'A Disused Shed in Co Wexford', Derek Mahon.
Yet we are also aware of it as typical (or not) of a poet's oeuvre. In short, we engage in contradictory readings and approaches. Paradoxically, it is this very feature of the process that makes the choice of Derek Mahon's 'A Disused Shed in Co Wexford' a fittingly complex one, both in its own organic processes and in the relationship it bears to Mahon's body of work as a whole.
The dynamic that exists between the single poem and the body of work has a particular resonance in the career of Derek Mahon. Like many poets, Mahon is reluctant to endorse the intense critical attention given to some of his poems at the expense of others--even if the chosen works are those that have shaped his critical reception over more than forty years. Scepticism towards the idea of monumental art is also one of his poetic themes: 'Heraclitus on Rivers' casts doubt on hierarchies of critical judgement and dismantles the certainty of art's immortal power:
Your best poem, you know the one I mean, The very language in which the poem Was written, and the idea of language, All these things will pass away in time. (1)
For a poet so acutely aware of the exigencies of time, the iconic poem may suggest a refusal to accept the evolving nature of human significance. It may also represent a kind of creative entrapment, a false view of the single poem as capable of crystallizing a vivid, complex, and continuing career. A related difficulty is the way in which poetic interpretation can become fixed, both for the specific poem and for any overview of the oeuvre as a whole--a single reading may then determine the points of significance against which the rest of the work is measured, both in thematic and in formal terms.
In Mahon's case this strategy is particularly problematic. The significance of the revision of early work has helped to destabilize the singular perspective, suggesting that the poem is always contingent--always still in process--as long as the creative career continues. (2) Since this is true of such a large body of Mahon's work, it suggests not only that individual interpretations may shift with formal amendments but also that the relationship among poems alters over time, not just with the addition of new poems but with the revisiting of older work and the insertion of reworked poems within the trajectory as a whole. In this way, Mahon refuses to allow us to read his work in terms of simple progression, instead demanding that we become attuned to the subtle shifts in emphasis that occur through time, and that we acknowledge their repercussions for his entire poetic output. We must not only read Mahon's poems forwards in time from early to late work, but forwards and backwards, considering each version of a poem to be subtly connected to all the other texts. In choosing "A Disused Shed in Co Wexford' for consideration here, I am not only making a case for the importance of this poem to its first readers in 1973 and for its continuing significance within the contemporary canon of Irish poetry. I am further suggesting that it offers an insight into how we might read Mahon's work as a whole to best understand its cumulative effect and its extraordinary resonance for readers of twentieth-century poetry in English. 'A Disused Shed in Co Wexford' changes how we think about what a poem does.
Straight away the poem presents unexpected shifts in emphasis: a title that is both anonymous and particularized by its location--a place hidden yet strangely identifiable. The title is followed by a quotation from the Greek poet George Seferis: 'Let them not forget us, the weak souls among the asphodels.' Both title and quotation speak of isolation and abandonment: the weakness of the souls suggests that they are without will or volition of their own. The inclusion of Seferis here has other interesting resonances. His early preoccupation with the hidden nature of being can be linked to Mahon's occluded art; later, the interweaving of personal and political issues in the Greek poet's career foregrounds the dilemmas facing a writer caught in the midst of territorial conflict. Mahon's poem is dedicated to J. G. Farrell whose novel Troubles, concerning the fate of an Anglo-Irish house in County Wexford, is the poet's inspiration here. Mahon's interest in Farrell's work is significant: the novelist's handling of historical and cultural decline has been influential for him; in particular the poet has singled out the 'long view' of this writer--both in terms of theme and style as remarkable. (3) This 'long view' is also, of course, a facet of Mahon's own achievement, so that even in the most particularized of poetic contexts, a sense of the far-reaching implications of these observations exists.
