67). A lo largo de este artículo, mi objetivo es que pueda verse emerger un “nuevo” Mahon: a saber, el poeta cuya autodenominación de “izquierda” informó y encontró expresión en su obra y práctica (2017d: 82).
Poesía; Política; Anticapitalismo; Ecología; Derek Mahon
“Poetry, like everything else, is political in the widest sense”
“Some think poets should avoid politics”, wrote Derek Mahon, before parrying, matter-of-factly, with a second observation: “It’s not a position to which Yeats would have subscribed – or Kavanagh, or MacNeice”. “Poetry”, he went on, “like everything else, is political in the widest sense” (2012g, 201). The motif recurs throughout his writing, including in a short memoir essay he penned about Yeats (and his own evolving relationship with the long-shadowed bard). “The list of modern poets whose Helicon has been, precisely, the abounding gutter, vox populi vox Dei, is a long one”, he said,
I need only mention MacDiarmid, Brecht and Pasolini to show with what eloquence the idea has been celebrated. Yeats knew this too, of course, as later poems like “Lapis Lazuli” go to show: everything is dialectic, truth and counter-truth. (2012: 73)
Reading Yeats backwards, as it were, through the example of three avowedly Marxist writers (“MacDiarmid, Brecht and Pasolini”), Mahon’s instinct was to cast the “dialectic” of “truth and counter-truth” surging through the poet’s late work in a radical light, portraying him as “a revolutionary figure” (2012: 73). Whether or not one subscribes to this picture of the Anglo-Irish poet –his loyalties and sympathies residing in “the abounding gutter”– it is telling that Mahon chose to interpret Yeats and his legacy in this way. Indeed, his remarks arguably reveal a great deal about his own literary and political orientation.
As this article will show, in his own poems Mahon was alert to the realities of social inequality and exploitation, and to potentialities of radical response, even as he remained conscious of the standards of “eloquence” demanded by his craft, meeting “truth” with “counter-truth” and bearing witness to the credo (shared with countless Marxists and Hegelians through the years) that “everything is dialectic”. Mahon’s late poems, in particular, register the possibility that political change and ecological renewal may be won from seeming devastation, and that poetry might provide a means of imagining how. As Mary Gabriel, a biographer of Marx, has noted of modern “dialectical” philosophies in general:
Two ideas clash and the result is a third idea, which in turn comes into conflict with another and gives birth to something new. The nature of life is therefore dynamic; change is at its very core. [Within this scheme] Hegel also advanced the notion of the Geist, or Spirit, which he held pervaded a people grouped together by historical circumstances, and its alternative, alienation, which occurred when a man did not recognize himself in the greater world or his productive contribution to it. (2011: 26)
For Mahon, similarly, life and history (not to mention poetry itself) were “dynamic”, and as is well known, in his work he often explored the condition of anomie, as described here by Gabriel. As Stephen Enniss observes, “Mahon is, more than any of his contemporaries, Ireland’s laureate of loss” (2014e, 2), while “the origin of [his] art”, he suggests, “lies in suffering” (259). What has been little recognised, however, is the connection between the poet’s sense of alienation from “the greater world” and the consistent radicalism of his political convictions.
If Mahon never explicitly presented himself as a “Marxist” poet, he nonetheless engaged a “dialectical” understanding of political change in his work, as we have seen, and often drew on the example of socialist and communist writers when formulating his own views on contemporary history and the craft of poetry (as the discussion below will demonstrate). It is this self-described penchant for “left-wingery” on Mahon’s part – “to which, perhaps naively, I adhere” (2017d: 82) – that accounts for the framework employed in this paper, which sets out to survey and explore the deep-rooted ecologies of anti-capitalist analysis and belief undergirding his poetry. As such terminology implies, an additional aim of this discussion is to highlight the inter-relationship between the environmental attentions evident in much of Mahon’s poetry and the subversive opposition to capitalist thought and culture animating his writing: in poem after poem, each thematic strain nourishes and enriches the other. “No words of mine”, he wrote in 2020, “will save [a] condemned forest from the chainsaw”, and yet he found himself compelled to poetic utterance, painting an accusatory portrait of “the cynical and bored, / the populations sold out to material / interests” (17).
