Wit Pietrzak
University of Łódź, Poland | Published: 17 March, 2024
ISSUE 19 | Pages: 13-24 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2024-12359

Creative Commons 4.0 2024 by Wit Pietrzak | 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.

In the present essay, Derek Mahon’s last four collections, from Life on Earth (2008) all the way to Washing Up (2020), are analysed in the context of ecology. I argue here that Mahon’s increased attention to man-caused environmental destruction is predicated on a withdrawal from the world of profit-obsessed capitalism in favour of a silent contemplation of nature, which Mahon evokes through the figure of Gaia. Relying on Bruno Latour’s revision of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, I show that Mahon’s late poetry represents an attempt to caringly engage the mystery and mystique of the Earth understood as a network of interrelated agents. This down-to-earth point of view, which Latour refers to as the terrestrial, characterises the Earthbound: the people who see the environment as an infinitely complex, material realm in which humanity is one subject among many. And it is the terrestrial vantage of the Earthbound perspective that Mahon evokes throughout his work, challenging the hegemony of capitalism and technology in an effort to reach the pulsating rhythms of what he calls “the still living whole”.

El presente ensayo analiza desde un punto de vista ecológico las cuatro últimas colecciones poéticas de Derek Mahon, desde Life on Earth (2008) hasta Washing Up (2020).   Mantengo que la creciente atención de Mahon a la destrucción del medio ambiente a manos del hombre conlleva el abandono de un mundo capitalista obsesionado con los beneficios en pro de la contemplación silenciosa de la naturaleza, que Mahon invoca a través de la figura de Gaia. Tomando en consideración la revisión de Bruno Latour de la hipótesis sobre Gaia de James Lovelock, demuestro cómo la poesía reciente de Mahon representa un intento por conectar cuidadosamente con el misterio y la mística de la Tierra, entendida como una red de agentes interrelacionados. Este punto de vista prosaico, al que Latour se refiere como terreno, caracteriza a los Terrestres: los que consideran el medio ambiente como una dimensión material, infinitamente compleja, en la que la humanidad es un sujeto entre muchos otros. Mahon evoca en su obra esa perspectiva terrena privilegiada de los Terrestres, contrarrestando así la hegemonía del capitalismo y de la tecnología en un esfuerzo por alcanzar los ritmos pulsionales de lo que él denomina “the still living whole”.

Derek Mahon; Bruno Latour; poesía irlandesa contemporánea; ecocrítica; Gaia

Although a sensitivity to the dangers that the natural environment faces from human exploitation has been present in Derek Mahon’s poetry at least since The Snow Party (1975), it is in Life on Earth (2008) that ecology is brought to the centre of his preoccupations, remaining one of the tenets of his verse in the subsequent volumes all the way until Washing Up (2020). Nor has this attention been overlooked by criticism, as already in 2007, Hugh Haughton observed that beginning with Harbour Lights (2005), inspired as it is by “a sense of biological and ecological force, planetary and marine music”, Mahon has become “one of the most fully energized ‘green’ poets of the age” (Haughton 2007: 317). In a more sustained reading of Mahon’s preoccupation with ecology, Maryvonne Boisseau and Marion Naugrette-Fournier argue that he has “developed what may be called an ecopoetic or geopoetic sensitivity which gradually became more prominent in the works he published from the mid-2000s, from Harbour Lights to Rising Late” (Boisseau and Naugrette-Fournier 2019: 102). Throughout his twenty-first century work, Mahon regularly evokes images of human destruction of the environment along with a denunciation of people’s blatant disregard for the pressures of the climate crisis, which he links to big business’s short-sighted craving for quick profit. These ideas are coupled with an intense focus on material things, which has characterised Mahon’s writing since the beginning. His poems are replete with evocations of matter both animate, as in the oft-discussed “A Disused Shed in County Wexford” or the later “Beached Whale”, or inanimate, often in the form of abandoned items, as in “A Garage in Co. Cork”, or rubbish, which Mahon first hailed in “Roman Script”, a poem that employs the figure of Pier Paolo Pasolini to envision that “the genocidal corporate imperative / and the bright garbage on the incoming wave” will be replaced by something less destructive, “in the refuse of the world a new world is born” (2011: 239).

Aware that his refusal to take sides made him too elusive to pin to an agenda, Mahon nonetheless remained committed to the view that certain poems do have a role to play in the public sphere, for “poetry”, he observed in an essay on John Montague, “like everything else, is political in the widest sense” (2012: 201). It is not the case that a poem can influence the popular opinion by endorsing an agenda, irrespective of how vocal that endorsement should be, but rather “a good poem is a paradigm of good politics” in that its ironies and dialectic tensions open the ground for people to “[talk] to each other, with honest subtlety, at a profound level” (Mahon 1970: 93). Given Mahon’s adherence to the ineluctable political applicability of verse, his commitment to ecology represents a continuation of his long-time attack on capitalism and what Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno called the culture industry’s mass deception, whereby the identification of work and pleasure and emphasis on the latter as the sole end of cultural activity result in “all mass culture [becoming] identical” and serves to instill false consciousness in its consumers (2002: 95). Largely in agreement with this evaluation of modern culture, Mahon indicates in his later poetry that because the contemporary world is steeped in the belief that making life easier and more pleasurable is the sole criterion of progress, an attitude of contemplative attentiveness to the natural world has fallen by the wayside.

