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2. Understanding, Acknowledging, Representing Environmental Emergency
IV/ Narrating, representing

Beyond representation? A material-ecocritical reading of Derek Mahon’s “eco-poetry”

Catherine CONAN


Cet article propose une analyse du dernier recueil en date de Derek Mahon, Against the Clock (2018), au prisme de diverses ontologies plates, notamment le réalisme spéculatif (object-oriented ontology) et le réalisme agentiel. Les critiques du poète irlandais ont remarqué, à partir de la publication en 2005 de Harbour Lights, une plus grande sensibilité aux questions environnementales. Celle-ci se manifeste par la représentation dans sa poésie de situations d’urgence écologique ou le recyclage d’auteurs phares de l’écologie scientifique et politique tels que Rachel Carson ou Naomi Klein, à telle enseigne que Mahon a souvent été qualifié d’éco-poète. Ce terme confère à la poésie un pouvoir réel sur le monde matériel par l’entremise de ses lecteurs. Je propose un examen critique de l’appellation « éco-poète » appliquée à Mahon en plaçant l’urgence écologique, les textes poétiques et les lecteurs sur le même plan ontologique, afin d’étudier leurs relations inter-objectives sans isoler la voix du poète du monde en crise. L’outil privilégié de cet examen est la lecture des métaphores mahoniennes, qui au-delà de la représentation promeuvent l’engagement sensoriel du lecteur dans la toile du monde.

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1Derek Mahon’s environmental and ecopoetic turn since the publication in 2005 of Harbour Lights has been universally noted by his critics, but also mostly received with uncritical acceptance. How the light touch, the delicate irony of the “strange child with a taste for verse” (New Collected Poems 97) and the cosmopolitan consummate stylist could give way to the earnestness of the environmentalist in the autumn of his life is a question that has never been frontally addressed in Mahon criticism. Thus Eoin Flannery, one of the forefront Irish ecocritics, wrote in his review of Mahon’s 2011 New Collected Poems of the poem “World Trade Talks”:

‘[O]rganic crops/ and comely maidens, is it too late/ to push for these demands/ and pious hopes?’ Mahon’s irreverent nod to DeValera’s prescriptive social imaginary does not invalidate the serious political intent of the query, or defuse the hope contained therein. (Flannery 2011)

2The crucial question of the relationship between Mahon’s progressive ideology – of course any reference to the staunchly conservative De Valera has to be “irreverent” – and his apparent endorsement of a conservative, pastoral vision finds itself brushed under the carpet. The irony of the quotation is not located in the reference to the Taoiseach’s 1943 Christmas speech per se so much as in the constitutive tension between the past-oriented “comely maidens” and the future-oriented “organic crops”, which only make sense in a post-agro-industrial context. Mahon’s “ecopoetry” is not made up of a zero-sum game between postmodern irony and environmental sincerity, but rather it questions the very possibility of ecological commitment, of being-in-the-world along previously established ontological lines. Indeed, taking at face value Mahon’s professed “self-consciousness and humility voiced in ‘Homage to Gaia’” (Flannery 2015, 385) and his ecopoems more generally betrays a strong representationalist bias, that is, the conviction that words (more or less adequately) represent the objects of the world. This article offers an alternative by borrowing its theoretical framework from various flat ontologies, notably agential realism and object-oriented ontology. I will argue that the ontological vision of an autonomous subject uttering words which function as reflections of the world “out there” is the greatest obstacle to actual environmental change as well as to the uncovering of poetry’s real ecological value.