To some extent, Mahon’s antagonistic awareness of such “material interests” has been neglected in critical responses to his work. Insofar as his politics have been examined at all, commentators have tended to detect a “characteristic ambivalence” in the poems (regarding modernity in general, and the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland in particular) before proceeding to other matters (Byrne 1982: 69). Unsurprisingly, in his lifetime, Mahon garnered a reputation as an introspective yet debonair poetic talent, possessed, according to one critic, of “a literary consciousness profoundly turned in on itself”, lending his work a formal flair and “self-reflexiveness” that beguiled. According to this reading, “Mahon’s poems” often “chide themselves for not engaging with social divisions and political violence, but this is as far as they go” (Redmond 2001: 9). Mahon, another commentary contends, produced a body of “work that is grounded in emotional unease and political stasis but which is fundamentally nurtured on this discord” (Tinsley 1991: 106). One early review even went so far as to portray Mahon as writing “from the familiar vantage point of the dégagé artist”, his approach “dangerously close to the moral vacuity he rails against with such expertise” (Galassi 1973: 115).
Somewhat contrastingly, a number of scholars have located the main strength and point of appeal of Mahon’s work in its pervasive “humanistic impulse” (Lawley 2013, 148), and its verve in “articulating la condition humaine” (John 1999: 36). This critical camp views Mahon as the inheritor of a tradition of literary bohemians and outsiders, including Camus, “Beckett, Villon [and], Rimbaud”, or as “an Irish Cavafy standing ‘at a slight angle’ to the universe” (Faggen 2003: 239-240). Mahon’s fascination with marginal states and peripheral zones of human experience –with “Huts and Sheds”, as well as ecologically rich habitats more broadly– has led some commentators to emphasise the ecological consciousness accompanying his humanist and existentialist concerns (McElroy 2018, 215-29).
Inheriting but also seeking to complicate such interpretations, this paper places Mahon’s exploratory radical politics at the centre of his poetry, while drawing attention (as above) to some of his lesser discussed sympathies and partisan leanings. Of course, it would be misleading to claim that such a thesis is entirely without precedent in academic circles, and I have no desire to make that insinuation. Hugh Haughton, for one, has acknowledged the “edge of political anger [and] cultural critique” in Mahon’s work, which advances an understanding of “poetry”, he says, “as a form of resistance” (Haughton 2007: 18). In Haughton’s reading, however, Mahon’s tendency to question and subvert inherited orthodoxies remains generalised: a kind of literary personality trait, rather than an impulse the poet pursued and honed within a specifically anti-capitalist framework. Haughton, in brief, does not expand on what exactly Mahon’s work might be resisting, in political or ethical terms. Nevertheless, his observation is insightful and suggestive.
This essay also builds on remarks made by Neil Corcoran concerning Mahon’s prose writings. “For all the brio and largesse of his aesthetic enthusiasms, affections and discriminations”, Corcoran concludes, “they are grounded in ethical and political attitudes”. He notes, furthermore, that “the castigation of post-modern market-driven global capitalism runs very deep [in] a great deal of the prose” (Corcoran 2018: 163). As this paper argues, the same interrogatory impulse, and cluster of “ethical and political” concerns, may be discerned in Mahon’s poetry, particularly (though not exclusively) in his later years.
In a similar vein, Daniel Tobin has taken note (astutely, if also somewhat abstractly) of Mahon’s “preoccupation with history as a force that shapes the consciousness of the artist and defines the wider culture”, arguing that few poets “have confronted the destructive nature of history as unsparingly and yet as elegantly” as the Belfast-born writer (Tobin 1999: 295). Matthew Campbell, incidentally, addresses this theme but from the opposite direction, portraying Mahon as a fundamentally skeptical and ironic poet, “wary of the certainties of historical knowing” (Campbell 2018: 309). With its focus on Mahon’s precise, concerted critiques of capitalist culture, this paper adapts but also attempts to particularise Tobin’s perspective, while problematising Campbell’s claims. As we have already seen, Mahon held a dynamic understanding of social and historical change, and rejected the idea that art should be produced solely for art’s sake. “It’s time now to go back at last / beyond irony and slick depreciation”, he wrote in 2010, “time to create a future from the past” (17). Significantly, for Mahon that “past” was a subversive one, filled with rebels, poets, and others, whose (sometimes utopian) belief in alternative social and economic models could be a source of inspiration, both literary and political.
