Life of poet is work in progress

A powerful new book on the life of Derek Mahon sent Thomas McCarthy back to Mahon’s four key works, The Yaddo Letter, The Hudson Letter, The Yellow Book and Harbour Lights.

Life of poet is work in progress

After the Titanic: A Life of Derek Mahon

Stephen Enniss

Gill and Macmillan, €29.99

AMONG the countless blessings I thank God for, my failure to find a house in Ireland comes first” a relieved Evelyn Waugh once wrote to Nancy Mitford. Reading Stephen Enniss’ astonishing and revelatory biography of the poet Derek Mahon, the reader becomes acutely aware of the potential grief of an Irish literary life; and the ambiguity of that word home.

Mahon is the only child of a blameless and hard-working father who became an inspector of engines at Harland and Wolff and of a frugal mother who had worked at a local flax-spinning company. Practical parents, settled in their golden post-War Protestant Arcadia, they couldn’t see the point of poetry. Armed with a fearsome gift, their poet-son set out to prove them right after he won his school’s Forrest Reid Memorial Prize for the poem ‘The power that gives the water breath.’

They never understood how a life in literature might be important; and his dear mother, Maisie Harrison, constantly worried over the uncertain, peripatetic life her son had chosen.

Her letters to him quoted here bear an uncanny likeness to the pleading letters of Seán Ó Ríordáin’s mother when she hears about that famous fire in the sanatorium.

Most letters will remain unanswered, though in collection after collection Mahon will assemble his own Adhlacadh mo Mháthair. The displacement caused by a change of social class, from the child of a shipyard worker to a leader of the Irish intellectual elite, as well as the great disruption caused by broken adult relationships, combine powerfully in the best work of Derek Mahon to create a poetry as magnificent as a sheet of Belfast steel and as painful as the Blues.

Stephen Enniss, a distinguished librarian and archivist, goes through the battlefield of Mahon’s life in this biography, checking the wounded and detailing the injuries. He gets closer than any other scholar to the interior life of the poet, though he is alert to the fact that “one of the points of tension in his work lies along that line of negotiation between self- revelation and self-concealment.”

Enniss is uniquely placed to check through the wreckage of most Irish poetry. For years he assembled the great Amory University archive of Irish writing, one of the last American gifts to Irish posterity. His book is a breath-taking analysis of extant materials, a fact-checking of poetic memory against the written records. Like Borges, he has heard all the conversations inside the archives; and this book is a report upon those irrefutable dialogues in the context of Mahon’s published work. This is a sophisticated and ambitious book. The bibliography and chronological list of individual poems is a work of Allen Wade-like diligence and his very close reading of Mahon’s obsessive revision of texts is hugely impressive and scholarly.

This book makes me want to go back to four key works of Mahon, The Yaddo Letter, The Hudson Letter, The Yellow Book and Harbour Lights. That I need to get back to Mahon’s poems is a tribute to the power of the book and the authoritative advocacy of this literary biography.

Derek Mahon is a genius of a poet. Instinctively lyrical like his true soul-mates Van Morrison and Louis MacNeice, his politics is unexpectedly Irish. One would have thought that like our number one golfer, Rory, he would feel more British than Irish, but he has deflected both the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry and an OBE from Tony Blair’s government. “Northern Ireland is sick unto death, perhaps because at a deep level it knows it shouldn’t exist,” he said to Paul Durcan in a very early Magill interview, and in preparation for an American reading, he warned his publisher that he was not to be introduced as an Ulster poet but ‘Irish, please.’

At his Biddle Lecture to the Academy of American poets he suggested that poets might subsume all sects, denominations and inherited assumptions, into what Wolfe Tone called ‘the common name of Irishman’. This may seem a strange position from the son of a Harland and Wolff family, yet it is fully in keeping with the sanguine view of Louis MacNeice, who, in ‘Talking about Rugby’ wrote ‘As for me, who feels at home either side of the anomalous border, it makes no odds whether those voices are northern or southern.’ Now that the dusts of conflict have settled in the North, we can see Mahon for what he really is: a gifted, extremely attractive Belfastman, a treasure like CS Lewis or Jack Kyle.

Yet, Mahon’s personal life, as recorded in this biography, is a parallel, fractured country. His early escapades at Trinity College, including a near-drowning that may or may not have been an alcohol- fuelled suicide attempt, his melancholy, his intense relationship with Eavan Boland, the beginnings of his heroic struggle with the demon drink, are all well sketched by Enniss. It’s certainly true that the pattern of one’s life is set by the age of 22 or 23.

Yet, he is in his mid twenties when he becomes attached to Doreen Douglas, the love of his life, a news announcer with Ulster Television, who had been in his class at Trinity. While there would be other loves in his life, Doreen would be the unrivalled muse.

He wrote beautifully of her as MacNeice has written of Nancy Sharp in Autumn Journal or Eleanor Clarke in Plant and Phantom. In the superb poem ‘The Globe in Carolina’ he addresses her: ‘And what misgivings I might have About the true importance of The ‘merely human’ pale before The mere fact of your being there.’

The primary biography of his work is the struggle they would both engage upon to keep together, to make a home or fail to keep a home, to circle around the globe of the other.

In one way or another nearly all of his books are rinsed with the personal atmosphere first created by Doreen. Her too-early death from cancer must have coppered-fastened his instinctive desolation, his Beckett-like belief that being human is a dreadful business.

Stephen Enniss, the scholar-librarian, has made a deep and faithful portrait of this brilliant modern life in poetry, a life that is still — happily, for us — a work in progress.

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