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Archive for the ‘Derek Mahon’ Category

On day 17 of the 2020 countdown, we honor one of the many poets we lost this year. I taped Derek Mahon’s “After the Titanic” to a gate in a small alley next to a music store.

 

 

After the Titanic

by Derek Mahon

 

They said I got away in a boat

And humbled me at the inquiry. I tell you

I sank as far that night as any

Hero. As I sat shivering on the dark water

I turned to ice to hear my costly

Life go thundering down in a pandemonium of

Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches,

Boilers bursting and shredded ragtime. Now I hide

In a lonely house behind the sea

Where the tide leaves broken toys and hatboxes

Silently at my door. The showers of

April, flowers of May mean nothing to me, nor the

Late light of June, when my gardener

Describes to strangers how the old man stays in bed

On seaward mornings after nights of

Wind, takes his cocaine and will see no one. Then it is

I drown again with all those dim

Lost faces I never understood, my poor soul

Screams out in the starlight, heart

Breaks loose and rolls down like a stone.

Include me in your lamentations.

 

 

We can only hope that “After the Titanic” is an apt title for 2021, that is, that the worst will be over. But poet Derek Mahon is here to tell us that disasters are never over. They just age into nightmares. Cheers, people. A round of post-traumatic stress for all!

 

The speaker lives as if he’s dead, his activities straddling the grey zone between life and death. He sinks, he hides, he stays in bed, he sees no one, he drowns (again), he breaks. I died in the crash too, he seems to tell anyone who will listen.

 

The anguish the old man feels is real but tempered in beautiful language. Perhaps it’s been polished after many tellings. In this way “After the Titanic” becomes a “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” a tale of disaster at sea told and re-told to expiate the central sin. Except in this case, the sin is not in killing but in surviving, perhaps at the expense of someone else—

 

They said I got away in a boat

And humbled me at the inquiry.

 

The precise observations pull us into the trauma while allowing the distance of art. The description of the ship going down is horrifying but also so amazing I want to stand up and cheer—

 

As I sat shivering on the dark water

     I turned to ice to hear my costly

Life go thundering down in a pandemonium of

     Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches,

Boilers bursting and shredded ragtime.

 

These deaths are not quiet ones. Jack may have slipped silently away from Rose on the raft, but Mahon’s speaker witnessed a cacophony of suffering. His own death-in-life is equally noisy—

 

Lost faces I never understood, my poor soul

     Screams out in the starlight, heart

Breaks loose and rolls down like a stone.

 

*

 

Let’s end on a happier note. Here’s Andrew Scott (the hot priest of Fleabag) giving a reading of Mahon’s poem “Everything is Going to Be Alright.” This video made the rounds at the beginning of the COVID pandemic—a niece sent it to me, and I remember feeling moved and lifted. Watching it again, I’m tearing up, thinking of all the lives lost in the meantime, and the stubborn urge to hope we are born to.

 

 

If it’s difficult to understand Scott’s emotional recitation, here’s the poet himself reading it.

 

 

*

 

Derek Mahon, who died in October of this year, was born in 1941 in Belfast, the only child of a working-class Protestant family.

 

He studied at Trinity College in Dublin (where he dated poet Eavan Boland!) and later at the Sorbonne. He lived in Canada, the United States, France and London for a time, working as a reviewer, scriptwriter, freelance journalist, features editor for Vogue, and as a teacher at various universities. He eventually settled in county Cork.

 

He was married once, had three children by two different women, suffered from alcoholism, and formed a lasting partnership with artist Sarah Iremonger.

 

He is revered in Ireland not only for his poetry but for his translations and his essays, memoirs, and cultural criticism.

 

He was 78 when he died. Here’s an obituary with more details of his life and work.

 

 

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