“People before profit, please…”
Mahon’s was not merely a quotative or referential radicalism. Rather, he used poetry as a means of advocating and imaginatively activating strategies of anti-capitalist thought and action. In seeking “to create a future from the past”, moreover, Mahon drew on a variety of political traditions. “Pour sand without stint / in complex systems meant / to make the world go round”, he urged in his 2020 collection, Washing Up, recuperating the machine-wrecking tactics of the nineteenth-century Luddites (Thompson 1963: 529-70) for deployment in, and against, the market-dominated modernity of the present day: “then listen for the sound / of engines seizing up / and shuddering to a stop” (20). Such a venture, he clarified, would be artistically as well as politically consequential, allowing the sounds of “birdsong, falling rain” to enter the ensuing silence, the poem’s attention, finally, expanding to encompass a “mumble” in the distance, “where waves grind / the rocks and cliffs to sand” (20). The apparent destructiveness of the prospective levellers is thus refigured in a positive light: enabling a new apprehension of nature, and of natural cycles of erosion and renewal, to replace “the mean machine” of economic thinking and industrial excess.
The nefariousness and insidiousness of the globalised market economy, a network of “complex systems meant / to make the world go round”, was a subject Mahon returned to repeatedly in his later work. Often, he expressed his political views directly. “Like most literary types I know next to nothing about economics”, he said in the austerity-laden aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, “but I suspect economic ‘chaos’ has been deliberately induced”, in Ireland and internationally, “since it provides optimum conditions for the triumph of market forces” (2014e: 94). “People before profit, please”, he likewise wrote in 2012, “art before artifice” (22): a plain-spoken statement of literary preference, which also offered a quiet nod of approval to the Irish Trotskyist opposition grouping, People Before Profit, then emerging to national prominence (Allen and O’Boyle 2013; Finn 2021).
What is remarkable in each of these examples is the porosity of Mahon’s literary and political modes: the ease with which he managed to incorporate incisive, incendiary social analysis into the flow of his work. These qualities are very much present in the 2020 poem, “Word to the Wise”. Addressing himself to Ireland’s president (and former Labour Party politician), Michael D. Higgins, the poem asks: though “Dublin 4 / would shudder at the thought” (referring to the affluent suburb in the Irish capital), “if the bold Cubans could do it, why not us?” (89). The tone here is affable and conversational, but the point is sincerely made: that people with a desire for social justice, like the writer and his addressee, should work collectively, as a matter of urgency, to replace Ireland’s existing societal “paradigm”, as “the bold Cubans” did over the course of their revolutionary struggle in the 1950s (89). The poem is also precise in framing such radical proposals in polyvalent terms, combining environmental, civic, and literary concerns. Speaking on behalf of “those who want an end to ecocide”, and condemning “the grisly cliques / who have the populations by their necks”, the verse-epistle foregrounds what for Mahon was “an obvious truth”: that “a more equitable, radical, / heartening socio-economic model” was needed, if the “profit frenzy” of the times was to be counteracted and overcome (89-90).
Far from being an aberration, one of the impressive features of Mahon’s late work is the energy and regularity with which such politico-poetic views are advanced, including in his penultimate collection, Against the Clock:
Tired of rotation, what we now require
is revolution, a whole age of it in fact
as in some previous, more exciting era –
an unmarketable but political solution
based on the simple model such as Brecht
proposed in the ‘Babylonian Confusion’[.] (2018ª: 54)
Brecht, as mentioned, was a shaping influence on Mahon’s imaginative life and practice; in this case, the German Communist’s poem, “The Babylonian Confusion” [“Diese babilonische Verwirrung der Wörter”] stimulating the author to dream of a contemporary “revolution” (“a whole age of it in fact”). Staging a dialogue between generations from a post-revolutionary future, a “happy people”, and the poet in 1926, in the original poem Brecht’s imagined interlocutors regard the “confusion” in his world, riven by misery and injustice, and then respond nonchalantly:
Could have seen it was wrong, inhuman, exceptional.
Was there not some such old and
Simple model you could have gone by
In your confusion?