Rejecting the world of profit-obsession and modern pop culture, Mahon gravitates to places away from the hustle and bustle of cities, abandoned garages and hotels of his early work as well as towns like Kinsale, where he settled in the latter part of his life; alternatively, those are sometimes exotic places like Lanzarote, though far from tourist resorts, and suburbs of New Delhi. And yet, his attunement to environmental preoccupations goes beyond the regular invocations of natural beauty or castigations of humanity’s destructiveness, for what distinguishes his later verse is a meditative attitude – both at the level of content and form – to complex networks of nature. He evokes this complexity through the image of Gaia, an idea he borrows from James Lovelock. However, rather than using his verse as a call to immediate action against the destruction of the planet’s ecosystems, Mahon opts for a withdrawal from the world in order to reach an attunement to the environment that can allow him to experience its mystery. Thus, I will argue here that Mahon’s final four collections revert to a spiritual appreciation of nature not as a symbol for or a seat of a god-like presence, but rather as an embodied form of divinity. To this end, Mahon’s use of the Gaia metaphor reveals affinities with Bruno Latour’s delineation of the term in his 2015 study Facing Gaia, where he suggests that thinking the Earth as Gaia brings back the original attitude of religiousness understood as care and wonder. What Latour helps us see is that an imaginative attentiveness to the networks of multiple agents that comprise the natural environment proves crucial for a revision of our politics. In this sense Latour theorises the idea that imaginative production is indeed paradigm of good ecopolitics, a view that Mahon puts into practice in his last four collections.

Mahon’s increased attention to matters of the environment has attracted ecocritical readings of his poetry, which emphasise on the one hand his sensitivity to the natural world, whether in the shape of ordinary plants or entire ecosystems, and, on the other, his denunciation of big business’s exploitative attitude to nature. With special heed paid to Life on Earth and An Autumn Wind (2010), Eóin Flannery suggests that “Mahon might well now be read as the pioneering Irish poet of engaged ecological conscience” (2018: 27; see also McElroy 217-29). He sees “Homage to Gaia”, a sequence of poems from Life on Earth, as “a culminating verse in Mahon’s long-term poetic attention to the ecological wastefulness and dereliction witnessed in the disparate urban, seaboard, and rural geographies of his life experiences” (2018: 33). In Flannery’s reading, the poem encapsulates Mahon’s efforts “at engendering ecological self-consciousness within contemporary human society”, which might still modify its destructive ways. In a similar vein, Jefferson Holdridge claims that a poem like “Beached Whale” (An Autumn Wind) reveals “Mahon’s deep ecological respect for all living beings, which he displays both in his landscape- and eco-poetry” (2022: 100).

More attentive than either Flannery or Holdridge to what he terms Mahon’s “germinal ironies”, adopting the term from Mahon’s “Rage for Order”, Sam Solnick argues that the poet “moves toward an ecological engagement while working to free the poetry from the complicity and complacency of simulative politics” (2017: 129). In this way, he “explores the complex and often troubling relations between concerned individuals and their environment” (Solnick 2017: 129). Whereas Flannery points up the celebratory nature of Mahon’s work, seeing “Homage to Gaia” as an evocation of an eco-friendly society, Solnick highlights the poem’s ironic stance. In “Sand and Stars”, the fourth poem in “Homage to Gaia”, Solnick remarks on the “apocalyptic strain” which offsets the apparently optimistic image of “A world of dikes and bikes” (Mahon 2011: 311) from “Its Radiant Energies”. He then goes on to observe that throughout Life on Earth “green technologies co-exist with an uneasy awareness of the apocalyptic” and adds that “there is always the danger that the discourse of sustainability becomes a form of technological optimism that negates an awareness of ecological limits” (2017: 131).

The pervasive irony that has characterised Mahon’s poetry from the beginning informs also his treatment of ecology, as he simultaneously invokes a world of captivating beauty, which fosters a thoughtful engagement, and remains sceptical of human capability to appreciate this world to the extent that it will cease to exploit natural resources for pecuniary gain. Mahon’s reservations and scepticism extend to what in “Alone in the Dark” (Washing Up) he calls “a change of heart” (2020: 16). In contrast to dreams of a collective renunciation of thoughtless profit-obsession, Mahon suggests that what remains a plausible option is rather “a new angle on the life we know” (2020: 16). While his poetry cannot be recuperated for any politics that would try to straightforwardly instil “a change of heart”, it does set out to explore the ambiguities that inform such new angles. Crucially, throughout his last four volumes, he insists that this new angle can only be glimpsed through a withdrawal from the capitalist world and entering into a communion with the networks of nature.

