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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.

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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.

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Charlotte Joko Beck

In the popular imagination, Zen practice consists of sitting cross-legged, preferably on a mountain or within the confines of a monastery, in a state of perfect calm. His hands positioned in the “cosmic mudra” and a beatific smile on his face, the Zen Buddhist practitioner sits at a comfortable remove from the petty conflicts and mundane concerns of ordinary life. In a word, he is detached. He has transcended the human fray.

This stereotypical image of Buddhist practice has widespread currency, even among the intellectual elite. A recent manifestation may be found in the Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund’s book This Life: Secular Life and Spiritual Freedom (Pantheon, 2019), where the author defines the general aim of Buddhism as “a detachment from everything that is finite.” Reviewing this book in The New Yorker (May 13, 2019), staff writer James Wood endorses Hägglund’s view, alluding vaguely to “those doctrinal aspects of Buddhism which insist on detachment.” “Everything that is finite,” one might note, is a very large category. Not only does it include buildings and boulevards, mountains and rivers, rocks and trees. It also includes one’s family, friends, and loved ones generally. Why on earth would anyone wish to be so detached? If that is what Zen is about, one might conclude, so much the worse for Zen. (more…)

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“Ray of Hope” impatiens

On this cold morning in February, I’m remembering my last conversation with my father. At the time, he was sixty-five years old. He had retired early the year before, having received a diagnosis of metastatic cancer. Now he lay in a hospital bed, his once-sturdy body reduced by chemotherapy. Although he did not know for certain that he was dying—no one had definitively told him so—he knew that he wasn’t getting any better. Much of our conversation centered on the past: on our shared experiences, our conflicting political views, his wish that he could have better provided for his family. But when our focus turned to the future, and the word hope arose, I remarked without much thought that he might be “hoping for the wrong things.” My remark unsettled him. “I just hoped to enjoy my retirement and my grandchildren,” he replied. “What’s wrong with that?”

Over the ensuing decades I have often regretted my remark. At the very least, it was less than wise. At worst, it was insensitive and unintentionally unkind. Who was I, at the untried age of twenty-six, to be advising my father? To be suggesting what, if anything, he should or shouldn’t hope for? Now that I am well beyond his age at the time, I am far less certain of what any of us should hope for, if hope we must, especially in later life. Turning to Zen teachings for guidance, I find contrasting perspectives, some of them more useful than others. (more…)

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Consider, if you will, the peculiar status of the word special. Whether employed as adjective or noun, the word means distinctive, uncommon, out-of-the-ordinary. Yet the word itself could hardly be more common. On what seems like a weekly basis, retailers announce their Special Offers and Special Sales. For breakfast, some of us eat Special K, which presumably is superior to Regular K. When we go out to dinner to celebrate a special occasion, we are likely to hear at length about that evening’s specials. In some contexts, as in “special needs,” “special effects,” and Special Counsel, the word’s function is chiefly descriptive, but more often it serves to praise, sell, or persuade. If someone calls you a “very special person,” you can safely take it as a compliment. With rare exceptions, both the literal meaning and the connotations of special are reliably, if vaguely, laudatory. (more…)

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In “Letting Go,” an illuminating article on care for the dying, the surgeon and author Atul Gawande examines the choices that terminal patients and their families face at the end of life. Contrasting hospice with hospital care, he reports a remarkable finding:

Like many people, I had believed that hospice care hastens death, because patients forgo hospital treatments and are allowed high-dose narcotics to combat pain. But studies suggest otherwise. In one, researchers followed 4,493 Medicare patients with either terminal cancer or congestive heart failure. They found no difference in survival time between hospice and non-hospice patients with breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer. Curiously, hospice care seemed to extend survival for some patients; those with pancreatic cancer gained an average of three weeks, those with lung cancer gained six weeks, and those with congestive heart failure gained three months.*

Reflecting on this finding, Dr. Gawande concludes that the “lesson seems almost Zen: you live longer only when you stop trying to live longer.”

“Almost Zen” is an approximation, akin to the modifier “Zen-like,” which often obscures what it purports to describe. But in associating this particular “lesson” with Zen practice, Dr. Gawande comes close to the mark. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, often admonished his students to have “no gaining idea” when practicing Zen meditation. Other teachers have done the same.  Those Medicare patients who chose to forgo hospital treatment were indeed rejecting a gaining idea: that of a longer life at any cost. Ironically, by choosing hospice care, they not only improved the quality of their last days and avoided the debilitating side-effects of hospital treatments. They also lengthened their lives.

Yet it is one thing to know that you have a fatal illness and another to accept that you are dying. “I’d say only a quarter have accepted their fate when they come into hospice,” observes Sarah Creed, a hospice nurse quoted by Dr. Gawande. “Ninety-nine per cent understand they’re dying, but one hundred per cent hope they’re not. They still want to beat their disease.” Such hope is only human. Only a very cold observer would presume to judge it adversely. But to deny that one is dying, when that is in fact the case, is not a constructive way to prepare oneself or one’s loved ones for the inevitable. Nor is it the way of Zen.

The Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, who is nothing if not tough-minded, once proclaimed that to practice Zen, we have to “give up hope.” When that statement angered some of her students, she explained what she had meant:

Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Actually, it’s not terrible at all. A life lived with no hope is a peaceful, joyous, compassionate life . . . . [W]e are usually living in vain hope for something or someone that will make my life easier, more pleasant. We spend most of our time trying to set life up in a way so that will be true; when, contrariwise, the joy of our life is just in totally doing and bearing what must be borne, in just doing what has to be done. It’s not even what has to be done; it’s there to be done so we do it.**

Joko Beck’s tone is blunt, and her perspective may be difficult to accept. But that perspective accords with Dr. Gawande’s, insofar as it admonishes us to accept the harshest of realities and to act accordingly. Addressing the question of hope, Dr. Gawande recalls the example of Stephen Jay Gould, who survived a rare and lethal cancer for twenty years. “I think of Gould,” Dr. Gawande remarks, “every time I have a patient with terminal illness. There is almost always a long tail of possibility, however thin.” There is nothing wrong with looking for that tail, he acknowledges, “unless it means we have failed to prepare for the outcome that’s vastly more probable.”  What is wrong is that “we have created a multitrillion-dollar edifice for dispensing the medical equivalent of lottery tickets . . .  Hope is not a plan, but hope is our plan.” As a wiser alternative, he advocates open discussions, funded by medical insurance, between terminal patients, their families, and their doctors.  Conducted with patience and candor, discussions of this kind can clarify what is most important to the dying person. And having had such discussions, people are “far more likely to die at peace and in control of their situation, and to spare their family anguish.”

Reading Dr. Gawande’s prescription, I am reminded of the experience of Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi, Abbot of the Zen Center of Syracuse, whose mother recently passed away. During the days before her death, Shinge Roshi talked with her mother about books, art, and music. She edited her mother’s memoirs—and helped her write the ending. Her mother, in turn, saw to it that her affairs were in order. Accepting her imminent death, she gave her daughter a list of things to do, people to call, and last thoughts. For Shinge Roshi, the experience of being with her mother during and after her passing awakened feelings of profound gratitude.  It was, she said, as miraculous as birth.

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* Atul Gawande, “Letting Go,” The New Yorker, July 26, 2010 (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/08/02/100802fa_fact_gawande).

** Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen (HarperSanFrancisco, 1989), 66, 68.

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Monasterevin, Co. Kildare, Ireland

Bob Dylan once remarked that when Tommy Makem sang, there was an elsewhere in his eyes. From that elsewhere came his singing.

What was true of Tommy Makem (1932-2007), the celebrated singer and songwriter from Co. Armagh, is also true of Irish balladry in general, particularly its immigrant ballads. One of the best-known ballads, Frank Fahy’s version of Galway Bay, recalls the rugged rocks and the sweet green grass of Galway from the vantage point of Illinois. And one of the most poignant, Sliabh Gallion Brae, is a kind of elegy in advance, in which a farmer by the name of Joe McGarvey from Derrygenard, who can no longer pay his rent, bids farewell to the parish of Lissan, the cross of Ballinascreen, and “bonny, bonny Sliabh Gallion Brae”  All are soon to be elsewhere. In the Irish language, sliabh (pronounced shleeve) means mountain, and in Scots Gaelic brae means hillside. As so often in immigrant ballads, an elsewhere fondly remembered is evoked through its place name, which brings its felt presence into the foreground.

To wish to be elsewhere is a universal human desire. And to become aware of that desire, even as it is arising, is one of the aims of Zen practice. Sometimes the “elsewhere” is a geographical place, as in the immigrant ballads, but just as often it is an imagined state of mind, and it lies in the future rather than the past. In her book Nothing Special the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck examines this recurrent human impulse, as embodied in ordinary thought:

In ordinary thinking, the mind always has an objective, something it’s going to get. If we’re caught in that wanting, then our awareness of reality is gone. We’ve substituted a personal dream for awareness. Awareness doesn’t move, doesn’t bury itself in dreams; it just stays as it is.*

Ordinary thinking, as here portrayed, removes us from wherever we are. By contrast, immovable awareness grounds us in the here and now. To bring meditative awareness to our thoughts is to realize how often they serve to transport us elsewhere.

Of course, not ­all thoughts serve that purpose. Happy to be Here, the title of one of Garrison Keillor’s books, expresses a thought that many of us have when conversing with friends at a dinner party, or spending time with a son or daughter, or eating a bowl of ice cream on a summer evening. Yet the fact is that only a few of our thoughts amplify or clarify our present experience, and many have the opposite effect. If you would like to test this claim, may I suggest that you sit still for three minutes and count the number of thoughts you have during that time. Then sit still for another three minutes, labeling your thoughts (“Thinking about tomorrow’s meeting:”; “thinking about last night”). You may well find that the bulk of your thoughts pertain not to the present but to the past or the future: to where you have been or where you might sometime be. Others may pertain to no place at all, being generalized, abstract, and void of concrete particulars.

The point of this exercise is not to extinguish all such thoughts. To think about other times and places is a natural human activity, and it can give rise to artistic works as richly diverse as Billy Collins’s poems on his childhood or Tommy Makem’s Farewell to Carlingford. The point is rather to become aware of conceptual thinking and to see how it comes between our minds and the realities of our lives, bringing anxiety and untold suffering in its wake. “On the whole,” W.C. Fields is thought to have written as his epitaph, “I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” That makes for a good story, but like many a colorful tale, it isn’t true. The real epitaph reads simply, “W.C Fields, 1880-1946.”  So it is with our images and thoughts, which purport to illuminate reality but often take us elsewhere.

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*Charlotte Joko Beck, Nothing Special: Living Zen (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 152.

Gemma Hasson’s rendition of Sliabh Gallion Brae may be heard at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiSd2rUyrQ8. Tommy Makem’s Farewell to Carlingford may be heard at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGn2G-xjM_M.

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