3According to Karen Barad, the creator and major exponent of agential realism, “representationalism is the belief in the ontological distinction between representations and that which they purport to represent; in particular, that which is represented is held to be independent of all practices of representing” (Barad 46). Applied to environmental emergency, a representationalist ontology generates mirror images of a crisis situation that implicitly have less ontological value than their referent object (they are “less real”) and that are forever cut off from it, as is the observer, the person creating the representation. This precludes the possibility of relevant or efficient action to address the environmental crisis and shuts the subject off in a glass bubble of powerless cynicism, irony and arrogance. At worst, representing environmental emergency can take the form of greenwashing, where disaster and virtue are safely encased within discursive limits, allowing business as usual to go on in the real world of economic relations. Moreover, representationalism holds that only human minds can represent: it is therefore another form of correlationism, a term originally coined by Quentin Meillassoux to describe the dominant belief since Descartes and Kant that ontology is solely about the relationship between the (human) subject and the world (Harman 56-57). This severely limits its apprehension of non-humans, whether living or non-living, which constitutes a serious impediment to ecological relevance. The great difficulty, as can be seen in the vast majority of Mahon criticism, is that “representationalism is so deeply entrenched within Western culture that it has taken on a common-sense appeal” (Barad 48).

4The solution must therefore be found in the various forms of flat ontologies, which refuse to ascribe a priori different ontological values to different categories of objects (humans, other living beings, inanimate matter, fictional beings…). I will use the term “flat ontologies”, in preference to “new materialisms”, as practitioners of object-oriented ontology (OOO), who are often grouped under this heading, will deny that they are materialists as they don’t see matter as a relevant way of categorizing the real (Harman 258, Morton 2013, 150). What these thinkers have in common is an intellectual debt to Latour, notably his critique of the subject/world dualism constitutive of modernity in We Have Never Been Modern. In this they are constructively post-modern, and as such often critical of the posturing irony and acceptance of modernity of late-20th century postmodernists. They stress the entanglement of subject and world, the fact that the latter “sticks” (Morton 2013, 30-31) to the former and that they relate though practices rather than reflection (Barad 49). There are major divergences though. Baradian agential realism stresses the co-construction of mind and matter, or subject and world, through practices that she calls “agential cuts”. It is the practice of observation that constructs both the observed and the observer. On the other hand, OOO holds that the universe is made up of objects that precede observers, are withdrawn and not exhausted by observation. Both tendencies offer new ways of conceptualizing interrelatedness, and therefore representation: while agential realism substitutes “intra-action” for “interaction” and diffraction for reflection, thus acknowledging the inseparability a priori of different entities, OOO offers the idea of interobjectivity rather than intersubjectivity. The human subject is de-centred as all objects may enter into relationships according to their own modes of apprehension of reality.

5A flat ontology entails a “flat” literary criticism, where objects in Mahon’s poetry, the poems as objects, the poet and the reader are not ontologically hierarchized and are thus free to enter into relationships that create new meanings and new forms of interaction with the world-in-crisis that do not impede efficient political action. This article will offer a critical reading of Mahon’s ecopoetry along these lines, with special focus on Against the Clock (2018) and occasional reference to the recent non-fiction of Red Sails (2014) and Olympia and the Internet (2017) as well as earlier poems. I will first examine Mahon’s near-total inability, or refusal, surprizing for a poet with an avowed environmental consciousness, to represent interobjective relations and his own participation in them. For all his talk of “the system” and “global capitalism”, he is curiously blind to his own entanglement within the technical networks that condition access to the world and its resources and maintains a careful distance between poetic persona and non-human beings, be they animate or not. Although it would therefore be easy, and tempting, to brand his conversion to environmentalism as shallow and insincere, I will argue that the problem lies not with Mahon’s white Western male perspective but with the idea of representation itself. What is needed is to move beyond representationalism in order to examine how the poems interact with the reader to generate a new object which may, or may not, take action in relation to the environmental emergency. Crucial to this is an examination of metaphor’s ambiguous role as the main resort of poetry, to which I will turn in the final part. Indeed, although we should be extremely careful with and conscious of metaphor-making practices, as they may lead us into error as to the real nature of phenomena (Ingold 157, 161, Barad 29), according to OOO the way in which metaphor functions offers a privileged access to the real as currently materialized by environmental emergency.