This move away from human civilisation is thematised at length in “Homage to Gaia”. Solnick has pointed out the poem’s ambiguous vision of “the post-petroleum age” (2011: 311) and indeed, the vision of a technologically triumphant humanity, who have modified their ways so much that “even an average annual / thousand kilowatt hours / per photovoltaic panel / looks feasible in time” (2011: 311), implies that the change of heart has actually taken place. However, the poem’s continuous emphasis on advanced technology as the saving grace for people sounds an ironic note. Throughout Life on Earth, technology is regularly lambasted as a base profit-seeking. In “Biographia Literaria”, which alludes to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s book of that title as well as to his “Frost at Midnight”, Coleridge is evoked in his dotage, “‘a sage / escaped from inanity’” (2011: 289), “aghast / at furious London and its smoke / the sinister finance of a dark new age” (2011: 289). The “new age” that dawned at Coleridge’s time is fully fledged in Mahon’s and the technological advancement signalled by “London and its smoke” proves to be a force deadly not only to the English countryside but to the entire planet. The phrase in quotation marks is a slightly misquoted fragment from Carlyle’s Life of Sterling, where he remembers Coleridge sitting on Highgate Hill “looking down on London and its smoke tumult like a sage escaped from the inanity of life’s battle” (1884: 52). In Mahon, the life’s battle is one fought against capitalist appropriation of the planet’s resources in a relentless quest for economic growth. Carlyle saw in Coleridge’s devotion to German transcendentalism a bulwark against heedless trust in technological progress, which Mahon indicates has ultimately resulted in rainstorms of hitherto unseen proportions. Global trade, enabled by technological advancement, is thus tied to the destruction of nature and climate change.

In view of such a perception of technology, the ostensibly bucolic world of “Its Radiant Energies” unveils its derisive thrust at techno-optimism espoused by proponents of technology. This ironic stance is further corroborated in the titular poem of the entire sequence, which offers an apology to “great Gaia” for “our mistakes”: “we destroyed the woods / with our chainsaws, oiled / the sea, burned up the clouds” (2011: 313). Each of the errors is here connected with technology, which is set against the image of Gaia, Lovelock’s figure for earth as a self-regulating system. Flannery suggests that “the organicism of Lovelock’s Gaia theory […] is matched by the sense of poetic integrity across [‘Homage to Gaia’]” (2018: 37), especially in its “use of temperature and temporality”, two key concepts for Lovelock, which in Mahon become “mutually effective as motifs targeted at engendering ecological self-consciousness within contemporary society” (Flannery 2018: 38). While this claim is certainly relevant to “Homage to Gaia”, there are two additional aspects of Gaian thinking, elaborated on by Bruno Latour, that seem crucial to Mahon’s employment of it throughout his last four collections.

For Latour, Gaia represents a view of the Earth as an “anti-systematic” (2020: 97) and “non-hierarchical” (2020: 106) collection of multiple agents. Because we are no more and no less than a part of this large living organism, it is paramount that we face up to our imbrication in this bounteous collectivity, for only in this way can we understand that we belong to what Latour calls the Earthbound: a people sensitive and responsive to as many of Earth’s agents as they can. Fully aware of the mind-boggling complexity of the planetary network, the Earthbound are thus religious in the original sense of the word that Latour, referring to Michel Serres, connects to the ideas of care and protection (2020: 152, see Serres 1995: 47-48). According to Latour, religion is a fundamental aspect of a revamped politics of the Earthbound, for it emphasises caring attention to the entire network of agents that comprise Earth as Gaia. Moreover, though, religion entails the recognition of uncertainty and inherent mystery of Gaia, for the Earthbound recognise that they can only explore the complexity of the planetary network from within. Because they belong to Gaia, the Earthbound cannot overcome a partial view of it, necessarily assuming an attitude of wonder at its elusive intricacy.

Latour’s idea of Gaia as a way of reinstating care and wonder underlies “Homage to Gaia” and is most readily visible in “Ode to Björk”. The poem celebrates the singer as a “Dark bird of ice, dark swan / of snow” (2011: 321) whose songs, the poet imagines, aim to “knock / aside the expectations / of corporate brainwash rock” (2011: 321). He then goes on to suggest that “in the confused stink / of global warming what / you really want, I think, / is […] mystery and mystique”, those “hidden places where / the wild things are and no one / can track you to your lair” (2011: 322). The poem evokes Björk as one of those “wild things”, in effect setting her up as an emblem of what Latour would call the Earthbound. For in Mahon, she is both human, caught in the manacles of the culture industry she strives to break free from, and non-human, her true habitat being the lairs of the deep Arctic, her song addressed “to the white / light and corrugated iron / roofs of the Arctic night” (2011: 322). Rapsodising her “scared, scary voice” (2011: 322), the poet simultaneously comes to marvel at the “mystery and mystique” of the Arctic, the land that becomes a symbol of endangered pristine beauty but also a “great waste beyond” (2011: 322). By infusing the image of the Artic with awe and fear all at once, the poem not only declares its allegiance to mystery but also embodies it in its ambiguous conclusion. This is no mere extolment of natural environment unsullied by human activity but also an acceptance of an essentially alien space whose beauty matches its ominousness.

