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“LEAVETAKINGS AND HOMECOMINGS”: DEREK MAHON’S BELFAST TIM KENDALL derek mahon’s reputation for being “culturally rootless,”1 inculcated with all the force of critical consensus, owes its authority to no one more than to the poet himself. Noting how his contemporary Seamus Heaney digs “deeper and deeper into his home ground,” Mahon by comparison pleads ignorance of his proper “place,” declaring himself a poet who, coincidentally enough, “just happened to be born in Belfast.”2 However, such strenuous and often unprovoked denials betray a fundamental anxiety that the poet’s home ground may have been more formative, and less easy to escape , than he would willingly admit. Heaney’s telling description of Mahon as “the Stephen Dedalus of Belfast”3 captures his friend’s determination to Xy by the nets of origins and obligations; but the tag—for which Heaney later apologizes— Wxes Mahon in the very “home ground” of Belfast he so desperately strives to renounce. Mahon’s guilt-ridden stance, embracing both the desire for freedom and a stubborn love of the origins he would betray by refusing to serve, continually wrenches his early work. In “Glengormley,” a poem dating from before the “Troubles” and titled after the Belfast district where he grew up, the poet is caught between rival forces until Wnally forced to acknowledge “LEAVETAKINGS AND HOMECOMINGS”: DEREK MAHON’S BELFAST 101 1 Hugh Haughton, “‘Even Now There Are Places Where a Thought Might Grow’: Place and Displacement in the Poetry of Derek Mahon,” in The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland, ed. Neil Corcoran, (Bridgend: Seren Books, 1992), p. 98. Similar recent expressions of Mahon’s rootless cosmopolitanism occur in Mullaney, K. “A Politics of Silence: Derek Mahon ‘At One Remove’,” Journal of Irish Literature, XVIII, 3 (September, 1989), 45–54, and in B. Tinley “International Perspectives in the Poetry of Derek Mahon,” Irish University Review, 21: 1 (Spring-Sumer, 1991), 106–117. 2 Interviewed by Willie Kelly, The Cork Review, 2, 3 (June, 1981), 10; and by Eileen Battersby, The [Dublin] Sunday Tribune, 26 August 1990, p. 26. 3 Seamus Heaney “The Pre-Natal Mountain: Vision and Irony in Recent Irish Poetry,” in The Place of Writing (Atlanta: The Scholar’s Press, 1989), p. 48. both his origins and the concomitant impossibility of ever abandoning them. The place is described in stereotypically suburban terms, with the poem’s opening line, taken from the Chorus of Antigone, at Wrst seeming merely to instill disappointed bathos: Wonders are many and none is more wonderful than man Who has tamed the terrier, trimmed the hedge And grasped the principle of the watering-can. 4 These “tame” pleasures are contrasted with violent, heroic struggles from myth and history, but Mahon’s persona ultimately opts for a present tranquillity as rational as it is, in a romantic sense, unpoetical. This decision comes at a cost. The reference to Nerval—one of the “unreconciled” who “dangle from lamp-posts,” having hanged himself from a streetlight with a length of chain—reveals that poet’s discontent with mundane existence, to which Mahon adds his own voice in the conclusion: “By / Necessity, if not choice, I live here too.” An admirer of Nerval, Mahon has translated Les Chimères. Yet, even accepting that with the death of heroes “much dies with them,” Mahon nevertheless chooses the banality of peace over the poetic frisson of conXict; “Glengormley” would take issue with Yeats’s comment that, for a poet, the Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times” is a blessing. Still, Mahon is tied to his place despite himself, living there “by necessity” because, even in his absence, it will always be home. The line from Sophocles, it ultimately transpires, should be taken literally; “Glengormley” is a reluctant paean to a Belfast suburb from which the poet cannot extricate himself. The city recurs both as a metaphor and reality throughout Mahon’s Wrst volume Night-Crossing. “The Death of Marilyn Monroe” precludes escape as urban imagery extends to Wll the whole cosmos: stars scatter ash “Down the cold back streets of the Zodiac” (P 7). But escape is granted to “De Quincey at Grasmere,” who acquires in the...


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