Brecht’s speaker is compelled to admit that “Such models existed”, but had been so edited and scribbled over by intellectuals (like him) that “even our forefathers / Resembled none but ourselves”: the “confusion” of the times had been made to seem inevitable and permanent (Brecht 1976: 124-26).
Almost a century after Brecht, Mahon’s speaker, reluctant to repeat such errors, reaches back in order to look forward, and proposes the same “simple model” of collective transformation as a remedy to all that is “wrong, inhuman” and seemingly “exceptional” in the present time. “A longer view might see the world transformed”, Mahon suggested in another poem, envisioning, audaciously, a global order free from corporate exploitation and manipulation: “no more hedge funds, no more ‘derivatives’ / or high-tech requisition of real lives” (2020h: 16). All that was required, in the first instance, he argued in the same piece, was “a new angle on the life we know / like a spring growth beginning under snow” –an “angle” which the poem itself, with its vivid intelligence, clarity of expression, and active, politically galvanising grasp of world affairs, could potentially furnish.
As these extracts indicate, it would be a categorical error to interpret Mahon’s literary fluency, subtlety of expression, and (on a personal level) lack of MacDiarmid-esque pomp, as “ambivalence” (Byrne 69). Mahon was forthright in his affirmation of radical (and even revolutionary) ideas and modes of political action, and he also held firm to the belief that poetry could serve as an aid in salvaging and articulating such themes and concepts. “Time to stop faffing around with semantics and consumerist aesthetics”, he quipped, with summary conviction, in a late essay, “and get back to the real programme if we can: the constantly frustrated effort to achieve a more habitable world” (2014e: 79). The latter, indeed, was one of his perennial themes.
“‘Nei rifiuti del mondo nasce un nuovo mondo’”
The desire “to achieve a more habitable world” is certainly a concern of the 1999 poem, “Roman Script”. The piece, included by Mahon in his New Selected Poems (2016f), stands primarily as an elegy and tribute to the radical film-maker and writer Pier Paulo Pasolini, shadowed in the poem (as in life) by Marxist revolutionary Antonio Gramsci: two figures, in Mahon’s account, “who dreamed in youth / of a society based on hope and faith”. Theirs “is the true direction we have lost”, we learn, as the speaker condemns what he calls “the genocidal corporate imperative” of global capitalism (80). Meanwhile “in the ruins” and “amid disconsolate lives / on the edge of the artful city, a myth survives”: that “‘in the refuse of the world a new world is born’” (a translation of Pasolini’s “Nei rifiuti del mondo nasce un nuovo mondo”) (80-82). It is typical of Mahon’s poetic approach that the “myth” of a better society here has been summoned from “the ruins” and “refuse” of actually existing circumstances: a dialectic of imagining that allowed the poet, like Pasolini before him, to project a future based on political and environmental renewal, but without flinching from the cruel and degraded aspects of present-day modernity.
Here and elsewhere in Mahon’s oeuvre, Pasolini –more than Cavafy or even Beckett– was the literary forerunner whose example fructified his hopes of social and natural resuscitation. Famously, of course, Mahon translated the Italian poet’s own elegy for Gramsci, in “Gramsci’s Ashes”, which sublimates history’s conflict-prone cycle of devastation and resistance into a new poetic balance. Hence, in the poem, as “evening” falls on “a grey / rubble of tin cans and scrap metal”, with “a fierce song a boy rounds out his day / grinning, while the last rain falls everywhere” (272). The despondent, quasi-apocalyptic image of the “last rain” serves, in Mahon’s defiant rendering, only to heighten the “fierce song” of the boy, who smiles as he moves through the “grey / rubble”, an embodiment of resilience and indomitability: a youth, filled with life and open to the future, despite the apparently bleak conditions that surround him. In an urban slum – according to Mahon, via Pasolini – a spirit of heroic, rebellious possibility can be sustained and celebrated.