In conjuring the singer as a figure who withdraws from the modern civilisation, “Ode to Björk” creates a tension with such poems in the sequence as “Its Radiant Energies” or “Dirigibles”, another ironic praise for a world saved by modernisation. Whereas the latter two invoke overly optimistic visions of a “change of heart”, which Mahon has often suggested is naïve, “Ode to Björk” embodies “a new angle on the life we know”. That new angle, the poem indicates, consists in withdrawing from the world of the Moderns, as Latour has called people unwilling to recognise the implications of Gaian thinking, in order to attend to the “mystery and mystique” of Earth as Gaia: a view of the agentially-plural, anti-systematic, a-hierarchical networks of nature, whose interactive complexity is commensurate with his capacity for wonder. Mahon thus insists that only through withdrawing from civilisation, becoming a part-anchorite and part-monk of Gaia, can the mystery and mystique of nature be glimpsed. And it is in such epiphanic moments that his poems come to evoke a world full of multiple agents, leading to a hard-won asseveration that poetry may well offer a means of finding that “new angle”.

The theme of Gaia and how to observe its intricate networks comes to the fore in “A Quiet Spot” (An Autumn Wind), in which the poet speaks for the people who “tire of cities in the end” and, like him, repair to “a dozy seaside town” that is “within reach of the countryside, / somewhere alive to season” (2010: 17). He then chastises himself for what he calls his “perfect work-life balancing act” and accepts that “Gaia demands your love”, which proves at odds with “irony and slick depreciation”, both hallmarks of Mahon’s earlier work. The poem simultaneously evokes a crisis and casts a backward glance at Mahon’s career, suggesting in the words of “Beyond Howth Head” that his “ironic conscience”, endorsed in favour of “a prescriptive innocence” (2011: 53), may have helped him cope with his Northern Irish, Protestant legacy but will no longer suffice in times of ecological crisis. The decision to “tune out the babbling radio waves / and listen to the leaves” (2010: 17) represents the moment of withdrawal as enabling of a revelation, which Mahon will conjure in numerous poems. This abandonment of the world of “whirr and blur” in favour of the “quiet spot” of shimmering “trout-rich” rivers yields the realisation that listening is crucial for becoming mindful of the environment. Mahon has always been a visual poet, much given to appreciations of art through directly and indirectly ekphrastic poems, and while this penchant for art does not diminish in his later work, it is silence and listening that are often associated with how one can experience Gaia.

“A Country Road” (Life on Earth) anticipates the trajectory of “A Quiet Spot” in that it also builds up to the moment of chastisement, which here takes the form of jeering at people’s self-importance: “Are we going to laugh / on the road as if the whole / show was set out for our grand synthesis?” (2011: 309). This is a thoroughly Latourian imperative, for “our grand synthesis” is the sort of modern idea that Latour identifies as characteristic of the proponents of technological appropriation of the planet, who fail to appreciate the uncertainty and complexity of Gaia. Mahon goes on to connect this outmoded view to sight, as people are identified “not as discrete / observing presences but as born / participants in the action” who share in Gaia’s operations “with hedgerow, flower and thorn, / rook, rabbit and rat” (2011: 309). The participants in “the seminal substance of the universe”, a phrase Mahon borrows from Aidan Higgins’s Balcony of Europe (1972), represent not only wild life but also constructions made by humans’ cooperation with nature in the form of hedgerows. However, rather than evoke this co-belonging from the position of power, “A Country Road” becomes a plea with “Bird, beast and flower” to recognise that “we belong here too” (2011: 310). Flannery points up the echo of Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” and its “fish, flesh, or fowl” (2018: 30); but whereas Yeats ultimately favours “Monuments of unageing intellect” and looks to the time when he will no longer “take / [His] bodily form from any natural thing” (1996: 193-194), Mahon situates the speaker in the position of a supplicant, who seeks admittance to the natural commons. In this way he infuses animals and plants with agentive power, which thanks to their instinctual connection with Gaia is superior to his own.

Another striking feature of both “A Quiet Spot” and “A Country Road” is the dynamic between the clarity of the poetic voice and its suppliant, hushed-out tone. Like the majority of Mahon’s later poems, the two are written in irregularly rhymed sestets, across which a sustained meditation unfolds. Cast predominantly in iambs with occasional anapaests and trochees, the poems employ lines of varying lengths, often shorter at the start of a stanza. This emphasises the ruminative aura, for the opening verses give way to longer ones as the poet’s considerations become more complex, introducing subordinate clauses and interjections to allow syntactic space for the thought to develop. The opening stanza of “A Quiet Spot” offers a paradigmatic example: it begins with iambic tetrameter, which changes to pentameter, mostly iambic with occasional anapaests, and ends on a relaxed trimetric note that features a more prolonged unstressed sequence: “You always knew it would come down / to a dozy seaside town” (2010: 17). Full rhymes in the first and last two lines yield an air of finality and compression to the poem, further amplifying the effect of introspective rumination that becomes ever quieter, as the poet withdraws deeper into himself. What is surprising, though, is that instead of running into solipsistic musings, the speaker discovers that in the hushed music of his language, he can come to discern the sounds of leaves. A similar effect is created in “A Country Road”, where the anapaestic-iambic rhythm brings in the meditative note that allows the poet to reach “Dark energies” of “skittish bacteria, fungi, viruses, gastropods” (2011: 309). Those minute beings assume agentive power in a manner akin to Mahon’s evocation of the parity of pain between humans and plants in “A Disused Shed in County Wexford”. And yet, unlike in the earlier poem, where the focus remains on the suffering of people, as the mushrooms are anthropomorphised (highlighted by the rapid transition from the image of the mushrooms “begging us” to the “Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii” [2011: 82]), in “A Country Road”, it is the microscopic organisms that take the centre stage.