The connection to Troubles, and the date of first publication of the poem, sets the rising violence in Northern Ireland as the first context within which 'A Disused Shed in Co Wexford' has been considered, though the necessity of introducing broader perspectives is prompted by Mahon's avowed distaste for the 'merely topical'. (4) It is a position acknowledged too by Seamus Heaney when he argues that this 'allegorical approach ties the poem too neatly into its place'. (5) The opening line--'Even now there are places where a thought might grow' (p.89)--exemplifies the layered tonal effect of the poem, the coexistence of pessimism and possibility that is a hallmark of Mahon's work as a whole. Significantly, the poem does not oscillate between these positions but reveals them to be inseparable through the poet's close attention to the shaping of each phrase, and to the painstaking choice of individual words. The opening line is also suggestive of the poem's own process, of the emergence of independent thought through engagement with existing words and images. In any case it is a line that remains with us as the poem progresses, in its emphasis on thought as the starting point of the poetic process and as vital to the processes of reading (and re-reading) complex works of art. The location of these processes has always been important to Mahon. Here places of isolation are evoked: firstly Peruvian mines and Indian compounds, but within these further enclosures of desolation that yet have a positive dimension--the lift-shaft with wild flowers; 'lime crevices behind rippling rain barrels' (p.89).(6) Always inside what is apparently empty, new meaning flourishes. This stanza is a model of Mahon's poetic practice: a relaxed cadence but one that allows for the unfolding of further subtleties of detail and language. These were places of history, of vigour and consequence once, though they have now slipped into dereliction. So many other poems by Mahon will evoke this same dynamic--'A Garage in Co Cork' offers the most direct link, yet the interpretative path it takes is quite different. (7) The idea of the echo is evoked in the opening stanza of 'A Disused Shed' and it reinforces the ways in which connections link poems throughout Mahon's oeuvre, especially since new versions of poems continue to be haunted by excised sounds. The auditory dimension of the poem is important in other ways too, the trapped echo gives way to the more immediate sound of the banging door, that offers not a sense of purpose but of 'diminished confidence'--one of the many apparently random sounds to emerge from Mahon's acute auditory sensibility. This transition subtly calls attention to the relationship between past and present, between what is concealed and what is in view.
Next, the poem turns towards its central scene. It is a continuation of the deserted setting of the opening stanza but vividly particularized:
And in a disused shed in Co. Wexford, Deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel, Among the bathtubs and the washbasins A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole (p.89).
The sense of something emerging from the earth is strong here. It builds on the 'bone burials' of the first stanza (itself a cleaning up of the "shit burials' in the original version) and offers a reading of the mushrooms as something rising unbidden from the unconscious. Mahon's anxieties concerning his relationship with the place of his birth suggest a preoccupation with what Heaney has called 'his unlived life among the familiar shades of Belfast', yet Heaney himself is judicious in situating the personal dimension within a larger context. (8) Indeed, the perils of a limited perspective are made immediately obvious. Syntactically, the poem becomes crowded--multisyllabic objects cluttering up the rhythm of the line. The 'star within a star' that the keyhole represents marks an emerging focus within the multi-layered nature of significance and its extension from the close-at-hand to the cosmic. From the material world, the poem moves towards the textual: the rhetorical question that occupies the centre of this stanza speaking of fundamental human meaning. Time and space become conflated here: 'So many days beyond the rhododendrons/With the world waltzing in its bowl of cloud,/They have learnt patience and silence' (p.89). Distance is measured in time spent; the revolutions of the world are rendered in images of circularity: the bowl of cloud, the waltzing world.
