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Derek-Mahon-BW

Derek Mahon

1941-2020

The Irish poet Derek Mahon, who died earlier this month at the age of 78, grew up in a working-class Protestant family in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His father worked in the shipyards, his mother in a linen mill. Against his father’s wishes, Mahon pursued an interest in poetry, first in grammar school and later at Trinity College Dublin and the Sorbonne. While in his twenties he worked in various low-paying jobs in North America before settling in London in 1970. For the next fifteen years he earned a precarious living as a freelance journalist. At the same time, he was establishing a reputation as the author of superbly crafted lyric poems, in which a skeptical, darkly ironic outlook coexists with contemplative calm and a singing line. When “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” his requiem for the “lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii,” appeared in The Listener in 1973, it was widely recognized as a modern masterpiece. In the 1990s, with twelve acclaimed collections to his credit, Mahon returned to Ireland, living for a time in central Dublin, whose newly prosperous, commercialized culture he satirically decried. In his last years he retired to the historic port of Kinsale, where he composed expansive meditative poems and enjoyed the consolations of domestic life. At the time of his death he was universally regarded as one of Ireland’s leading and most influential poets. His lifelong friend and fellow Belfast-born poet Michael Longley observed that “there is much darkness in his poetry, but it is set against the beauty of the world, and the formal beauty of his work. I believe that Derek’s poetry will last as long as the English language lasts.”

Mahon’s early departure from Northern Ireland left an indelible mark on his work, infusing his poems with ambivalent feelings of disdain, regret, and longing. In 1977 he accepted a two-year appointment at the University of Ulster at Coleraine, in Co. Derry, and he returned with his wife and two children to their native province. It was a homecoming of sorts, but not a happy one. By this time Mahon had been diagnosed with a serious drinking problem, his marriage was teetering, and his writing had come to a virtual standstill. And the murderous sectarian conflict known as the Troubles was at its height, one of its flashpoints being the area where he was then living. Acutely aware of these adverse conditions, Mahon composed “Everything is Going to be All Right,” the poem by which he is best known to the general public.

Everything Is Going to Be All Right

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

In this formal, twelve-line poem, the narrator awakens in an upstairs bedroom in a house on the northern coast. In contrast to his still-immobile state, the natural world is luminous and active: the tide is up, the clouds are flying, and the sky is clearing. If the imagery of the poem sets the narrator’s stillness against the dynamism of his surroundings, its antithetical syntax (“but there is no need to go into that”) reflects a tension between the narrator’s dark thoughts and the untrammeled beauty of the natural world. Out of these tensions arise two affirmations, both them framed in plain declarative sentences.

In asserting that “The lines flow from the hand unbidden / and the hidden source is the watchful heart,” Mahon affirms one of the traditional wellsprings of the poet’s art. “Look in thy heart, and write,” advised the Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney, whom Mahon had studied at TCD. Following Sidney’s lead, Mahon places his faith in poetic intuition, which a poet can awaken through patient contemplation. For a formal poet like Derek Mahon, whose craft requires meticulous attention to every syllable and element of form, this recognition of a vital source beyond his conscious control is at once revelatory and liberating.

The second affirmation is even more consequential. In his title and closing line, Mahon places his trust in life itself. “In spite of everything,” the sun rises, and the beauty of the “far cities” persists into the future. In a lesser context, Mahon’s affirmation might seem platitudinous, or might even be interpreted as ironic. But in its present context it calls to mind a cryptic statement by the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck. “Practice,” she asserts, “is about finally understanding the paradox that although everything is a mess, all is well.” Although themes from the Zen tradition appear here and there in Mahon’s work, he was not a committed Zen practitioner. But the paradox he explores in “Everything is Going to be All Right” has much in common with the one to which Joko Beck alludes. And though his poem was written in a time and under circumstances very different from our own, and his “momentous celebration of a moment of well-being,” as the critic Hugh Haughton has described it, may well be a “dream of living which is also a dream of writing,” the reassurance he articulates speaks eloquently to our present, vexed condition.

______

Derek Mahon, Collected Poems (Gallery, 1999).