Frequently self-deprecating in his poems, Mahon suggests that whatever political or cultural agendas he may have infused his verse with, they represent what “Under the Volcanoes” terms “the ancient rage / for order, the old curse” (2010: 53). While the “Wretched rage for order” was traded for “terminal ironies” (2011: 46) all the way back in Night-Crossing (1968), now the poet allows himself the hope that what “Rage for Order” called his “dying art”, that “most unpromising / material” (2011: 46), can ultimately be “redeemed from fire” and “shaped into a living thing” (2010: 53). In effect, as he puts it in “Rising Late”, Mahon obeisantly assumes the role of “the servant of a restored reality – / chalks and ochres, birdsong, harbour lights, / the longer days and the short summer nights” (2018: 39). This “restored reality” is one in which human art, implied by the colours, as well as fauna and flora become a single image of what Jane Bennet calls “confederate agency”: the power of animate and non-animate objects, humans and non-humans alike, to reveal their mutually-supported subjectivity that “becomes distributed across an ontologically heterogeneous field” (2010: 23). Adhering to the idea of Gaia as a complex, multi-agent system, Mahon suggests that it is only in the silence one withdraws into, rejecting “the inane soundtrack / of global capitalism” (2018: 48) and “the bedlam of acquisitive force” (2018: 59), that one can glimpse “the still living whole” (2010: 21).

What transpires from these evocations of the world full of multiple agents, in which humanity is one actor among countless others, is Mahon’s unreserved wonder at the “mystery and mystique” of Gaia as a material, embodied divinity. Rather than regarding Gaia as a goddess inhering in the earthly realm, for Mahon, the mystery lies in the things themselves. The difference is again best understood in Latourian terms as the distinction between immanence and terrestrialisation. According to Latour, the process of modernisation has resulted in the loss of “any contact with the down-to-earth, with materiality: it no longer sees anything in this world below but the other world simply immanentized” (2020: 200, original emphasis). What the seemingly secular Moderns have deprived themselves of is the recognition of the uncertainty inherent in the operations of matter. Everything can be explained by means of technology, just as for monotheists everything can be understood through recourse to God (Latour 2020: 201). What is immanentized in the thingly world, for both secular Moderns and conservative monotheists, is transcendence. This stands in stark contrast to the Earthbound, who assume a terrestrial perspective – the terrestrial being “immanence freed from immanentization” (Latour 2020: 212, emphasis in original). Whereas the proponents of “immanent transcendence” are full of certainty, the Earthbound adopt the terrestrial point of view, as they “[rediscover] materiality, […] thus restoring autonomy, temporality, and history to all forms of agency and their distribution” (Latour 2020: 212). In contrast to the immanentist camp, who never lack certainty that some form of transcendence, either a god or a supra-system, informs all matter, the terrestrial point of view recognises the world as an intricate mystery in itself.

The terrestrial view underpins Mahon’s perception of nature and is given a particularly apt evocation in “Data” (Against the Clock). The poem comprises four sestets rhyming AABBCC, with assonance occasionally replacing full rhymes. In this sense, tonally, the poem is another meditative engagement with the surrounding world that is as full of wonder for the elderly poet as it was when he was a boy. He once again beholds and appreciates “the hidden springs, / the sound of silence, nap of tablecloths, / sea taste of iodine, the scents of clothes, / raw grain of wood” (2018: 32). Once withdrawn into his selfhood, the poet reaches a level of mindfulness that allows him to come face to face with those “singular things” (2018: 32), both products of human labour and features of the natural world, and recognise the “intrinsic glow / of an intentional world we think we know” (2018: 32). The ascription of intention to seemingly random occurrences recognises their agency, as each contributes to “the still living whole” of Gaia, that “inert, potential force of things material” (2018: 32). The paradox implicit in the suggestion that matter is simultaneously “inert” and a seat of “potential force” indicates that pure reason and logic cannot explain the operations of this network of agents. As a result, the poem goes on to reject “Our knowledge” as being “instrumental” and “our facts” as “unreal / because unlived, unfelt” (2018: 32). These two criticisms of human engagement with the material world represent a denunciation of the immanent viewpoint that, in Mahon, has become an extension of pernicious dogmatism that recognises value only in pecuniary gain. While knowledge is identified as a means to achieving particular ends, which in Mahon is regularly connected to increasing profits, facts serve to further disconnect us from the Earth. By dint of their objective nature, facts are isolated claims that cannot be used to better feel oneself into one’s Earthbound condition. Instead of the lived, intimate connection with Gaia, we resort to devices such as telescopes and computers. And yet, we need neither, the poet claims, “to appreciate / the silent music of the sky at night” or “to contemplate / that morphic resonance where swifts migrate” (2018: 32). “Data” thus seeks to replace the immanentist, goal-oriented, mechanistic view of the world with an attitude of ceaseless wonder and contemplation possible to attain provided one withdraws from the world of instrumentality.

