- “Listen to the Leaves”:Derek Mahon’s Evolving Ecologies
“New York Time,” previously “The Hudson Letter” (1996), opens in “Winter,” and the poetic speaker is awoken amid snow and ice in New York City to the combined but competing strains of “the first bird and the first garbage truck.”1 These “garbage trucks,” which will later discharge their discarded cargoes onto the “refuse barges” (NCP, 167) of the fourth section, “Waterfront,” of the sequence, are twinned with the early-morning avian chorus outside the beleaguered speaker’s apartment window. The discordant sonority of the metropolis’s daybreak exposes the tonal ambiguity of the longer poetic sequence at the same time as it addresses, in cursory fashion, the dynamics of the human and nonhuman ecological crisis. Derek Mahon initiates his sequence, and this day, with an incongruous but all too frequent urban duet, which aggregates the natural and the fabricated, and the sentient and the inanimate, all of which are “a measure of his response to the crisis of industrial (or postindustrial) modernity, with useless rubbish, garbage, or waste functioning as a secular memento mori of the empire of the transient that is consumer culture.”2 In a concise ironic gesture, Mahon disallows the muse-like possibilities of the unseen birdsong by using the mechanical, utilitarian functions of the disposal vehicle. Not only does this reference, among many others across “New York Time,” partake of a preoccupation with waste, but it neatly holds in one line a matter of urgency within contemporary environmentalist criticism: the uneven, competing claims of the environment and of global capital.
“New York Time,” then, abounds with the junked residues, the neon skylines, the clamorous streetscapes, and the informational gluttony of postmodernity: “News-time / in the global village—Ethiopian drought, / famine, [End Page 377] whole nations, races, evicted even yet . . . / the images forming which will be screened tonight / on CNN and The McNeil-Lehrer News Hour” (NCP, 165). All of these are symptoms of industrialism and indiscriminate urbanization that both repel and fascinate Mahon’s humanism and his aestheticism. This city is portrayed in terms of modern life as excess, as waste, as consisting of the leftovers of Western humanity’s appetites, yet poetic art is molded from its raw, remaindered materials. Mahon is both observer and participant in this historical pageant of consumerism but is chiefly concerned with tracking the velocity of ruination and dereliction in such a cultural economy. From an ecocritical perspective, then, hubristic modernity is worryingly devoid of a responsible historical consciousness; its forms and contents, conceived as unaging or ever-replaceable monuments of triumphant capital, are exposed as transient objects on a conveyor of junked consumables.
The catholicity of Mahon’s cultural approach has, as we have already alluded to, always been an acknowledged facet of his work and, it seems, informs his broad ecological vision. And Hugh Haughton encapsulates the chafing dynamics of locality and internationalism, with reference to Mahon’s eco-conscientiousness, that condition his longer-term writing career:
If he started out as a poet in resistance to his home place, he went on to become a uniquely compelling poet of other places without abandoning the notion of poetry as a form of resistance. . . . Though in love with the aesthetic, and gifted with an ear for intellectual cantabile, there is always an edge of political anger, and cultural critique in his work, born of a sense of damage that has become increasingly ecological.3
Haughton is unafraid to impress the political edges of Mahon’s poetry, which is a step that is not always taken in critical readings of his work. Yet, the ecological sensibility of his oeuvre, though expressed in different ways and with different landscapes and objects to the fore at various stages, cannot be figured in any other way than in political terms. Equally, Haughton’s suggestion that Mahon’s poetic, and biographical, peregrinations have taken Mahon beyond the bounds of Belfast and Ireland to international and cosmopolitan geographies, without blunting this political strain within his work, is crucial to appreciating the gravity of his assumption of ecological advocacy in his later work.4 Though, as we have said, and as...