6How exactly do you tell an eco-poet from the run-of-the-mill sort of versifier? Is it enough to merely repeat the pious injunctions to environmental virtue of “sustainable development”, or to profess some kind of mystical connection with “nature?” On the contrary, according to Morton “the ultimate environmentalist argument would be to drop the concepts Nature and world” (Morton 2013, 100). Recycling environmental discourses sustained by these concepts necessarily introduces the crippling possibility of ironical distance. Mahon’s critics have often been too quick to consider that ecological sentiment “trumps the ironic cynicism” (Flannery 2011, 386) and that referring to key environmental authors such as Rachel Carson or James Lovelock was reason enough to stick an “ecopoet” label on his back, a reflex that Boisseau and Naugrette-Fournier are right to find “somehow reductive” (Boisseau and Naugrette-Fournier 107). This reading of intertextual reference is often evidence of a fetishist vision of the relationship between words and things, the idea that “recycling”, re-appropriating words is a means of claiming some of their power for oneself. The alternative is the (also fetishist) postmodern-nihilistic possibility that appropriation destroys the force of the original, by claiming that “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Meta” (Morton 2013, 155), an “attitude [which] is directly responsible for the ecological emergency”. This paralyzing tension between the injunction to act and the ironical distance cripples much of Mahon’s early “eco-poetry”.

7This is particularly visible in the sequence “Homage to Gaia”, which nods at James Lovelock’s controversial “Gaia Theory”. It contains a seemingly unambiguous praise of renewables, seeing both solar panels and wind turbines as “clean” sources of energy:

[…] clean
photoelectric frames

that trap the sun and focus
its radiant energies (Mahon 2011
, 311)

wind turbines […]

transform the wild energies
of chaos and old night
into a clean and infinite
source of power and light (Mahon 2011, 314)

8The repetition of the adjective “clean” presents green technologies as entirely self-contained, cut off from the dirty, noisy world of extractive industries. This view is typically representationalist, if representationalism is, pace Barad, understood as a “practice of bracketing out the importance of practices” (Barad 53), in this case the building of the technological apparatuses needed to channel the energies of the sun and wind. These sources of energy may be “infinite” relatively to humans but unlike plants, which have photosynthesis ability, we need to tap into non-renewable sources of energy, namely minerals, as well as plants and animals stored by the earth in the form of oil, to access them. Mahon himself, unlike his over-enthusiastic critics, is briefly aware of this when he reminds his readers that solar panels are made of polysilicon (Mahon 2011, 311). This contradicts the claim that these sources of energy are “clean”, as polysilicon is industrially made by distilling silicon compounds at high temperatures (this is known as the Siemens process). Far from being unpolluted by industrial capitalism, solar panels are therefore part of an assemblage including raw materials (silicates, but also the fuel needed for the industrial process as well as transport), plants, pioneering industrial chemists, engineers, cargo ships, beliefs about environmental goodness, and international markets, as incidentally shown by the recent sharp hike in polysilicon prices caused by the explosion of a Chinese plant (Sanderson). Assemblages are “ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts” (Bennett 23) that blur the distinction between “abstract” and “concrete”. Much of Mahon’s environmentally-conscious poetry thus fleetingly hints at these global networks in order to undermine the earnestness of the ecological message. To give just one more example involving Gaia, “A Quiet Spot” asserts that “Gaia demands your love, the patient earth/your airy sneakers tread expects/humility and care” (Mahon 2011, 333). The superficial hippy-like message is undermined by the reference to “sneakers”, a symbol of globalized fast-fashion made by slave labour in South Asian factories. The adjective “airy” subverts pieties about “treading lightly” with a reference to the Air model of Nike, whose sweatshop practices have been among the most widely denounced (Klein 365-379).

9All this points to the fact that the Gaia hypothesis maintains modernity’s absolute separation between the human mind and the rest of the biosphere (it is possible according to Lovelock himself to “[take] a view from outside” (Lovelock 12)), and simply inverts their relative positions by claiming that humans, as incidental to Gaia, will be eliminated. It does the opposite of what it says: by claiming that humans can conceive of Earth as a single self-regulating system, it still posits the human mind as the transcendental principle. Mahon’s statement in “A Quiet Spot” is caught within, at the same time as it exposes, “the cynical ideological distance typical of modernity [that] is maintained by these injunctions to act, which induce the guilt that cripples genuine action” (Morton 2013, 92). Worse, if as a reader of Mahon I am able to detect this ironic tension, I “go meta” and find myself frozen in a similar cynical bubble of inaction. Can Against the Clock, the last collection published by Mahon before his death in 2020, offer a means to define reader empowerment in the face of ecological crisis?