Charlotte Joko Beck, “What Zen Practice Is,” Open Heart Zen Sangha.

Hugh Haughton, The Poetry of Derek Mahon (Oxford, 2007), 147-148.

Profound silence

DB 1a

                                      Dzogchen Beara

“Profound silence,” wrote Samuel Beckett, “is not something we fall into casually. This may indeed happen, and a blessed happening it is, but normally we choose to set aside a time and a place to enter into spiritual quietness.”

            For me, the time was a week in July, 1998, and the place was the Beara Peninsula in southwest Ireland. Traversed by two mountain ranges and jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, Beara offers a landscape rich in Bronze Age antiquities and rugged natural beauty but inhospitable to human habitation. The winters are “full-on,” a local resident told me. And even during the summers, when the temperature peaks in the 60s, and hikers and cyclists converge on the scenic Ring of Beara, the stony hills, steep cliffs, and fierce winds challenge the faint of heart. At one time the population of the Beara Peninsula was nearly 40,000. Today it is fewer than 6,000 hardy souls.

            I came to Beara not to hike or cycle but primarily to meditate. My specific destination was Dzogchen (pron. ZOGH-shen) Beara, a Buddhist retreat and conference center situated near the colorful village of Allihies. Perched on a high cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the center is affiliated with the Dzogchen school of Tibetan Buddhism, and during my weeklong stay, a few long-term residents were undergoing training in Tibetan Buddhist practice. But the ethos of the center was ecumenical, welcoming, and international. The then director was an Englishman, the staff mostly Irish. The bookshop included selections in English, Irish, and several other languages. Dzogchen Beara now boasts a modern, well-appointed conference center, bright commodious cottages with spectacular vistas (rentable at € 150/night), and a café that caters to tourists as well as retreatants. But twenty years ago, the ambience of the place was far more austere, and the “self-catering” cabin where I stayed was spartan, to say the least.

            The cabin’s most conspicuous feature was a long, old-fashioned bathtub. When I drew my first bath, I discovered that the water was amber-going-to-brown. This color, I was told, was caused by the peat in the soil. Not only was this additive harmless, I further learned, it was also, like Guinness, supposed to be good for me. Although I grew accustomed to bathing in the visual equivalent of pale ale, I cannot report any salubrious effects.

            The other prominent features of my home from home included a pot-bellied, peat-burning stove; an elderly, encrusted cook stove; a tiny fridge; a writing desk and lamp; and a single hard bed, which looked and felt like an oversized church pew. Fortunately, this Thoreauvian dwelling also featured a large window, from which I could look down at the water far below. In the mornings I watched the fishing boats emerging from the darkness onto Bantry Bay. In the evenings, I watched the sun setting on the distant ocean horizon.

            Dzogchen Beara had no fixed schedule for visitors, and after a brief orientation we were left on our own. But I soon developed a daily rhythm. Rising early, I brewed a pot of coffee, wrote in my journal, and worked on a lecture I would deliver the following week at the Kerry International Summer School in Tralee. After breakfast, I joined a few other visitors for guided meditation in the main hall. Looking out through tall windows on the ocean, we contemplated impermanence and cultivated the primordial awareness known in Tibetan Buddhism as rigpa. In the afternoons I explored the rocky hills and trails around the center, while listening to talks by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh on my aging Walkman. Toward evening, I prepared my simple dinners from provisions I’d bought in Castletownbere and brought with me. My most memorable meal: roasted bell peppers stuffed with quinoa and flavored with fresh herbs. Suitable fare, it seemed at the time, for a part-time eremite. In the evenings I sat in solitary meditation before retiring to my monkish bed.

            And what did I take away from this experience? Of the welter of memories I’ve retained, two in particular stand out.

            In southwest Ireland, which is warmed by the Gulf Stream, the wild fuchsia blooms abundantly in July. In his poem “The Fuchsia Blaze,” the Cork-born poet Greg Delanty recounts how this deep-red flower, imported from South America, “ran amuck . . . & wildfired the land / becoming the spirit of Kerry’s / Aztec farmers.” The Irish-speaking populace named the wild fuchsia Deora De, meaning “God’s Tears.” In Delanty’s poem, “each branch weeps / their God’s blood tears / as if sensing the earth’s hurt.” But at Dzogchen Beara, the spectacle of thousands of wild fuchsia cascading down the rocky cliff felt more celebratory than elegiac.