There is a subtle shift in the perspective of the poem at this point: 'They have been waiting for us" suggests a collective process of observation that seems to reverse the Seferis quotation and implicates the reader in the need to bear witness to the experience (p.89). For a poem then linked to a contemporary political event, this is a significant shift and constitutes a subtle questioning of the responsibilities of readership itself. Time is both particularized and strangely elusive: the civil war days can easily be situated, reinforcing the genesis of the poem in Farrell's novel; the 'expropriated mycologist' is a figure of irony in the elaboration of his title and the fleeting nature of his interest ('he never came back'). His departure, with its auditory significance, was 'interminable'--again the function of time is distorted here, in keeping with the isolation and disorientation of the subjects. The telescoping of the wider world into the shed's dark space is reasserted: 'light since then/is a keyhole rusting gently after rain' (p.89). It is suggestive of how the greater understanding can only be achieved through the closest and most immediate things, seeming to follow from Yeats's conviction that 'one can only reach out into the universe with a gloved hand'. (9) Here the meaning of light itself is reduced to the aperture through which it can be seen, supporting the view that Mahon's attention to the world is marked by a primary concern with the act of representation itself. (10) Again it is through sound that the dynamic world makes itself known here, from the almost imperceptible 'trickle of masonry' to the 'lorry changing gear at the end of the lane' (p.89). Mahon's work often contemplates the relationship between private and public worlds but here an interesting paradox emerges: the place of ongoing human life seems strangely transitory and inconsequential, yet Mahon is conversely able to invest this tiny detail with lingering imaginative importance for the reader.
The presence of death is inevitable and featured in the passive voice; the cyclical nature of life itself being underpinned by the merging of flesh and earth. Alliteration and assonance intensify this process and highlight human attributes in the pale flesh of the mushrooms. The humanizing element grows in prominence here, so that the moral implications of isolated and imprisoned subjects emerge more strongly. Though the clarity of their identity fades, these subjects begin to become differentiated, those at the door growing stronger; the call for 'elbow room' grimly echoes Lebensraum and the associations move more decisively towards the image of death camps from World War II, suggesting what Hugh Haughton has termed 'a new kind of poetics of commemoration.' (11) The nightmare evoked by this process also confirms the conscious subjectivity at work and increases the element of human pathos. The 'grim/Dominion of stale air and rank moisture' uses echoing vowel-sounds across the line-break to affirm the fixed nature of the controlled space. It is the fate of those in the dim interior of broken and obsolete objects to continue in the posture of hope, though all hopeful emotion has ebbed away. This disjunction between form and feeling is an important aspect of Mahon's work; he is acutely aware of the ways in which form shapes expression, yet emotions may escape from the very contours created to make them manifest. More fundamentally, Mahon's extraordinary formal concentration--and his willingness to reshape finished work for new emphasis--reveal this conviction throughout his career.
To open this long-enclosed world to the onlooker is to stress the ongoing importance of historical experience to the Irish psyche, as well as radically to alter the act of bearing witness to the concealed life. It is a dynamic indicative of the creative process itself, in its need to pursue difficult material while remaining attuned to incidentals; to learn 'patience and silence' (p.89). The revelatory experience is seen from the perspective of the inhabitants of the shed; the characterization of the speaker--and of us--as magi and moonmen, again uses alliteration to emphasize the momentous nature of the observed change:
A half century, without visitors, in the dark-- Poor preparation for the cracking lock And creak of hinges; magi, moonmen, Powdery prisoners of the old regime (p.90).
Yet there is irony at work. The wonder of human arrival, like the earlier elaboration of the visiting mycologist, is immediately undercut. Our human perspective of the mushrooms is also distorted by visual perspective and by popular perception: 'web-throated, stalked like triffids, racked by drought/And insomnia' renders the vegetation creaturely in the manner of horror narratives (p.90). The constant shifting of perspectives is evidence of the troubling of interpretation that is at the core of Mahon's poetic achievement. The relationship between the human and the inanimate here is constantly changing, so that the emotional territory shifts as we read. In turn, our way of reading, and the variety of interpretations that can be placed on this encounter, constantly changes. We become aware of the ways in which the historical moment is always in flux, always seen as part of a pattern of understanding that grows and shifts with each new event and expression. This is why Mahon's poetic practice, as well as his material, is crucial to his significance; it is why the tonal subtlety of his work supports the sense of its contingent nature. Here the mushrooms are delicately transformed from threatening to meek figures, acting in "good faith'. Or rather the human perception of them alters to allow such a reading to emerge. The final stanza, in giving them voice and doing so in a clearly self-conscious way, draws the human perception into particular relief. 'They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way" allows the human voice assert persuasive control over the tonal flux of the poem; in doing so it only confirms the impossibility of a single moral response here. The responsibilities of speech emerge as a significant concern at this point, having been implicit before. Any representation of a divided society and a period of conflict politicizes speech acts and problematizes the relationship between the individual and his society. By keeping the door open, the witness not only makes a commitment to continue engagement with what has been previously concealed, but to remain receptive to whatever meanings may ensue. Integral to this poem's imaginative scheme, this is also the image of Mahon's enduring readers, drawn into the act of memorialization:
'Let the god not abandon us Who have come so far in darkness and in pain. We too had our lives to live. You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary, Let not our naive labours have been in vain!' (p.90).