Mahon seems to have taken Pasolini’s credo (“Nei rifiuti del mondo nasce un nuovo mondo”) as an article of literary and political faith. “Can we read the Metamorphoses as an extended metaphor of species evolution?”, he queried in 2017’s Olympia and the Internet, before accentuating the political implications of such a reading, once again quoting the Italian radical:
As people in Ovid change into plants and birds, and ivory into human flesh, so too, perhaps, over generations, the disadvantaged can often translate themselves into [other] life forms, to inherit the earth one day. Nei rifiuti del mondo nasce un nuovo mondo, says Pasolini: “In the refuse of the world a new world is born.” (25)
The passage provides a useful gloss on Mahon’s multi-layered engagements with Pasolini’s work, and the deep-delving political identification on which such gestures were founded. As Irene De Angelis notes in her rich close-reading of “Roman Script”, “in Pasolini’s and in Mahon’s poems”, both, “the idea of those rejected by society” becomes “closely connected with the refuse that submerges and cannibalizes our cities”. Each figure, she suggests, can be thought of as a “deep ecologist” of capitalist urban space, attuned to the overlapping social and environmental conditions of the modern metropolis, and the possible futures that might still be salvaged from the debris (De Angelis 2011: 198-199). Mahon was siding with the so-called “wretched of the earth”, the dispossessed and “discarded” peoples, left to construct a future from “the dustbins of history” (2017d: 25).
This close attention to the realities of material waste and social abandonment, the capacity (partly learnt and borrowed from Pasolini) to conceive of new futures amid the wreckage of yesterday’s dreams, constituted an important dimension of Mahon’s poetic world-view in general. As Haughton argues, the “dream of possible renovation located at the heart of dereliction […] reverberates through a lot of Mahon’s work” (321). Or as the poet himself put it, the ecological and the social are indelibly intertwined: there is “a dark energy there in the dustbins of history”, he posited, “of potential use in some future ecological dispensation” (2017d: 25). “We tire of cities in the end”, he wrote in 2010, his vision choking “on signage, carbon monoxide”, before spreading outwards to a fresh realisation: that “Gaia demands your love” (17). Far from pausing “to congratulate yourself” on such new-found understanding, however, the poem exhorts its presumed reader to cultivate “humility and care”, acknowledging that there is a world beneath and beyond the bounds of metropolitan despoliation, where nature and imagination can both exist “still fertile in a morning mist” (17).
Such a visceral entanglement of hope and mourning, sociology and ecology, can also be glimpsed in Mahon’s early (supposedly “dégagé”) poems. His bright-soaring, youthful conception of an art drawn “From the pneumonia of the ditch, from the ague / Of the blind poet and the bombed-out town” –one imagined as bringing “The all-clear to the empty holes of spring, / Rinsing the choked mud, keeping the colours new” (2016f: 12) –was arguably grounded, after all, not just in the sensations of a literate intellect, but in a sensibility disposed to compassionate identification with the realities of other people’s lives. His long poem, “New York Time”, exploring themes of place, exile, and creative purpose, concludes with the poet thinking “of the homeless, no rm. at the inn”, and sensing, once more, the slow turning of the seasons, from winter to spring: “We have been too long in the cold. – Take us in; take us in!” (2021b: 199-200). Not for the first time in his literary career, Mahon found in the extreme experiences of the destitute and homeless a reflection of contemporary history, and a shadowy version of his own life – their “dim / forms that kneel at noon / in the city”, as he said in an earlier poem, “ourselves” (2021b: 61). Equipped as a writer with the same “light meter and relaxed itinerary” so beloved of countless literary fence-sitters, Mahon’s poetry registers the urge “To do something” – or “at least not to close the door again” on those condemned to live “in darkness and in pain” (2016f: 35). His critique from the margins often posits an ethical perspective that itself rests on principles of sympathy and solidarity.