10Against the Clock certainly represents a turn in Mahon’s environmental perspective, brought about in part by his desire not to travel anymore, though avowedly not out of awareness of the ecological cost of air travel, but out of “tiredness” (Mahon 2017, 62). Against the Clock displays Mahon’s continuing distaste for thinking objects as part of technical networks in which he is irremediably enmeshed. This is particularly evident in his poem on seaplanes, as well as in the companion essay from Red Sails (several poems in the collection have a thematically related prose piece in either Red Sails or Olympia and the Internet). Both texts show that Mahon’s reflex is still to think objects within inter- and hypertextual networks, rather than horizontally related as technical assemblages. The occasion of the poem (and the essay) is a short flight on a seaplane with a small company offering scenic tours in Co. Clare. The speaker is careful to distinguish, in assertive near-iambic pentameters, between the seaplane and the commercial liner: “Not for us high gleam and vapour trail./We’re the half-hidden alternatives//like disregarded, obsolete things”. So does the essay:

We need to get back in touch with air and water, cloud and tide, windsock and shade; to cultivate slow flight, green planes, earth-conscious aviation, save energy, dispel the anxious tedium of the airline scam, the new fear of flying, and avoid the horrors of Dublin Airport and Thiefrow. […] Seaplanes exist on another plane from conventional airbuses of the gas-guzzling kind. (Mahon 2014, 14-15)

11As a plane’s ability to get off the ground depends on the speed gathered on the tarmac, it is difficult to imagine “slow flight”, unless one has in mind dirigibles, to which Mahon dedicates the eighth section of “Homage to Gaia”, and which he sees as the witnesses of a reversed climate change, “with helium in the sack/instead of hydrogen//while slow idealists/gaze at refrozen ice,/reflourishing rain forests, the oceans back in place” (Mahon 2011, 323). Ironically, helium is the only integrally non-renewable resource because, being lighter than air, once it is released from the pockets of natural gas that hold it, it escapes earth’s atmosphere and leaves the planet altogether. As helium is still in demand to make superconductors for use in electronics, this is leading to an helium depletion crisis, and geopolitical tension as helium reserves are located in just three countries (the US, Algeria and Qatar) (Brumfiel). Still the poet’s dream of flying has to be materially realized, while the technical and political props that make this possible remain out of the frame. As long as human bodies lack the innate ability to fly, getting them physically off the ground is going to require an expenditure of stored, low-entropy energy, thus contributing to global entropy and jeopardizing the survival of future generations (Georgescu-Roegen 79). The poetic voice is locked in an anthropocentric and technocentric dream. Other species do fly, however, and it would be possible to initiate an empathic connection with them that would provide the experience of flying within human physical means, as David Abram discovers during his stay with a Himalayan shaman (Abram 250-251).

12Mahon’s impulse is to look not for the material but for the mythological roots of flying, thus maintaining a separation between the two realms. The poet’s imagination is excited by the realisation of the mythological dream of flying, which he traces in the essay from Ovid to Cyrano de Bergerac, Swift, Norman Mailer and others, and to which he refers in the last stanza of the poem: “but ours is the magic of real flying boats/you find in the legends and folk literatures” (Mahon 2018, 15. Emphasis in the original). The technical networks needed to make the “flying boats” “real”, and therefore to create the magic, are pushed out of the frame of the poem, just as in the essay, a blank space materializes the mental repression of seaplanes’ origins in military strategy necessary to envision them as nature-friendly (Mahon 2014, 13). “The Flying Boats” is thus very different from Seamus Heaney’s “Lightenings viii” (Heaney 364), where a flying ship appears to monks at prayer in Clonmacnoise abbey. The magic in Heaney’s poem comes from the perforation and spilling into each other of previously self-contained worlds (reality and illusion, life and death) through the puncture hole made by the anchor “hook[ing] itself into the altar rails”. The beauty is in the gesture of solidarity whereby the monks help the sailors unhook the anchor and get on with their voyage, after a brief but transforming encounter. By contrast, Mahon’s speaker is physically carried into the other, impossible realm of the skies by an apparatus that is naturalized, in the sense that the practices involved in building and using it are “bracketed out”, to use baradian terminology. There is no encounter with an other, only the anthropocentric belief that the world is an environment (“sky water crowded with clouds:/ the ambiguous is our element”, Mahon 2018, 15) and the violence and colonisation involved in the imposition on other life forms of the realisation of an all-too-human dream:

