Derek Mahon, Night-Crossing (1968)
I am once again indebted to Professor Ronald Marken’s essay on references to Canada in Irish poetry,* this time for bringing Derek Mahon to my attention. (You can read parts of the essay through Google Books.)
Two poems in Night-Crossing (Mahon’s debut collection) mention Canada, and each shows a different perspective on our country, one familiar, one not. We’ll begin with the familiar.
From famine, pestilence and persecution
Those gaunt forefathers shipped abroad to find
Rough stones of heaven beyond the western ocean,
And staked their claim and pinned their faith.
Tonight their children whistle through the dark,
Frost chokes the windows. They will not have heard
The wild geese flying south over the lakes
While the lakes harden beyond grief and anger –
The eyes fanatical, rigid the soft necks,
The great wings sighing with a nameless hunger. (27)
At least in its opening, the poem portrays Canada as a country offering hope to those who are bold (or desperate) enough to leave the old world of Europe for the new opportunities offered by North America. We’ve come across this idea before in Dickens and Basil Bunting, to name just two; but from the fifth line on the poem takes a distinct turn, undercutting the promise implicit in the opening. Frost is “choking” the windows and the lakes are “hardening”, suggesting the advancing cold and dark of a harsh Canadian winter; and the wild geese, wiser apparently than the (Irish?) immigrants who came to Canada, are heading South to avoid the cold. As the last line suggests, these residents (I can’t helping assuming that they are Canada Geese) have been left “hungry” by our northern land and are heading for warmer climes, taking advantage of a freedom denied to the people huddled around the meagre fires in their frost-choked cabins on the snowswept prairies below (I’m extrapolating a bit there).
A cruel irony lies at the heart of the poem: the immigrants left their homeland hoping for a better life in Canada, but they arrive only to find that even the geese (the Canada Geese, no less!) can’t stand the winter and are heading south at the first opportunity.
And what of the title? Professor Marken has some intriguing remarks:
…”Canadian Pacific,” which is the name of one of our transcontinental robber-baron railroads. But, in the minds of those who might have no knowledge of Canadian railroading, “Canadian Pacific” might just as likely refer to the far western coastline of our country, not to mention the hardly-disguised and crucial implication that Canada herself – in this view of her – is seen as “pacific,” a place of peace.*
The idea of pacifism is particularly suggestive, perhaps setting us in contrast to our more martial neighbours to the south, and continuing what Professor Marken sees as a general idealizing trend in treatments of Canada in Irish poetry.
For Canadian readers, the obvious reference to the Canadian Pacific Railway remains. Of course, the Canadian Pacific Railway runs from east to west, not north to south – but still, the idea of movement is central to the poem: the people move ever westward, the geese fly south, all restlessly searching for something that can satisfy the hunger they feel.
And now, a poem that offers a different view of Canada:
April on Toronto Island
Once more to the island after the spring thaw –
A qualified silence, old snow under the
Boardwalks, for the winter dies hard.
The winter dies hard, and a last wintry reluctance
Clutches the splintered birches. There is
Nothing among the boarded-up houses,
Nothing along the lakeshore but bird-bones and fish-bones
Greasy with diesel oil, and the clapboard
Church of Saint Andrew-by-the-Lake.
There is not even a bird, although there are bird noises
And the growl of commerce, muted by empty
Distance, where the downtown skyline
Stands out like the first draft of a new civilization.
But the slick water mourns for its vanished
Ice like a lost child for its mother.
Another ferry pulls away from the landing-stage,
The lighthouse blows its now redundant
Fog-warning over the rocks and
Slowly, in ones and twos, the people are coming back
To stand on the thin beach among the
Washed-up flotsam of the winter,
Watching the long grainers move down to the seaway.
Their faces dream of other islands,
Clear cliffs and salt water,
Fields brighter than paradise in the first week of creation –
Grace caught in a wind or a tide, our
Lives in infinite preparation. (30)
In the course of a few pages of Night-Crossing, we have apparently endured the winter that was just beginning in “Canadian Pacific” and moved into what passes for spring – a spring strongly marked, in the first few lines, by the lingering traces of winter.
