Tuesday Poem: The Mayo Tao - Derek Mahon

I have abandoned the dream kitchens for a low fire
and a prescriptive literature of the spirit;
a storm snores on the desolate sea.
The nearest shop is four miles away –
when I walk there through the shambles
of the morning for tea and firelighters
the mountain paces me in a snow-lit silence.
My days are spent in conversation
with deer and blackbirds;
at night fox and badger gather at my door.
I have stood for hours
watching a salmon doze in the tea-gold dark,
for months listening to the sob story
of a stone in the road, the best,
most monotonous sob story I have ever heard.

I am an expert on frost crystals
and the silence of crickets, a confidant
of the stinking shore, the stars in the mud –
there is an immanence in these things
which drives me, despite my scepticism,
almost to the point of speech,
like the sunlight cleaving the lake mist at morning
or when tepid water
runs cold at last from the tap.

I have been working for years
on a four-line poem
about the life of a leaf;
I think it might come out right this winter.

Copyright: Derek Mahon, Selected Poems, Penguin, 2000. Collected Poems, Gallery Press, 1999.

Who hasn't fantasized lately about retreating to a solitary dwelling between the sea and the mountains, away from the constant noise (and the horror) of the world news?  I certainly have.

The wild coastline of County Mayo
Derek Mahon's poem has been much shared on the internet, and between poets, for its picture of the poet's idyll. Time to write.  Silence.  Space.  Being able to watch 'a salmon doze' in the dark, peat-coloured water of a stream. It is so quiet you can hear the storm 'snoring' on the sea.  But the tranquility is not without its sadness - the sea is 'desolate', the stones of the road tell a 'sob story', the shore is 'stinking'. Then there is the reality of the four mile walk to the shop, the frost crystals, and the tepid water in the tap. I love the way the poet laughs at himself a little, particularly in the last lines. Which of us doesn't have a poem that we can't get quite right and have been working on for months, if not years?

Nick Laird wrote about this in the Guardian a few years ago, in an article titled the 'Slow Language Movement', arguing that we need silence and patience in order to write well.  

‘ ... most poets write poems that speak with a single voice pulled out from the silence. The work is slow, but there is a correlation between effort and reward. The pleasure got from the internet, from the buzz, the immediacy, the wit, is different in kind from the pleasure of language that integrates experiences. When I'm trying to comb through my own work, Boileau's dictum comes to mind: "Of every four words I write, I strike out three." . . .  Derek Mahon exaggerates, but only slightly, in "The Mayo Tao".’

Copyright Nick Laird, The Slow Language Movement, Guardian, 4th July, 2009.


Derek Mahon was born in Northern Ireland in 1941 and has a dazzling list of publications.  This poem of his will always be one of my favourites. I return to it again and again for its quiet humour and vision of peace. 

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