Endurance in adversity is pivotal here and the lines manage to be both moving and ironic: the disturbed subject position of these spoken lines allows for feeling to be expressed and diminished, as the hopelessness of awaiting a god to save them becomes clear. Yet the line 'We too had our lives to live' is suggestive of an excuse, as though this god's abandonment is itself an act of judgement. The address to the speaker--'You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,/Let not our naive labours have been in vain'--assumes a lack of seriousness on his part; the 'light meter' having a double meaning for the serious photographer and the writer of 'light' verse. Even the most serious of subjects may yield an amusing inference. (12)
In the context of its original publication the poem speaks to the act of bearing witness to significant historical events. To become aware of events, it seems, is to be obliged to offer testimony to what one has seen--an issue that Mahon has struggled with throughout his career in such poems as 'Afterlives', 'The Last of the Fire Kings', and The Apotheosis of Tins. Yet the openness of 'A Disused Shed to later developments in Mahon's poetic practice means that this work could be read with entirely different significance against recent writing that engages directly with ecological themes. In earlier poems, such as 'Consolations of Philosophy' the spectre of the city collapsing into its natural environment is evoked, and though at that stage Mahon's concern is primarily with the limitation of human possibility, it is a subject that takes on a new cast when considered alongside the poems of Life on Earth (2008). (13) Within such a context, 'A Disused Shed in Co Wexford' also reveals new meanings. In this poem, the ability of nature to take over from human habitation, to mature and die and be renewed while the world of human objects crumbles to insignificance, offers a different emphasis on the speaker's discovery. In such a scheme, the dynamic between the mushrooms and their human observer loses metaphorical ground in favour of a more actualized account; likewise the questioning of the value of a human-orientated, mechanized life against the organic persistence of a world of nature grows in prominence.
As well as an awareness of the environmental cost of human progress, such as is evident in the sequence 'Homage to Gaia', there is an acute sense in Mahon's most recent volume, Life on Earth, that human and creaturely experience must find a way of existing together within the same landscape: 'Bird, beast and flower, whatever your names are,/like the wind blowing through/we belong here too.' (14) At this stage in Mahon's oeuvre celebration takes its place alongside darker philosophical concerns. Yet though a sense of optimistic accommodation has emerged in the last two collections, the uneasy position of the speaking subject remains, together with the need for endless re-examination of the human's place within the world. It is this continuing obligation, not just to reconsider the position of the human speaker, but to acknowledge the constant shifts in human perception that the most precise alterations in language can precipitate, that makes this poem of the greatest significance for readers of poetry in English today.