Mahon’s rebellion against capitalism and the exploitative treatment of nature is carried out under the aegis of a Romantic worldview. As Robert Sayre and Michael Löwy argue, Romanticism was at its core an anti-capitalist and ecologically-oriented mode of thought. Drawing on the writings of the eighteenth-century French and German philosophers, they explain that Romanticism sought to fight four pernicious aspects of the emergent economic, aesthetic and ideological system: the disenchantment of the world in the name of “rationalization and intellectualization”; the quantification of the world in “the spirit of rational calculation”; mechanisation symbolised by the factory; and finally the dissolution of social bonds that resulted in “the isolation of the individual in his egoistic self” (Sayre and Löwy 4-5). Although they never cite Latour, their opposition to capitalism raises the same issues that he does in his last writings, with the key similarity lying in the fact that both Latour and Sayre and Lowy stress the notion of care for the environment, which is predicated on the restitution of the feeling of wonder.

Despite his repeated claims that existentialism is the mode of thought closest to his sensibilities, Mahon in his later writings adopts a stance that shares in the denunciation of all of the four features of capitalism listed by Sayre and Löwy. “Data” speaks against quantification and mechanisation of the world, which lead to the loss of a felt contact with the Earth, and cherishes the instinctual appreciation of the world’s mystery. In so far as he accepts that our understanding of the planetary systems has deepened, Mahon also implies that this knowledge brings us no closer to realising the terrestrial mystique of Gaia’s multiplicity of interrelated agents. This insistence on the crucial importance of reenchantment is articulated in “Blueprint”, which embodies Mahon’s Romantic anti-capitalism filtered through the Latourian idea of religion as care.

“Blueprint” evokes an image of the morning bustle in New York that is conjured through sounds: “Trucks from New Jersey” come “panting beneath the window ledge” and keep “drowning out the twitter-cheep / of sparrows on the firs escape” (2010: 15). Similar to the opening of “Decadence”, “Blueprint” takes a dim view of the US as a seat of capitalism but the poem’s perspective shifts from the noise of the “shark time in the market” to “some slacker on the Hudson piers / or quiet, tree-lined avenue, / inactive at mid-morning” who “hears / a different music of the spheres / from what the corporate buzzards know” (2010: 15). This is another version of the listening to the leaves from “A Quiet Spot”, but here the sense of hearing stands in a more explicit opposition to the capitalism denounced in the last three stanzas of the poem. Profit-obsession is excoriated for causing social inequalities, as the poem invokes “homeless folks and unemployed / growing in number day and night” (2010: 15). It then goes on to imagine “a leaf [unfold] the rolling news / mutation writes, and the wind sighs / secrets the ancients understood” (2010: 16). The environmental degradation, which is implied throughout “Blueprint”, proves to be no crisis but rather a mutation, following Latour’s insight that in lieu of referring to crisis – climatic or environmental – “we should be talking […] about a ‘mutation’: we were used to one world; we are now tipping, mutating into another” (2020: 8).

Latour argues that this mutation necessitates a revision of politics to take into account the networks of innumerable agents, all of which demand care and attention. And just as he calls for the recognition of the complexity of the terrestrial, “Blueprint” concludes by the injunction to the financial and political elites, which is quite unlike Mahon’s earlier oblique declarations: “give the Algonquin back / the shiny vein of ore we struck / and watch them re-enchant the world” (2010: 16). The enjambment of the second quoted line ties together the native tribe with the natural resources, suggesting that without “the shiny vein of ore” the Algonquin have ceased to exist. When read in isolation, the line “give the Algonquin back” importunes the rulers of the land to restore, by some fiat or miracle, the lost people. However, the continuation of the sentence explains that it is the Algonquin, those heirs of “the ancients” and fellow outcasts of that “slacker” from “the Hudson piers”, who are to be given back “the shiny ore” so that they can bring back the mystique of the world.

It is only this late in his oeuvre that Mahon discovers that there is a form of both religion and of politics that he can subscribe to. By recognising the need for a caring engagement with the world full of actors of numerous kinds, he puts forth a consistently terrestrial vision of the Earthbound. This vision is predicated on one’s withdrawal from the noisy life of profit-pursuit and an attainment of the level of silence where the rustle of leaves and shimmer of water bespeak the “spirit lodged within the real” (Mahon 2010: 20). On this view, poetry becomes one of the last spaces of rumination that the people of Gaia can withdraw to, for “even now the obscure silences might survive / where an original thought can thrive” (2020: 43). With this idea in mind, Mahon issues what could be taken as his late poetry’s creed in “Word to the Wise”, a verse letter to the president of Ireland Michael D. Higgins.

