Derek Mahon's Red Sails

Photograph after the burning of Cork by British forces, 1920.
Photograph after the burning of Cork by British forces, 1920.

One of the recurring concerns of the critical snapshots published here has been to examine the extent to which contemporary literature can be seen to articulate a critique of established power systems (in a broadly Euro-American context), while at the same time exploring some of the ways in which those critiques, those politically incendiary particles of insight into present realities, may be thwarted, co-opted, or veiled by the institutional structures and funding networks through which the same contemporary literatures are often circulated. While the tension generated by these two opposing tendencies may be immense, and even crippling to serious ‘political’ writing (as advocates and proponents are subsumed into established infrastructures of critical opinion, their rebel yawps coming to ring somewhat hollow over time), my own inclination so far has been to resist the contention that works created by publicly fêted or even demonstrably wealthy artists are automatically undeserving of attention, political or aesthetic. Indeed, I take a somewhat dorkish pleasure from drawing on the critical legacies and approaches of radical social movements (contemporary and historical alike) as a means of uncovering those corners of the cultural canon I had previously visited and forgotten about, or only half-understood. Not infrequently, as I’ve been glad to realise, the commentators who believe in (and in many cases struggle for) self-emancipation in their societies, for economic as well as political democracy within and between their communities, have an equally inspiring understanding of art, of the importance of cultural imagining, as a mode of human endeavour, both individual and communal. At any rate, my habit now is to consult the rebels and their allies when I’m in need of creative or critical guidance, including figures like Adrienne Rich, Ursula K Le Guin, Arundhati Roy, John Berger, among others.


More locally, and in particular after encountering the propulsive, class-conscious energies and masterfully sustained moods of protest in the work of writers like Sarah Clancy and Dave Lordan, I’ve had the pleasure of returning with new eyes – a second (and hopefully more ‘woke’) reader’s approach  to the poets whose books first opened up the field for me, so to speak, giving me permission (by their example) to step out and wander: people such as Moya Cannon, Michael Hartnett, Dermot Healy. As mentioned in another sketch on this site, one of the richest re-discoveries on this continuing journey of mine has been of the apparently unabashed “left-wingery” saturating Derek Mahon's work, a quality I had missed in my younger years, as I marvelled, abstractly, at its vividness of imagery, its ease of metric flow. More and more, the famously hermetic Mahon seems an ally of the people’s struggle  and a happily incurable one at that.


A deliberately topical poem from his forthcoming collection, Washing Up, for example, 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.” Perhaps jarringly, the combined ubiquity and insidious intimacy with which Covid-19 has disrupted, and in many cases ended, social and individual life is exactly the basis for Mahon’s cautiously optimistic interpretation of its world-historical importance. Covid-19, the poem implies, exposes the limitations and dangers of a planetary political system driven by, and hard-wired in turn to propel, “conflict and financial rage.” And so Mahon’s desire is for optimism of collective will (in a sense not dissimilar to that associated with Marxist revolutionary, Antonio Gramsci), his almost unnervingly clear-sighted music calibrated as a conscious retort, an alternative of humane and deep-delving reflection, to what he terms in another piece “the torture music, the inane soundtrack / of global capitalism; that harsh cacophony.” 


Tellingly, both poems are precise (and unambiguous) 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 writes elsewhere (instantiating the above observation specifically in relation to “Google and the like”), “had tactical origins” along with “initial development funds from the Defense Department in Washington”: the much-vaunted ingenuity and daring of the Silicon Valley revolution, he suggests, should be understood in the first place as an iteration of the USA’s “(re)search-and-destroy” operations, its ambitions as a hegemonic world-power. “Hard rock and carpet bombing will be down,” one poem similarly projects, 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 poet’s presumed prerequisites for creative labour, “peace and quiet”, are framed by Mahon in a manner that accentuates their rarity, as well as their value: a life (a world) free of military dominance and the manias of high finance.


With this backdrop in view, the full implications of Mahon’s reference to “the torture music… of global capitalism” in the poem above come clear, 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 financial beneficiaries (not to mention the likes of entrepreneur and right-wing ideologue, Declan Ganley, whose telecommunications consortium was granted a $70 million contract in the newly levelled Iraq in 2004). Curiously, maybe, 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 Mahon’s own yearning for an earlier time. The poet, after all, is 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, throughout his collection, Against the Clock, Mahon blends an atmosphere of deep remembrance with a radical clarity of response that foregrounds the shadow-conflict framing such exchanges: “always the same dream / of life and love, the same invidious forces: / deliberate ignorance and acquired odium.” 


Among other things, Mahon may be seen here as a self-consciously ‘Irish’ poet in at least one respect: his subtle and probing poetic dissections of global capitalism, its combination of relentless violence and permeating vacuity, are filtered through a sharp personal awareness of the participation and willing vassalage of the Irish State in such a political order. Ireland, he likewise contends in one polemically incisive article, now stands among the world’s “parasite sucker nations”, governed with a single purpose in mind: “to oblige Washington.” The poetry undoubtedly extends, refines, and adds nuance to this perception, but its centrality to Mahon’s late aesthetic cannot be denied. 


Similarly, the contours and direction of Mahon’s work as a whole, his sense of what it’s all about, may be discerned in the preceding pieces. As he puts it in his essay collection, Red Sails


[It’s time] 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.


A full understanding of Mahon as a poet, and of the conception of literary creation hinted at here, is impossible without a forthright recognition of the historically informed and ecologically attuned impetus of anti-capitalist critique that drives his restless, eclectic explorations of inner self and life at large, for which he has been justly (if incompletely) celebrated.

Ciarán O'Rourke // september 2020