'A Disused Shed in Co Wexford' appears in the following volumes: The Snow Party (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975); Selected Poems (Oldcastle/London: Gallery Press in association with Oxford University Press, 1991); Selected Poems (New York: Viking Press, 1994); Collected Poems (Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 1999); Selected Poems (London: Penguin, 2006). 'A Disused Shed in Co Wexford" is included in the following anthologies: Irish Poets 1924-1974, edited by David Marcus (London: Pan Books, 1975); Poets from the North of Ireland, edited by Frank Ormsby (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1979); The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, edited by Thomas Kinsella (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986); The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945, edited by Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford (Harmondsworth: Viking, 1998); The Firebox: Poetry in Britain and Ireland after 1945, edited by Sean O'Brien (London: Picador, 1998); Watching the River Flow: A Century in Irish Poetry, edited by Noel Duffy and Theo Dorgan (Dublin: Poetry Ireland/Eigse Eireann, 1999); The Bloodaxe Book of 20th Century Poetry, edited by Edna Longley (Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2000); The New Penguin Book of English Verse, edited by Patti Keegan (London: Penguin 2000); Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, edited by Neil Astley (Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2002).
(1.) Derek Mahon, Collected Poems (Oldcastle: The Gallery Press, 1999), p.114. Ali quotations are from this edition except where otherwise stated. Page numbers from the Collected Poems appear in the text in parentheses. The author and editor gratefully acknowledge Derek Mahon, and Peter Fallon of Gallery Press, for permission to quote from the poem.
(2.) The complexity of Mahon's revisions is explored by Peter Denman in his essay 'Know the One? : Insolent Ontology and Mahon's Revisions', Irish University Review 24.1 (Spring/Summer 1994), 27-37. Mahon's practice of altering published poems even to the extent of adding new stanzas and transposing titles--marks the radical instability of his oeuvre.
(3.) As well as writing about J.G. Farrell in The Yellow Book (Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 1997), Mahon published a short piece on him in The New Statesman at the time of his death. It was later reprinted in his prose collection, Journalism (Oldcastle: The Gallery Press, 1996), pp.209-10.
(4.) Mahon, Journalism, p.210.
(5.) Seamus Heaney, 'Place and Displacement: Recent Poetry of Northern Ireland' (Grasmere: Trustees of Dove Cottage, 1984), pp.1-22 (p.8).
(6.) The reference to Indian compounds is suggestive of another work of fiction by J.G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur, published in the same year as Mahon's poem: 'Their splendid bungalows were left shuttered and empty; their gardens ran wild during the rainy seasons and for the rest of the year dried up into deserts, over whose baked earth whirlwinds of dust glided back and forth like ghostly dancers.' See The Siege of Krishnapur (1973; London: Orion Books, 2002), p.10.
(7.) Hugh Haughton acknowledges Mahon's reservations about 'A Disused Shed in Co Wexford', affirming that he 'prefer[s] to read "A Garage in Co. Cork"'. See Haughton's 'On Sitting Down to Read "A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford" Once Again', Cambridge Quarterly 31.2 (2002), 183-98 (p.184).
(8.) Heaney, 'Place and Displacement', p.8.
(9.) W.B. Yeats, Letters to the New Island, edited by George Bornstein and Hugh Witemeyer (New York: Macmillan, 1989), p.174.
(10.) Catriona Clutterbuck makes this argument central to her essay, 'Elpenor's Crumbling Oar: Disconnection and Art in the Poetry of Derek Mahon', Irish University Review 24.1 (Spring/Summer 1994), 6-26.
(11.) Haughton, p.198.
(12.) Both Haughton (p.193) and Tom Paulin, The Secret Life of Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), pp. 216-7, draw attention to this wordplay.
(13.) Life on Earth (Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 2008). Edna Longley rightly sees Mahon's representation of detritus in poems from Lives (London: Oxford University Press, 1972) onwards as 'less an endorsement of Green politics than the moral proposition that by their works shall ye know them' See 'Derek Mahon: Extreme Religion of Art', in Poetry in Contemporary Irish Literature, edited by Michael Kenneally (Gerrard's Cross: Colin Smythe, 1995), pp. 280-303 (p.293). Mahon's changing stance, often reflected in patterns of revision, invites re-reading of earlier work within a new frame, however.
(14.) Mahon, 'A Country Road', Life on Earth, p.43.
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|Publication:||Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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