Such an outlook was increasingly accompanied, over the course of his writing career, by a sharp understanding of social inequality and erasure as being caused by man-made power-systems, rather than natural inevitabilities. In one 2010 poem, the artist’s meditative vision turns outward to behold a global vista of corporate theft and murderous imperialism, headed by the USA. “The great Naomi Klein,” it reads,
[…] condemns, in The Shock Doctrine,
the Chicago Boys, the World Bank and the IMF,
the dirty tricks and genocidal mischief
inflicted upon the weak
who now fight back. (23)
Saluting Naomi Klein’s 2007 history (and moral indictment) of neoliberal economics, The Shock Doctrine, the poem directly associates the financial and political doctrines of “the Chicago Boys, the World Bank and the IMF” with crimes against humanity, while paying tribute to both the theory and praxis of resistance that such schemes inadvertently generate (typified by Klein herself, and by “the weak who now fight back”). This is diagnostic verse, analysing and condemning capitalism as a world system – a system founded upon what Mahon termed, in his resonantly named piece, “Trump Time”, “the bedlam of acquisitive force / That rules us, and would rule the universe” (2018a: 59). Is “it too late / to push for these demands / and pious hopes” of an alternative, he asked in the poem above, before summoning, by way of metaphorical response, a symbol mixing vulnerability and endurance: of “[a] hare in the corn / scared by the war machine”, which nevertheless “survives the roar // by lying low / in the heart-withering breeze” (23). For Mahon, it seems, where there was life, there was hope, however “heart-withering” the weather in which it sheltered. Vitally, in this case, the hare “survives”.
There is also a refreshing contemporaneity and openness to Mahon’s referential spectrum above. Quite self-consciously, the poet was taking his cues from a feminist critic of modern capitalism, herself writing of a number of (highly gendered) grassroots movements, primarily in the Global South. Feminist icon he was not, but Mahon’s work at the very least may be seen to point to an inter-sectional understanding of economic exploitation and inequality: as companion poems in the same volume, such as “Water”, arguably testify. In the latter,
… the woman at the dhobi ghat
flapping laundry by dawn light
knows more than most
of future, past,
the living and the dead. (73)
In point of knowledge and worldly insight, Mahon, the poet-analyst of social and environmental degradation, was deferring to a “woman at the dhobi ghat”, while recognising the facts of her experience, cleaning her clothes in a river rife “with twigs and leaves, dead cows / and recent contamination” (73). In the poem, however, life – and perhaps, also, poetry itself – is believed to begin anew “everywhere day breaks / on water and a washerwoman / sings to her own reflection” (73). The image is both mythic and observationally exact, conveying a sense of human dignity, as the woman combines labour (“flapping laundry”) and creativity (“singing”), despite the poverty and industrial contamination that defines her situation. This same current of excursive camaraderie and hoped-for understanding –illuminating a wider discourse of anti-capitalist appraisals– can be seen in a number Mahon’s later poems.
“O young inheritors, it’s time to fight”
Mahon’s final collection (2020h) –its title, Washing Up, suggesting a continuity of concern with the poem above– rejuvenates the “dialectic” we have been examining, blending a clear-eyed examination of the disaster and exploitation that wrack his world with a daring exploration of new political modes. So in “Quarantine”, the expressive persona finds “no need to abandon hope” even in the face of a lethal, globe-ravaging pandemic, “for this presages, maybe, a new age / averse to conflict and financial rage” (72). Through the lens of the poem, Covid-19, for all its horror, is shown to have exposed the limitations and dangers of a political system driven by, and hardwired in turn to fuel, “conflict and financial rage”, and this, we are led to see, is a cause for “hope”.
Elsewhere in the book, Mahon returned to this theme, picturing a new “world” in which the “harsh masters of the universe” have been “disarmed, / the faux democracies deprived of air, / disgrace of the fat giants everywhere” (16). In both cases, Mahon’s desire was for optimism of the collective will, in a sense similar to that associated (once again) with Gramsci (1971: 175) -his keenly honed observations intended as a conscious retort to what he termed “the torture music, the inane soundtrack / of global capitalism; that harsh cacophony” (2018a: 48). What “is required of us”, he continued in the poem above, is “something as obvious as a change of heart”: an emotional and political shift the poem both advocates and assists in bringing about. “The arts”, it continues, “point to the same end and the same advance” (16).
Tellingly, each of the poems just quoted is precise in coupling the sound and fury of economic growth – for Mahon, a “cacophony” akin to the incessant noise of “brokers […] roaring like beasts on the floor of the bourse” derided by W.H. Auden many years earlier (1976: 197) – to the networks of military and imperial force that guard and enable such a civilisational programme. “Contemporary search engines”, he wrote in his prose collection, Red Sails, “had tactical origins” along with “initial development funds from the Defense Department in Washington”, suggesting that the much-vaunted ingenuity and daring of the Silicon Valley corporate revolution be understood as an iteration of the USA’s manifold “(re)search-and-destroy” operations (2014e: 13). “Hard rock and carpet bombing will be down,” he projected in another poem, envisioning a life beyond such violently maintained political and financial dominance: “Apple and Goldman Sachs down with the rest, / some peace and quiet once again in evidence” (2018a: 60).