[Seaplanes] need less elbow room and so prefer quiet places like lakes and coves where they can be close to natural growth, dramatic contrasts (broken silence, engine roar), startling grass and tree: ‘The lilac listens to the thunder too’ (G. Singh). (Mahon 2014, 13-14)

13Mahon’s persona here is reminiscent of Toad, the character in The Wind in the Willows who is fascinated by fast and noisy motor-cars, makes engine noises and has to be restrained by the other characters. Like Toad, who before he discovered cars wanted to take to the roads in a gypsy caravan, Mahon has an interest in trailers, and devotes an essay to them in Olympia and the Internet, where he makes a reference to Kenneth Grahame’s character (Mahon 2017, 73). The impulse and the method are the same as in the pieces on seaplanes: Mahon begins by tracing the literary depictions of caravans and presents them as green bohemian alternatives “in the high-rise building sites and car-park world we inhabit now” (Mahon 2017, 75) without considering their metonymic relationship to cars, and therefore motorways and car-parks, even though he describes them as “house[s] on wheels with a tow hitch” (Mahon 2017, 71). This romanticization of the caravan is symptomatic of a desire to burrow, whether in a Heideggerian hut or shed (Mahon 2012, 13-23), plane or caravan, and the danger is of course to insulate the speaking mind from the outside, beyond the pane and frame of the window.

14Environmental emergency is impossible to represent, unless through synecdoche or in the form of the stultifying clichés of capitalist-friendly sustainable development. Considering that Mahon’s poems represent an ecologically endangered world is deeply unsatisfying as it leads to uncritical marvelling at the manifest content (the naïve idea that any reference to ecological crisis has to have ecological value in itself), or to listing the inaccuracies and inconsistencies of the representation, as I have done so far, a perverse, if initially necessary, blame game of greener-than-thou. This representational criticism, holding at arm’s length and judging a painted picture, is not tenable very long, as the poem as art object “encounter[s] us as if [it] were the flu, getting inside our own fuzzy, ragged boundaries and executing [its] operations from an intimate place” (Morton 2019, 112). What is needed therefore is a consideration of the ways in which the poem-as-object establishes interobjective relations with the environmental crisis-as-(hyper)object and the reader-as-object. Only by placing the three poles of text, context and reader on the same ontological plane can there be meaningful engagement, or interpenetration, between them.

15Timothy Morton defines hyperobjects as “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” (Morton 2013, 1), and takes global warming as the prime example in his eponymous study. With his background as a Romantic poetry scholar, he is particularly attentive to the aesthetic dimension of ecological crisis and offers perceptive insights on how to relate the form of poetry to environmental theory. He is also related to Mahon via the figure of Björk, with whom he has collaborated and who contributes endorsements to his books, and to whom Mahon has devoted a section of “Homage to Gaia” (“Ode to Björk”, Mahon 2011, 321-322). Morton belongs to the recently emerged philosophical school of object-oriented ontology (OOO), which he uses to outline an ecological theory that does away with the centrality of the human mind as well as with transcendent entities such as nature, world, or society. OOO holds that the world is made up of objects understood in a very loose sense, as objects can be living or non-living, and even imaginary. Objects have a “world”, a perspective that conditions how other objects may relate to them. They appear to others in a certain way, but this never exhausts them: objects precede and exceed the sum of their appearances, so that they are in a way “haunted” by their essence. OOO is post-Kantian in that it seeks to bridge the gap between noumena and phenomena, and postmodern in that it tries to heal the severing of mind and world inaugurated by modernity. Given the importance of objects in Mahon’s poetry, and the current critical interest in them as evidenced by Marion Naugrette-Fournier’s recent doctoral thesis, OOO also seems a particularly apt way of approaching the question of Mahon’s environmental relevance.

