- After the Titanic: A Life of Derek Mahon by Stephen Enniss
Derek Mahon (b. 1941), is central to the remarkable late twentieth-century efflorescence of poetry in Ireland that includes Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Eavan Boland, John Montague, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, and Medbh McGuckian, among others. His essential poetry, translations, and literary journalism from the early 1960s to the present reach from the parish to the universe (as Patrick Kavanagh, a poet he came to late but admired for his attentiveness to “ordinary life” and his profoundly “earthed” quality, would have it) and back, ensuring his work’s relevance for Ulster, Irish, British, continental, and global contexts and concerns.
Stephen Enniss’s affective, intimate, and comprehensive biography, After the Titanic: A Life of Derek Mahon sensitively portrays the scope of Mahon’s achievement, but it does more by driving at an understanding of the very origins of Mahon’s art. Although the book dutifully records Mahon’s self-defining trust in “the artist as outsider,” Enniss ensures that in the telling of Mahon’s story through his work and the numerous life-altering crises the poet has survived—crises that are inseparable from the work—Mahon may also be read through Yeats’s immemorial if, today, sentimental lines: “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends / And say my glory was I had such friends.” In other words, Enniss shows that even as Mahon’s life is clearly defined by cycles of disruption, dislocation, and disconnection—as well as recovery and homecoming—it is paradoxically governed by integral connections to a set of lifelong friends, many of whom are poets, who in differing ways and at different times have provided essential, even life-saving care. Mahon’s place of pride in his generation of Irish poets is not disconnected from the respect and even pride his generation has shown in him.
Yet, it must be said that Mahon’s life poses peculiar challenges for the biographer precisely because of his peripatetic existence. Unlike Longley or Heaney, those friends from Mahon’s early to late career who have enjoyed remarkably stable residences (not to mention home lives) across their careers, Mahon’s life and character are largely defined by the condition of homelessness, be it literal or metaphorical. Accounting for Mahon’s itinerant domiciles creates a special set of challenges beyond the difficulty of charting a poet’s life of readings, lectures, visits to friends, work trips, holidays, and creative escapes. The scale of Enniss’s project is further compounded by the fact of Mahon’s frequent dissolution and desolation, which on any number of occasions led to moves of one kind or another out of personal volition or necessity.
However, this first comprehensive account of Mahon’s life is foremost an imposing study of the deeply personal nature of Mahon’s writing. As Mahon’s poetic legacy deepens and his importance as an Ulster poet (a moniker he eschews), an [End Page 147] Irish poet (a term he embraces), and above all, a global poet writing in English expands (perhaps despite his own best efforts), this book ought to be essential reading. A chief pleasure and perhaps the greatest success of Enniss’s book is that it reads as much as the biography of a poetry as the biography of a man.
“A poet of elegiac poise”: Joseph Brodsky, then the poet laureate of the United States, used these words to introduce Derek Mahon at a Library of Congress reading in spring 1992. Enniss’s account of this “remarkably personal” reading is drawn from an original sound recording of the event in the Library of Congress collection. Three key points may be drawn from this seemingly throw-away moment in the midst of Mahon’s darkest days of alcoholism-induced psychic suffering. The first is the genuinely impressive length Enniss goes to uncover and subtly incorporate documents that flesh out, rather than merely expose, this vital poet’s life, peripatetic as...