28 June 2005

The Old Mahon And The Sea

      Glancing through Derek Mahon's Lives (1972) this morning, I stumbled upon this surprisingly good poem, a response to Wallace Stevens' wonderful "The Idea of Order at Key West." Strangely, though, when I went to look for the poem online to offer it here, I discovered this version of it, which is quite different than the one offered in Lives and features some key errors ("diest" should be "diet," for example).   Mahon probably altered it between journal and chapbook release, as poets are often wont to do, but the Lives version is so much better.   Here it is:

Rage for Order

Somewhere beyond
The scorched gable end
And the burnt-out
Buses there is a poet indulging his
Wretched rage for order--

Or not as the
Case may be, for his
Is a dying art,
An eddy of semantic scruple
In an unstructurable sea.

He is far
From his people,
And the fitful glare
Of his high window is as
Nothing to our scattered glass.

His posture is
Grandiloquent and
Deprecating, like this,
His diet ashes,
His talk of justice and his mother

The rhetorical device of a Claudian emperor--
Nero if you prefer,
No mother there;
And this in the face of love, death, and the wages of the poor.

If he is silent
It is the silence
Of enforced humility,
If anxious to be heard
It is the anxiety of a last word

When the drums start--
For his is a dying art.
Now watch me
As I make history,
Watch as I tear down

To build up
With a desperate love,
Knowing it cannot be
Long now till I have need of his
Germinal ironies.
Okay, well it's not a great poem, but it is better than most of the semi-recent poetry I see.   I think Mahon's irregular rhythms are a bit awkward, and I think his interpretation of Stevens is a little flimsy, such that the poem when held in comparison with (or in contrast with) Stevens' poem, it does seem very jejeune, and not a little inelegant.   ("Now watch me / As I make history" strikes me as very weak, a statement more prone to be uttered by young poets than more experienced ones.)   It is, however, worth the read, and it reminds me of something I am all too prone to forget in relation to my own writing, that all of us have to suffer through our juvenalia. Few of us hit out strides on the first bolt out of the gate.   "Instructurable sea," however, is a fine phrase, one I think Stevens would have appreciated.

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