We have also traded a rural setting (that would be my interpretation, at least) for an urban one, or perhaps near-urban; one of the fascinating elements of the poem is the way it portrays Toronto Island as a sanctuary of the wilderness that persists in close proximity to a growing city (note my deft avoidance of the word “liminal”). And so we have the “splintered birches” and the “bird noises,” but also the “growl of commerce,” though that is, for now, “muted by empty / Distance.” And we have the repetition of the word “nothing” in the description of the island, as though suggesting that it remains outside the influence of urbanizing humanity (except for that church). The point of view of the poem seems to be that of people returning to the island for the first time after the winter and looking uneasily back at the growing city across the water and the changes it is bringing about in the landscape and the environment. Those on the island are beginning to notice the effects of these changes: it is their shore where the “bird-bones and fish-bones / Greasy with diesel oil” wash up with the rest of the “flotsam of the winter,” it is their field of vision that is invaded by the “grainers” that “move down to the seaway.”
Toronto, here, is not the typically clean, sterile Canadian city we have seen elsewhere; instead, it seems almost threatening, as the poem presents the side effects of its “progress.” One of the most striking and revealing images in the poem is of Toronto as a city,
…where the downtown skyline
Stands out like the first draft of a new civilization.
In that single line I count three words associated with the idea of “newness”: “first,” “draft” (I suppose they really form one syntactical unit) and the word “new” itself. The idea of a new civilization has promise, but “first draft” makes it all sound rather haphazard and provisional, as if there is no real plan behind the development that is occurring. The islanders seem to be wondering whether the people and organizations who are building the city have any idea what they’re doing, or what effect they’re having on their surroundings.
This presents us with a more “modern” view of Canada than we are accustomed to: our country may once have been an unspoiled wilderness, but human action is quickly changing that.
The final three stanzas turn to dreams of escape, and recall the image of the geese flying south at the end of “Canadian Pacific,” though again the people don’t have the same freedom: they stand on the beach, dreaming of other, more beautiful sea-coasts (an idealized memory of the homes they have left? Or some new, imagined paradise?) not threatened by urban encroachment and free of the washed-up winter flotsam that pollutes Toronto. Their dreams are, in fact, of an unspoiled wilderness of the sort that the city is now beginning to threaten.
And yet again there is an irony here, because isn’t that dream of “fields brighter than paradise in the first week of creation” exactly what the immigrants of “Canadian Pacific” found in the “rough stones of heaven beyond the western ocean” – and didn’t it leave them as dissatisfied as the geese flying south? The two poems about Canada are an ambivalent commentary on the basic human feelings of desire and disappointment, elegantly captured in the final line of “April on Toronto Island.” They also form a dyad within the larger collection, commenting on and referring to one another, and raising questions about what exactly our country is: land of opportunity? Unspoiled wilderness? Polluted industrial horror? Some combination of all three?
As a writer, Mahon doesn’t present a simple view of Canada – he doesn’t see it as “one thing,” as writers often do when they make passing references to it. Rather, he sees the complexity of a country moving from the rural into the modern, urban age.
Digression: On the Education of Poets
The following is not a quote from Mahon, but from the back cover blurb of Night-Crossing:
After graduating he spent two years in Canada and America, working as, successively, a university lecturer, Xerox operator, warehouseman, bookstore assistant, and English teacher.
I think there are two main species of poet biographies that appear on book jackets; the first, and probably more common now, is the Curriculum Vitae style, which rattles off MFA programs, workshop residencies, and publications in obscure journals. By contrast, the second seeks to prove that although the author may be a poet, (s)he is no “mouse of the scrolls” ( to borrow Pound’s phrase), but has lived and worked in the “real world”; in these bios, references to things like factory work, adventure tour guiding, retail, a stint in advertising or as a prison guard, are de rigeur – in short, the more something sounds unlike what a stereotypical poet would do, the more prominent it is in the bio. Mahon’s bio clearly fits into the latter category – it practically screams, “Look at all the adventurous, un-poet-like stuff this guy has done. He can operate a Xerox machine! (How quaint that sounds now.) He even worked in a warehouse! Not your typical poet, this.” And here, too, Canada, plays its role, providing a hint of the exotic, and perhaps (to a reader in the U.K. in 1968) a suggestion of toughness as well, as if no shrinking-violet poet could have survived and thrived in the wilderness of Canada, as Mahon clearly has.
*From The Internationalism of Irish Literature and Drama, ed. Joseph McMinn. Irish Literary Studies 41, Colin Smythe, Gerrards Cross, 1992, pp. 193-208. Originally presented as a Plenary at the Seventh Triennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literature, University of Ulster, Coleraine. 1988.