            That feeling was of a piece with the deep silence I experienced at Dzogchen Beara. “It seeps into you,” one visitor remarked. Early one morning, as I wrote in my journal and looked out at the bay, I realized that the only sounds I was hearing were those I was making myself: my heartbeat, the scratching of my pen on the page. As the Irish poet Sean Dunne (1956-1995), a native of Cork who also spent some time at Dzogchen Beara, wrote in his memoir The Road to Silence (1994): “silence is not just the absence of noise. It is also the absence of distraction and of mental busyness which prohibits the creation of an inner quiet. Silence is not a passive or quietist quality but an active one. . . . It is tactile, like the pages of a book or the texture of stone.” Such was my experience at Dzogchen Beara, and I have carried that nurturing, necessary stillness with me to this day.

______

Greg Delanty, Southward (Louisiana State, 1992).

Sean Dunne, The Road to Silence (New Island, 1994), 73.

Shunryu Suzuki

“If I had six hours to chop down a tree,” said Abraham Lincoln, “I would spend four hours sharpening the axe.”

That famous saying is commonly invoked to underscore the value of preparation—or, more precisely, of an attitude of preparedness. Whether we are preparing to cook a meal by chopping onions or preparing for a long drive by checking the air pressure in our tires, preparation is understood to be a necessary part of any serious undertaking. And an attitude of preparedness is regarded as a mark of a mature, responsible person.

All that said, preparation is often seen, consciously or otherwise, as subordinate to the main event. It is what the prep cook does before the chef arrives or what the warm-up band does before the stars take the stage. When I was teaching courses in English literature at Alfred University, I would often spend three hours or more preparing for a fifty-minute class. Yet until I began to practice Zen, I would not have thought of those hours as on a par with the dynamic experience of teaching itself. Essential my preparations may have been, even when teaching a text I had taught many times before, but in the back of my mind I still viewed the time spent locating sources, organizing the discussion, and selecting passages for special attention as mere preparation—the sorbet, as it were, rather than the main course. Continue Reading »

234. Peace is possible

Thich Nhat Hanh
        2006

Early one summer morning, two decades ago, I walked with several hundred other people down a sidewalk in Amherst, Massachusetts. Leading our walk was the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who wore the plain brown robes of his monastic order. Walking beside him were the children of participants in our weeklong retreat. In the next row were robed monks and nuns from Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in southern France, followed by our own assembled body. Transcending the boundaries of age, class, race, religion, and gender, our diverse group included Jews, Catholic nuns, Protestant clergy, lay Buddhist practitioners, secular professionals, and American veterans of the Vietnam War.

This was not my first walk with Thich Nhat Hanh, nor would it be my last. In a previous year, I had walked with Thây (Viet.,“ teacher”), as we affectionately called him, down a wooded path at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, and I would walk with him again, in a future year, on the quiet campus of Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts.  But the walk in Amherst stands out in memory, chiefly because it occurred in an urban setting. The sounds of construction were in the air. Down Massachusetts Avenue, traffic flowed as usual. To my surprise, when we crossed a busy intersection, commuting drivers waited respectfully, even when the light had changed. No horns blared; no angry voices yelled at us to get a move one. Continue Reading »

233. Garden time

Sue Stuart-Smith II

Sue Stuart-Smith

Sue Stuart-Smith is an English psychiatrist and an avid gardener. Her many original insights derive, on the one hand, from her clinical practice, particularly her work with victims of trauma, and on the other, from her long experience in planting and tending her gardens. Grounded in those realities, she is not inclined toward lofty abstractions or metaphysical speculation. But in her book The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature, Stuart-Smith propounds an abstract, metaphysical concept, which she calls “garden time.” By this term she does not mean “a time for gardening.” Rather, she is speaking of a sense of time qualitatively different from the ordinary. Continue Reading »

232. Be a wind bell

Wind bell PS

As a wedding gift eighteen years ago, two of our friends gave my wife and me a wind bell. Tall, pyramidical, and unadorned, it has hung from the branch of a spruce tree for nearly two decades. Its three steel sides and the triangular plate suspended from its clapper are rusted now, and the tree has long since died. But whenever the wind comes up with sufficient force, we are summoned by a distant, resonant clang, clang, clang—a reminder at once of continuity and change.