“Word to the Wise” comes at the end of Washing Up, Mahon’s last collection, and so there is a sense that it offers a conclusive imaginary flourish of a poet whose career spanned over fifty years. It opens with a hopeful indication that “the paradigm shift on which the best rely / to save the world may be at last in sight” (2020: 89). The optimism of these lines, as the dating indicates composed towards the end of 2019, may derive, on the one hand, from the radically increased attention to issues of environment spurred by the emotionally-charged speech that Greta Thunberg delivered at the UN’s Climate Action Summit in New York earlier that year. On the other hand, what the poem calls “feral capitalism” and “the inflated ‘neo-liberal’ programme” (2020: 90, 89) were seen to at least partially relinquish their grip not only over the Irish but also the Western European financial policies, as the economic model had been attacked by the likes of Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece, whose public persona helped bring in what now seems to be a revival of socialist principles across Western Europe (see Palcic et al 2023: 104-07; for earlier appraisals of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger see Kitchin et al 2012: 1302-26; see also Varoufakis 2019a and 2019b). While these are by no means the only examples of “the paradigm shift” Mahon hints at, back at the tail-end of 2019, there were legitimate grounds for moderate optimism, which only the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic put under severe strain.

Harking back to Mahon’s epistolary poems like “The Hudson Letter”, retitled “Yaddo, or A Month In the Country”, or “The New York Letter”, which subsequently became “New York Time”, “Word to the Wise” plays on the tension between private and public. Jerzy Jarniewicz observes, in regard to the two earlier epistolary poems, that “as letters” they represent “a private, personal form of communication” but “when published, they become […] public, inviting other readers than the original addressee” (2013: 35). This dynamic of private becoming public is also present in “Words for the Wise” in that by addressing the public figure of the President, the poet emphasises that his personal communiqué must be seen in an internationally political context. From the start, Higgins is evoked as a prophetic critic of capitalism, neo-liberalism and “its global scam” (2020: 89), as well as a spokesman for “the side / of those who want an end to ecocide” (2020: 89). The poem’s reference to “paradigm shift” alludes to Higgins’s own words, for he is “on record” (Mahon 2020: 89) saying shortly after the UN Climate Action Summit that “a radical paradigm shift is required in the connection between ecology, economics and society” (Higgins 2019). This, he argued, must entail political elites “recognis[ing] the limits of the world’s natural resources, as well as the role that unrestrained greed has played in creating the climate crisis” (Higgins 2019). Singling out the “courage and assertiveness” of the new generation as shown by Thunberg in her viral “This is all wrong” speech, Higgins went on to distance himself from the Rightist as well as neo-liberal critiques of the involvement of the State in “wealth creation and improving the broader quality of life of citizens” (Higgins 2019).

In spite of the oversimplifications underlying his calls for small scale changes we should undertake in our everyday lives, Higgins’s articles and speeches at the time of the composition of “Word to the Wise” show him to be able to embrace the sort of “new angle on the life we know”. It is in the figure of the elderly ruminative politician that Mahon finds the glimmer of hope that, though it may seem “Strange, / only imagination can set us right / and that means poetry” (2020: 91). This harks back to “Alone in the Dark”, in which the poet summons, in a Yeatsian fashion, “an old supernatural law / that says the imagination, once in play, / can work strange miracles from day to day” (2020: 17). The two invocations of strangeness link the workings of the Earth, the mystical Gaia, with poetry understood as hushed mindfulness that one is capable of attaining when withdrawn from the noisy, bustling world of “feral capitalism”. In “Word to the Wise”, the withdrawal is implied through the solitary figure of Michael D. Higgins, simultaneously a statesman, whose “panache and fortitude” (2020: 91) the poet admires, and a monk-like leader-poet speaking tenaciously against “the venal and the obtuse” (2020: 89). Higgins’s silent, pensive nature is moreover implied through the sonic texture of the poem, which predominantly employs the iambic foot and varies between tetra- and pentameter in a more sustained way than “A Quiet Spot” and “A Country Road”. This yields the verses a stately, meditative diction that suggests assertiveness and singleness of purpose behind Higgins’s pronouncements and the poet’s appraisal thereof. The steady progression of the poem is, however, enervated by sudden enjambments, as in the midsection:

[…] it’s not too late,

is it, to exercise here and abroad

your constitutional option to spread word

to the wise, of an old idea long overdue. (2020: 90)

Whereas the first above-quoted line emphasises the declarative nature of the statement, the question tag attached after the line break creates an aura of uncertainty. Although the effect of the question tag is to increase the rhetorical strength of the line, the fact that “is it” is enjambed implies a delay in the delivery of the assertion of the President’s prerogative. Similarly, the suggestion that Higgins’s role is to “spread word”, which exudes an air of a sermon-like preaching, is undermined by the continuation of the sentence, which reduces the sermonic tone to the suggestion that the President can only address those willing to listen in the first place. Such tensions between assertiveness and uncertainty bring up ambiguities inherent in the hope that the world can actually modify its ways.