As here, the canonical writer’s presumed prerequisites for artistic labour, “peace and quiet”, were understood by Mahon in a manner that emphasised their rarity, as well as their value: a life (a world) free of military dominance and the manias of high finance. With this backdrop in view, moreover, the full implications of Mahon’s earlier reference to “the torture music [of] global capitalism” arguably come clear, suggesting an awareness of the brutal techniques of extraordinary rendition and enhanced interrogation that accompanied the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan – invasions from which corporations such as Shell and BP were economic beneficiaries (Klein 2007a: 323-82; 2014b: 147).
Such an interpretation is strengthened by the fact that the piece in question is centred on “Cork in Old Photographs”, summoning up a “pre-digital, pre-industrial” Ireland preserved by the titular photographic images (2018a: 48). Mahon was writing of a city razed, in the intervening years, by British occupation forces during the War of Independence (White and O’Shea 2006), and in an Irish State suspected, more recently, of facilitating CIA rendition flights (Grey 2004) – both now filled with “torture music” and the brash babble of economic imperatives. Revealingly, according to contemporaneous coverage by The Guardian newspaper, early critics of Ireland’s close cooperation with the American war machine post-9/11 were accused of “endangering the US investment which fuelled much of the Celtic Tiger economic boom”, with one Fianna Fáil member stating plainly that “US businesses would pull out of the west of Ireland if locals were seen as hostile to troops” (Chrisafis 2006). By contrast, and with characteristic grace, Mahon’s 2018 collection blends an atmosphere of deep remembrance with a radical clarity of response, foregrounding the shadow-conflict framing such exchanges: “always the same dream / of life and love, the same invidious forces: / deliberate ignorance and acquired odium” (74).
Mahon may be seen as a self-consciously Irish poet in at least one respect here: his subtle, probing dissections of global capitalism and its ethic of relentless violence were filtered through a firm personal awareness of the participation and willing vassalage of the Irish State in such a political order. Ireland, he contended in one polemically charged article, stands among the world’s “parasite sucker nations”, governed with a single purpose in mind: “to oblige Washington” (2014e: 91). The poetry undoubtedly refined and added nuance to this perception, but its centrality to Mahon’s late aesthetic cannot be denied. “So face the brave new world with a wry grin”, he wrote in his 2018 collection, Against the Clock, “[and] undermine the system from within” (58) –succinctly expressing his analytical and subversive inclinations with regard to the “brave new world” and its networks of power.
As such lines imply, Mahon viewed the poet’s role in society, against the backdrop of history’s ongoing “bedlam”, as an antagonistic and challenging one –“speaking truth to power”, as he said in a late piece, and rejecting the comfort and complacency afforded those content to utter the “conventional noise” (2020h: 67). “Who will there be to banish from the state”, he wondered (this time summoning a more ominous “future from the past”), “when the remaining singers sing along / to the Platonic ‘perfect harmony’ song / beloved of the huge private enterprises” (67). Included in his final collection, Mahon gave a further, militant edge to these speculations, exhorting his successors “to defy / consensus as we face the next catastrophe”: “O young inheritors”, he declaimed, “it’s time to fight” (68). In this case, the poem endeavours not only to offer a critique of contemporary society, but to incite collective, combative action – with a view to resisting an unjust and hitherto unchallenged political “consensus”. Poets may contribute to averting “the next catastrophe”, Mahon believed, so long as they realised, first, “it’s time to fight”: a remarkable statement of literary purpose and political faith.
If Mahon’s poetry is his legacy, then we should remind ourselves of what the poems entrust to us (their “inheritors”): a defiant, subversive attitude towards capitalist thought and culture, as well as the seeds and glimpses of an alternative way of life, both political and economic, which only we can bring to realisation. In the poet’s view, we need only imagination and collective will to do so: “From the refuse of the world a new world is born” (2016f: 82).
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