Wind bells have been around for millennia. In the late twelfth century Tendō Nyojō, a revered Zen master and the teacher of Eihei Dōgen, wrote a poem about his own: Continue Reading »

231. Coming home

Edward Espe Brown

 “Let things come and abide in your heart,” advised Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen tradition, “and let your heart abide in things.” Applying this principle to the culinary arts, Edward Espe Brown, a Zen priest, author, and celebrated chef, instructs the students in his cooking classes to do the same. “The world of flavor opened up,” he reflects in his book No Recipe, “when I began to let tastes come and abide in my heart.” Rather than try to make the food “behave,” or the final product conform to a preconceived standard, he learned to “allow for an intimate meeting with the world,” and the world of food to “awaken [his] heart.”

As with food, so with classical music. If music be the food of love, as Shakespeare’s Duke Orsinio posits, it too can be allowed or not allowed to abide in one’s heart. And just as different foods have different flavors, so do the works of classical composers, which may by turns be sweet or sour, salty or bland, pungent or bitter. Bach, for example, can be ineffably sweet, as in the Largo movement of his Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor. Bartok can be bitter. Brahms can be deeply pleasing to the palate—or seasoned, as it were, to a fault. And just as we as diners may be drawn to one range of flavors rather than another, we as listeners may feel affinities at different times in our lives for the works of particular composers. Continue Reading »

In his book The World Could Be Otherwise (Shambhala, 2019) the Zen priest Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi makes an arresting remark, as notable for its subtlety as for its bold assertion. “When I am sick at a retreat,” he writes, “I don’t try to perform as if I weren’t sick . . . I try not to waste time wishing for another condition. I just live within the condition I have.” (My italics)

Norman Fischer is a poet as well as a longtime Zen practitioner. He chooses his words with care. Had he written with rather than within—“I just live with my condition”—his statement would have been unremarkable, even banal. But instead he wrote within, a word that means, among other things, “in the interior of.” And between those two prepositions, so common in speech and prose but so wide-ranging in their implications, there is a significant and telling difference. Continue Reading »

229. Near and far

W.S. Merwin
1927-2019

Every morning, shortly after rising, I brew a pot of Japanese green tea. For this purpose I use one of my Japanese-made kyusus: small ceramic teapots with hollow side handles and interior mesh filters. The latter feature allows tea leaves to float freely while brewing, enhancing the flavor of the tea.

On most mornings I drink one of three types of Japanese green tea. Gyokuro, whose name means “jeweled dew,” is grown in the shade, is brewed for two minutes at a relatively low temperature (140-158F), and has a sweet and markedly mellow flavor. Sencha, a standard “daily” tea in its country of origin, is more bracing and astringent. Fukamushi, a variety of steamed tea, contains finer particles, is brewed for only 40-50 seconds at around 165F, and has (in my experience) the greatest depth of flavor. All of these teas come directly from a family-owned farm in Uji, near Kyoto, a region famous for producing superlative teas. And like green teas generally, all are at once stimulating and relaxing. In the winter months, while slowly sipping tea, I look out on our dark or moonlit yard. In the summer, when the sun is either up or coming up, I often see deer, or a skunk rooting for grubs, or, more rarely, a grey fox. The birds arrive a bit later. Continue Reading »

Louis MacNeice
1907-1963

In November, 1936, the Irish poet Louis MacNeice composed “The Sunlight on the Garden,” a lyric poem of surpassing power and beauty. A meditation on impermanence, uncertainty, and loss, the poem is also a luminous celebration of the here and now. Integrating a prophetic awareness of historical forces with a profound appreciation of the present moment, the poem also reconciles two disparate poetic traditions and an Anglo-Irish poet’s own divided loyalties.