And yet, as a conclusion to Mahon’s oeuvre, “Word to the Wise” picks up, if not on optimism, then certainly on hope, carrying forward the declaration from a much earlier poem that “Everything is going to be all right” (2011: 104). Indeed, the line is repeated almost verbatim at the start of Washing Up, as the poet in “The Old Place” addresses two children from the position of “a sort of hermit” and assures them that “everything will be all right” (2020: 11). As symbols of that “youth of today” Higgins saw in Thunberg (Higgins 2019), the addressees of “The Old Place” are told not to forget their “own special place” where they grew up not because of identitarian politics or an entrenched traditionalism but because of its “secret springs and undergrowth / familiar to initiates’ heightened senses” (2020: 12). The mystery and mystique of the Earth, available solely to “heightened senses”, are invoked as the foundation of human wellbeing. Once more Mahon insists that no scientific apparatuses, no cutting-edge technology can tap into the nourishing operations of Gaia, this can only be done through a withdrawal from the “whirr and blur” in order that one might imaginatively embrace one’s Earthbound condition and come to appreciate the mystical depths immanent in the networks of agentive forces. Thus, as he continues to attend to trees and rivers but also to minutest bacteria and transient clouds, “unknowing to the last, in the known world” (2018: 18), Mahon situates imagination and poetry as a vital means of engaging Gaia. In this sense, Mahon suggests that if a politics of the Earthbound is ever to emerge, it will have to be borne up by the poetic word.

Works Cited

Bennett, Jane (2010). Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press.

Boisseau, Maryvonne and Marion Naugrette-Fournier (2019). “Derek Mahon’s Geopoetic Horizons.” Études Irlandaises 44: 101-116.

Carlyle, Thomas (1884). The Life of John Sterling. Boston: Dana Estes and Charles F. Lauriat.

Flannery, Eóin (2018). Ireland and Ecocriticism: Literature, History and Environmental Justice. London: Routledge.

Haughton, Hugh (2007). The Poetry of Derek Mahon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Higgins, Michael D. (2023). “President Michael D Higgins: We are at the precipice of a global ecological catastrophe.” Irish Examiner (November 14). https://www.irishexaminer.com/opinion/commentanalysis/arid-30963890.html

Holdridge, Jefferson (2022). “‘The Struck Lyre Ripples as a Stricken Voice’: The Poetry of Derek Mahon from Landscape to Ecology.” Contemporary Irish Poetry and Climate Change, edited by Andrew J. Auge. New York: Routledge. 95-110.

Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno (2002). Dialectic of Enlightenment, translated by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Jarniewicz, Jerzy (2013). Ekphrasis in the Poetry of Derek Mahon. Piotrków Trybunalski: Naukowe Wydawnictwo Piotrkowskie.

Kitchin, Rob, Cian O’Callaghan, Mark Boyle and Justin Gleeson (2012). “Placing neoliberalism: the rise and fall of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger.” Environment and Planning 44: 1302-26.

Latour, Bruno (2020). Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, translated by Catherine Porter. London: Polity.

Mahon, Derek (1970). “Poetry in Northern Ireland.” Twentieth Century Studies 4: 89-93.

______ (2010). An Autumn Wind. Loughcrew: The Gallery Press.

______ (2011). New Collected Poems. Loughcrew: The Gallery Press.

______ (2012). Selected Prose. Loughcrew: The Gallery Press.

______ (2018). Against the Clock. Loughcrew: The Gallery Press.

______ (2020). Washing Up, Loughcrew: The Gallery Press.

McElroy, James (2011). “Ecocriticism and Irish Poetry: A Preliminary Outline.” Estudios Irlandeses 6: 54-69.

Palcic, Donal, Eoin Reeves and Heather Whiteside (2023). “Reluctant State Capitalism: Antipathy, Accommodation and Hybridity in Irish Telecommunications.” Environment and Planning 55 (1): 100-21.

Sayre, Robert and Michael Löwy (2020). Romantic Anti-Capitalism and Nature. New York: Routledge.

Serres, Michel (1995). The Natural Contract, translated by Lawrence R. Schehr. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Solnick, Sam (2017). Poetry and the Anthropocene: Ecology, Biology and Technology in Contemporary British and Irish Poetry. New York: Routledge.

Varoufakis, Yanis (2019a). “Sharing New Vision for Business and Capitalism”. Irish Examiner (December 31). https://www.irishexaminer.com/opinion/commentanalysis/arid-30972828.html

______ (2019b). “The Past and Future Trouble with Capitalism.” Irish Examiner (March 20). https://www.irishexaminer.com/opinion/commentanalysis/arid-30912026.html

| Received: 02-10-2023 | Last Version: 20-02-2024 | Articles, Issue 19