Reading: Lives by Derek Mahon

We travel to Northern Ireland. Derek Mahan (b. 1941)’s poetry has been compared to Louis MacNeice and W.D. Auden. Some critics have called it ‘too controlled’. I found this poem worth reading, with an attribution to yet another famous Irish poet:


(for Seamus Heaney)

First time out
I was a torc of gold
And wept tears of the sun.
That was fun
But they buried me
In the earth two thousand years
Till a labourer
Turned me up with a pick
In eighteen fifty-four.
Once I was an oar
But stuck in the shore
To mark the place of a grave
When the lost ship
Sailed away. I thought
Of Ithaca, but soon decayed.
The time that I liked
Best was when
I was a bump of clay
In a Navaho rug,
Put there to mitigate
The too god-like
Perfection of that
Merely human artifact.
I served my maker well —
He lived long
To be struck down in
Denver by an electric shock
The night the lights
Went out in Europe
Never to shine again.
So many lives,
So many things to remember!
I was a stone in Tibet,
A tongue of bark
At the heart of Africa
Growing darker and darker . . .
It all seems
A little unreal now,
Now that I am
An anthropologist
With my own
Credit card, dictaphone,
Army-surplus boots
And a whole boatload
Of photographic equipment.
I know too much
To be anything any more;
And if in the distant
Future someone
Thinks he has once been me
As I am today,
Let him revise
His insolent ontology
Or teach himself to pray.
Alright, 1854-2000 = 146 BC: The Battle of Corinth. The “I” was something buried with the dead, a torc of gold in the first instance. That riddle was fun. The oar in the shore happened probably in ancient Greece as well, given the reference to Ithaca.
I found that the Navaho covered the eyes of the dead with some clay. That gives away what Mahon wants to say, that the ‘thing’ is mitigating the god-like perfection, in a way.
The lights going out in Europe never to shine again could refer to the holocaust, if his ‘maker’ is god? Struck by an electric shock in Denver? We might be missing something here.

With Tibet and Africa (heart of darkness) he makes this truly international. But now he is an anthropologist, who feels it is unreal, all these many things to remember. So he is not anything anymore, a rather existentialist anthropologist.

How does he pay respect to all these things, representing all these many lives that were lost and buried with gifts that have lost their meaning? He demands that a future generation don’t identifies with him, it sounds like he wants to break a chain. Or, and he might be well aware of the fact that such is impossible. In that case that future person should teach herself to pray. Indeed, the ontology he describes, the one in which you become the stuff the dead are remembered by and are at some point reduced to such a thing yourself, is insolent and ultimately nihilist. And that is of course why he turns to prayer.
This is a strange enough poem, and I have the feeling there are some more things to be dug up here. Any suggestions?