Here is the poem in its entirety:

 

THE SUNLIGHT ON THE GARDEN

 

The sunlight on the garden

Hardens and grows cold,

We cannot cage the minute

Within its nets of gold,

When all is told,

We cannot beg for pardon.

 

Our freedom as free lances

Advances toward its end;

The earth compels, upon it

Sonnets and birds descend;

And soon, my friend,

We shall have no time for dances.

 

The sky was good for flying

Defying the church bells

And every evil iron

Siren and what it tells:

The earth compels,

We are dying, Egypt, dying

 

And not expecting pardon,

Hardened in heart anew,

But glad to have sat under

Thunder and rain with you,

And grateful too

For sunlight on the garden.

 

Although this poem, like most love-lyrics, is cast as a direct address, and its tone is intimate and conversational, its historical context is as relevant as the personal. Six months earlier, civil war had broken out in Spain. Pitting Republicans against Nationalists, communists against fascists, the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was seen by many Europeans at the time as a harbinger of a second World War. Born in 1907, MacNeice well understood what war and its constraints would mean for art, culture, and individual freedoms. High-flown sonnets would become a luxury. Secular hedonism would give way to austerity and self-sacrifice. And the familiar sound of parish church bells (MacNeice grew up in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, the son of an Anglican bishop) would be drowned out by klaxons warning of incoming air raids. In the vision projected by MacNeice’s poem, these future changes appear both imminent and inevitable.

Yet against the thunderclouds of impending war, MacNeice introduces the countervailing image of sunlight on the garden. At the time of writing, MacNeice was living in a “garden flat” in London. Facing south, its main rooms looked out on a garden, where sunlight filtered through sycamore trees, creating “nets of gold.” Ever the realist, MacNeice depicts those nets as “hardening” and growing cold in the mid-November air. But the extended metaphor of light, in the context of a prevailing darkness, creates the central thematic tension in the poem.

That tension mirrors the times in which MacNeice was living, but it also reflects the poet’s personal circumstances and his complex state of mind. In November, 1935, MacNeice’s first wife left him for another man. A year later—and five days after his divorce was finalized—MacNeice wrote the poem at hand. Although he had initially felt angry and betrayed, the feelings he expresses here are primarily those of acceptance, gratitude, and generosity. He addresses his former wife as “my friend.” And rather than bitterly mourn the impermanence of their relationship, he honors it, fondly remembering their hours together. In quoting a famous line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (IV, xv, 41), spoken by Marc Antony as he is dying in the Queen of Egypt’s arms, the poem invokes the tragic-romantic ambience of that scene. But in its present context the quoted line bears less on MacNeice’s failed marriage than on the historical moment that he and his former wife are both enduring, albeit apart. Neither should expect “pardon” from the punishing days ahead.

The spirit of reconciliation evident in the thematic content of MacNeice’s poem is also embodied in its form. In its symmetries and balances, its iambic rhythms and expressive concision, the poem lies squarely within the English lyric tradition, particularly the “Metaphysical” poetry of the early seventeenth century. However modern in idiom, it is continuous with the love poems of John Donne. At the same time, the poem’s dense, intricate, and song-like quality reflects the influence of Old Irish verse. That quality is heightened by MacNeice’s use of “aicill” or internal rhyme, a distinctive feature of Irish Bardic poetry. In MacNeice’s twentieth-century poem, as in medieval Irish verse, the end word of one line rhymes with the initial word of the next (garden/hardens; lances/advances, etc.), imparting a musical, “inwrought” feel to the poem’s aural texture. However subtly or obliquely, this artful interweaving of the cultural traditions of two recently warring nations expresses a tacit call for solidarity and a sense of common cause. Whatever our troubled history, the poet seems to be saying, to his former wife and to the world, we now face a threat larger than ourselves, and we’re in this together. In its masterly synthesis of Irish and English formal elements, the form of his poem is saying much the same.


Louis MacNeice, “The Sunlight on the Garden,” Collected Poems (Faber, 1966), 84-85.