16Hyperobjects cannot be directly experienced but are uncovered by scientific enquiry. However, once you know about them you cannot help seeing them everywhere and as such, they have interesting things to tell about the relationship between real objects (e.g. climate change) and how they appear to us (what OOO calls sensual objects, e.g. weather). They hint at the existence of real objects: it has become impossible to talk about the weather without the conversation implying, or veering towards, climate change (Morton 2013, 102). Mahon’s poems acknowledge this in a particularly blatant fashion, as there is never any weather in his poetry, only climate change. Thus in “Ophelia” a cyclone is not merely itself, but a sign of something else.

I sat it out here in ‘excited reverie’
listening to climate change doing its work
with a stereophonic front of punitive rain.
It must be a sign of something, but of what?
The death of world civilization, I suppose,
and man-made climate is the evident cause –
Which raises the grim question of what next? (Mahon 2018, 61)

17The issue of climate change is unsurprisingly framed in apocalyptic language (“punitive”, “death of world civilization”, “what next?”), which is a usual mode of environmentalist writers. And yet, the real environmental value of this extract lies not in its raising awareness of climate change and impending doom, but in its creation of a sense of empathy with the speaker, notably through the use of interior monologue and interrogative clauses. Empathy has ecological value in itself because it shows that objects are porous, and therefore interrelated: the reader can be penetrated and affected by the emotions of another as they appear on the page. We are moved not by the mere mention of climate change but by the fact that the speaker is haunted by it, and by his derisory attempt at containing its uncanniness by naming, representing it. This is a frequent mode in Mahon’s ecopoetry: encased in a technological bubble, his speakers look at the outside world as so many signs of ecological crisis. This is also the case in “Rain Shadows”, where the speaker is landing at Dublin airport and where the spectre of climate change gives rise to effects of nonlocality: “peculiar climate here,/same as in Nigeria” (Mahon 2018, 27). There is at this point a significant gap between what the poem says and what it does, out of which the emotion and the ecological value are born. The poet seems to be trying to exhaust, or contain, the hyperobject by constantly referring to it, when no perception will exhaust any object, only create poems-as-objects that in their turn will not be exhausted.

18Probably aware of this paradox, the poet tries to contain objects as a separate category from the speaker’s mind by writing them into eponymous poems (“Stuff”, “Data”, “Thing Theory”). In “Thing Theory”, the speaker adopts a casual, almost dismissive tone towards the new object-oriented philosophies, suggesting their congruence with commodity fetishism: “Things come Alive, the caption says,/as theorists also do these days” (Mahon 2018, 67). The supreme irony is that the poem is unfinished, it ends up being exhausted (in the sense of out of breath, as suggested by the suspension marks at the end) by its subject matter, and the poem-as-object is shown as the open whole that it is by the same device. The unfinishedness reverses the irony, as the superficially ironical speaker is siphoned off through the hole at the end. “Data” and “Stuff”, which are placed one after the other in the collection, showcase the speaker’s effort to open up to the nonhuman world. “Data” clearly implies in the first two lines that this change of perspective is due to the old age, and therefore approaching death, of the speaker: “I’m noticing again the singular things/I noticed as a boy” (Mahon 2018, 32), reminiscent of Picasso’s “It took me […] a lifetime to paint like a child”. This process is an “end of the world” in Mortonian terms, where “world” is understood as a closed whole from which the mind can abstract itself. The speaker’s relationship to the world is initially described in terms of “noticing” and knowledge (“an intentional world we think we know”, “our knowledge instrumental”), before it becomes aesthetic:

