“I know the simple life / Would be right for me”, wrote Derek Mahon, who died on October 1st, aged 78, “If I were a simple man.” Known for the intellectual force and technical fluency of his work, and admired as a translator from multiple verse traditions, the Belfast-born poet was universally recognised in establishment literary circles as a leading light of his generation – a generation that included much-fêted figures like Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley. Of these, Mahon was unmistakably the most radical in political terms, describing himself among other things as a Northern Irish Protestant whose “left-wingery” inspired him to believe in a 32-county socialist republic, with the crucial qualification that such a society be won by mass marches, rather than minoritarian bombs.
It was no accident that Mahon prefaced his “Roman Script” with a translation from Marxist writer and film director Pier Pasolini’s Gramsci’s Ashes (1957), thus casting his own investigation of social decay and historical memory in a consciously anti-fascist light – the poet’s cautious projection of an “ideal society that might come to birth” an exercise in utopian thinking that also recognised the brutality that both Gramsci and Pasolini had suffered for such a dream. For the most part, the radicalism of outlook and aspiration that framed Mahon’s work has been missed or ignored by critical commentators, whose focus has tended to rest on questions of tone and form (of course, he had a stylish command over both), while acknowledging only in abstract terms the powerfully integrated critique of imperialism, ecological crisis, and economic exploitation that animated his verse.
Mahon’s poetry was often propelled by a sympathy for dispossessed communities, evident as much in a hallmark piece like “A Disused Shed in County Wexford” as in his later, book-length work, The Hudson Letter. For Mahon, equipped as a writer with the same “light meter and relaxed itinerary” so beloved of countless literary fence-sitters, the urge that recurred most persistently was in fact “To do something”, or “at least not to close the door again” on those condemned to live “in darkness and in pain.” Such a stance was increasingly accompanied, over the course of his writing career, by a deep-delving understanding of social inequality and erasure as being caused by man-made power-systems, rather than natural inevitabilities.
In one poem from the 2010 collection, An Autumn Wind, the artist’s meditative vision turns outward to survey a global vista defined in the main by 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.
The poem connects the neoliberal economic doctrines of “the Chicago Boys, the World Bank and the IMF” with crimes against humanity, while also paying tribute to both the theory and praxis of resistance that such doctrines inadvertently generate (typified by Klein and by “the weak who now fight back,” respectively). This is diagnostic verse, analysing and condemning neoliberalism per se – or what Mahon terms, in his resonantly titled piece, “Trump Time”, “the bedlam of acquisitive force / That rules us, and would rule the universe.” Mahon was one of Ireland’s most unambiguous (if also under-appreciated) anti-capitalist poets.
A topical piece from his forthcoming collection, Washing Up, attests to this view, as the speaker 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.” The poem implies that Covid-19, for all its horror, has exposed the limitations and dangers of a planetary political system driven by “conflict and financial rage.” And so Mahon’s desire was for optimism of collective will – a phrase & attitude associated (once again) with Marxist revolutionary, Antonio Gramsci – his almost unnervingly clear-sighted lines calibrated as a conscious retort to what he termed in another piece “the torture music, the inane soundtrack / of global capitalism; that harsh cacophony.”
Tellingly, both of the poems above are 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 – to the networks of military and imperial force that guard and enable such a civilisational programme. “Contemporary search engines”, Mahon 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. “Hard rock and carpet bombing will be down,” he projected in another poem, envisioning 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.” The canonical writer’s presumed prerequisites for creative labour, “peace and quiet”, were understood by Mahon in a manner that emphasised their rarity, as well as their value: a life free of military dominance and the manias of high finance.
With this backdrop in view, the full implications of the reference above to “the torture music… of global capitalism” come clear, arguably indicating a critical 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 Exxon Mobil were the prime economic beneficiaries. 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 as well as the poet’s own yearning for an earlier time. Mahon was writing of a city razed by (British) occupation forces in 1920, and in an Irish State previously suspected of facilitating CIA rendition flights and still known for allowing American military use of its airports and airspace – both now filled with “torture music” and the brash babble of economic imperatives.
It is surely not incidental to Mahon’s political portraiture that early critics of Ireland’s close cooperation with the American war machine were accused, according to contemporaneous coverage by The Guardian, 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.” By contrast, and with characteristic grace, Mahon’s 2018 collection, Against the Clock, 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.”
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 sharp personal awareness of the participation and willing vassalage of the Irish State in such a political order. Ireland, he contended in one polemically incisive article (included in Red Sails) stands among the world’s “parasite sucker nations”, governed with a single purpose in mind: “to oblige Washington.” The poetry undoubtedly refined and added nuance to this perception, but its centrality to Mahon’s late aesthetic cannot be denied. As he put it in another essay:
“It’s time for us writers] to stop faffing around with semantics and consumerist aesthetics and get back to the real programme if we can: the constantly frustrated effort to achieve a more habitable world.”
Assuredly the work, now that the man himself has gone, will be studied and celebrated with renewed vigour and sensitivity – as it should be. What’s clear, however, is that a full understanding of Mahon as a poet will be impossible without a forthright recognition of the impetus of anti-capitalist critique that drove his restless, eclectic explorations of inner self and life at large, for which he has been justly (if incompletely) celebrated. May he rest in power.