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The following conversation took place at Derek Mahon’s studio apartment in the West Village of New York City, not long after his Selected Poems (1991) had been published in America. Three more volumes of poetry have appeared since that conversation—The Hudson Letter (1995), The Yellow Book (1997), and his Collected Poems (1999)—as well as a volume of critical writing, Journalism (1996). The Hudson Letter takes homelessness as its theme: “I knew I had to take on the New York subject somehow, but couldn’t think how. Then someone said, You’ve just been homeless yourself, why don’t you write about the homeless?” I’d been teaching Whitman, Crane, Bishop, and Howl, among other things, all of which helped me set up my Hudson Letter topic, which turned out to be not just the homeless on the streets but the whole sexual-metaphysical homeless ache we live with as a species. I could see my boring little provincial home-fixation as, paradoxically, one of the big themes.” The Yellow Book, a more deliberately satirical book, takes up, notes Mahon, “where The Hudson Letter left off: back in Dublin, finding it changed, and reestablishing an Irish and European perspective. Both books are about the twentieth century really, the American century and the fin de siècle.”

The small white-walled space of Mahon’s New York apartment contained a long desk covered in neatly stacked books; a desk diary with its entries, day by day, heavily blacked out; the much revised handwritten pages of the poem Mahon was working on at that moment (its rhyming couplets crowded with local names); recent copies of the Irish Times and the TLS; and an electric typewriter. On the floor beside the desk were a couple of stacks of magazines. The bed—where the interviewer sat—was a futon resting on the floor. Mahon sat in the one armchair, and at intervals rose to make another pot of tea. White bookshelves contained a collection of Vintage paperbacks; a small television set was perched on a footlocker. On the white walls hung a few reproductions, picked up, I was told, at yardsales in Connecticut: a Monet over the bed, a Hopper lighthouse or two, a well-known photograph of Whitman, a Bonnard of an open window looking out on fields, a painting of a Nordic beach with two women walking near a wintry sea, and a print of the Irish artist William Leech’s Convent Garden, Brittany—nuns in sunlight, lots of flowers. Outside the window was a sunny street of brownstones and black railings; from the fenced-in patches of earth around still-leafless trees, dwarf crocuses were pushing up into one of the first truly warm spring days of the year. The impression indoors was of comfortable austerity—a room to work, relax, and sleep in. The conversations were punctuated by frequent bursts of laughter, which have been omitted from the printed version—this omission means that the quite lighthearted nature of the event is not as clear as it might be. In truth, while some demanding and painful areas were probed, the whole thing was, as they say at home, “great crack.” 

INTERVIEWER

Knowing your poems and knowing you, I imagine the proper place to hold this conversation might be some sort of terminal—an airport, a train station, a bus depot. You’ve moved around rather a lot, and the issue of being in place and out of place crops up often in your work. You’ve also spoken, however, of a “homeward gravitation in Ulster poetry,” and your own poems reverberate, initially, in the six counties of Northern Ireland.

DEREK MAHON

Two of them, actually, Antrim and Down—Belfast and the seaside places.

INTERVIEWER

Can you give me a sense of that background?

MAHON

The poem “Autobiographies” is an attempt to do a little documentary on that. “Courtyards in Delft,” I think, adds more to it, because it bites off more and manages to chew what it bites off, although it’s highly aestheticized. One of the reasons I haven’t done much in that explicitly autobiographical line is that it’s not for me to do. Others have done it; others who have been content with a documentary mode have done it better than I would ever do it.

INTERVIEWER

What we get in your work, though, are glimpses of the child born during World War II, bombers, the sense of a city that was distinctly different in the island of Ireland, one on which the bombs fell. We have girls, the growth of sexual awareness, the bicycle—that epiphanic bike—and then in “Courtyards in Delft” that “strange child with a taste for verse.” Can you put those things together?

MAHON

They all have Joycean mnemonic contexts: the bike, the girls’ names, the war. When I think about the war, I think of a 1940s radio set, wireless set, and other objects with their inherent numina: a Japanese lacquered cigarette case brought back by an uncle in the Merchant Navy—the little things that you saw with a child’s eye when you were a child and that will never go away. That’s what consciousness is all about. My Aunt Kathleen’s white shoes in a rented summer house in 1945. No, I was on the floor, it must have been 1942; I was on the carpet. Those white shoes! I imagine what I call that “strange child with a taste for verse” emerges from a slow consciousness of the numina inherent in these things. I think that’s the beginning.

INTERVIEWER

It’s a beginning particularly interesting because of the words mute phenomena that appear much later in your work and become necessary anchorage for so much that you do. Anyway, this kid—this strange child with a taste for verse—also of course has parents, has a human environment.

MAHON

I think it was important that I was an only child, an only child whose best friends were the objects I’ve been talking about. It was a quiet house. Usually my mother was doing this or that, practical things around the house; while my father was usually out at work, away a forty- or forty-eight-hour week perhaps. He worked in the shipyard. A quiet man. He did the same job (with some little promotions) for forty years. Belfast was his life. The shipyard was his life. My mother the same. She was from Belfast. Before she married, she worked in what used to be called the York Street Flax Spinning Company, Ltd., which was the other big Belfast industry: shipbuilding and linen. So they had what you might call blue-to-white-collar jobs in these two industries. The linen industry doesn’t exist anymore. My mother stopped working when she got married. That’s what they did then. She became a housewife. She had only her husband and an infant to look after, but she became a housewife and very house-proud in the obsessive way that a woman in that position often is. It’s almost a question of what else had she to do? She’d keep dusting and keep everything as bright as a new penny. Of course, this was a bit of a strain on the child, an irritant. In fact, with my mother, no harm to her, I think it was pathological. But since little boys are usually rougher than house-proud mothers, there were times I would deliberately do things to be infuriating—knock over a cup or something.

INTERVIEWER

Given that sense of enclosure, do you remember anything that suggested an outside?

MAHON

Since there wasn’t any hurly-burly of siblings, I had time for the eye to dwell on things, for the brain to dream about things. I could spend an afternoon happily staring. In one of those poems, “The Lost Girls” section in “Autobiographies,” I remember (this is naughty) this little girl who used to dress very prettily: she, in her back garden, would be visible to me up in my parents’ bedroom at the top of our house, and I used to watch her down there. I’d see other things besides, like a coal delivery, the sort of pictorial qualities of coal. That kind of thing—the running of cold water from a kitchen tap, the light. I had time to dwell on these things.

INTERVIEWER

Belfast in the forties: did you and your parents go to church?

MAHON

There was a certain amount of churchgoing, although they went for the look of the thing—it was expected that you would show your face in church once in a while. They were serious about being respectable and being seen to do the right thing, but they weren’t really serious church people. I mean, they were Protestants! There’s no such thing as a devout Protestant, is there? Protestants aren’t devout, they’re staunch. So it was all appearances. I tagged along, scrubbed and kempt. But this turned out to be very important because, after a while, my parents were approached by the minister (the Church of Ireland minister, I should say, not Presbyterian) who asked, Could young Derek hold a tune, would he be interested in having a go with the choir? We can arrange for Mr. Wood to audition him on Wednesday evening. So in no time at all I was in the choir, which meant two services on Sunday, one in the evening, as well as choir practice on Wednesday evening. The hymnology invaded the mind: “Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.”