Our knowledge instrumental, our facts unreal
because unlived, unfelt, what can we use
for wisdom but these fierce realities?
We don’t need telescopes to appreciate
the silent music of the sky at night

nor do we need computers to contemplate
that morphic resonance where swifts migrate […] (Mahon 2018, 32)

19This process of recognizing his openness and connection to the nonhuman world is left unfinished however, as the speaker ends by admiring the “instinct” of migrating birds, but stops just short of acknowledging that humans have an instinct too, and that “appreciating” swifts and writing poems about them may just be part of it. Once more the poem-as-object moves beyond the representational and makes it possible for the reader to engage sensually with the birds through the process of reading. Their “close formation” is materialized by the tight formal structure and couplet rhymes of the poem, while their “travel south” is mimicked and internalized by the movement of the reader’s eyes going down the page. It is no surprise therefore that Mahon’s most successful and moving poems, those that promote the most genuine engagement with the stuff of the world, are the ones about the tools of his writing trade. Far from being self-reflexive, “meta”, and encouraging an infinite regression from the “outside world”, “Stuff” or “Olympia” show how poems as objects reach out to the material world from which they came (as “jotter, ink, and slate”, Mahon 2018, 31) and as signs bring it into the reader’s mind by penetrating and affecting it. Representing the material props of writing is a means of underlining the withdrawn part of every sign, the sense in which it is also not a sign but also a trace on a surface, as in Derrida’s re-mark (Derrida 54). This is not just about ascribing personhood to objects as Mahon does in “Olympia”, ostensibly about his typewriter, humanized by the use of the pronoun “she” and rendered uncanny by the intertextual reference to the automaton from E.T.A Hoffman’s story which inspired Freud’s theory. It is also about breathing life into them through the form of the poem, as the increasing and decreasing length of the lines in each stanza does, introducing the regular rhythm of the respiration of the object, matching itself to the reader’s.

20What this shows is that direct references to climate change and environmental crisis are not the most efficient ways of involving the reader in the mesh of interrelated objects of which we are a part. They may even be counter-productive. Ecological value is created when the experience of reading the poems stimulates in the reader the sense of the porousness of the self and its entanglement with other objects. One of the privileged ways of achieving this is through metaphor.

21According to OOO, there are two kinds of objects and two kinds of qualities that objects have: real (the object or the qualities in their own right) and sensual (the object or the qualities as they exist for a correlate – a “perceiver” – human or otherwise) (Harman 80). Harman establishes a symmetry between knowledge and aesthetic experience, which indicates the magnitude of the shift in Mahon’s “Data” discussed above. While scientific knowledge is interested in the real qualities of sensual objects, aesthetic experience as conveyed through metaphor is about gaining access to real objects via their sensual qualities. Both are performative, although knowledge is less so (Harman 183): as real objects and real qualities are by definition withdrawn from experience, the real object in art and the real qualities in science are supplied by the observer herself. Aesthetic experience is therefore not a form of knowledge, and this deals a further blow to the fetishistic idea that recycling titbits of Rachel Carson, Naomi Klein or James Lovelock in itself conveys their ecological value to Mahon’s poetry. This rather comes from the way in which his use of imagery involves his readers in a more-than-human whole, thus gaining greater force than any scientific discourse could. Discussing the simile by Spanish poet López Pico “The cypress is like the ghost of a dead flame”, Harman argues:

For if the real cypress is just as absent from the metaphor as it is from thought and perception, there is nonetheless one real object that is never absent from our experience of art: namely we ourselves. Yes, it is we ourselves who stand in for the absent cypress and support its freshly anointed flame-qualities. This goes a long way towards explaining the greater forcefulness and sincerity of genuine aesthetic experience compared with even the greatest precision of discursive prose scientific statements. (Harman 82-83)

22Let us therefore conclude this study with an examination of the sensual perceptions and forms of solidarity with the non-human that some of Mahon’s exquisite metaphors and metonymies provide. Many images in the collection have to do with endowing nonhuman objects with a face, or an ability to look back at the speaker. This idea is implicit also in the title, Against the Clock, where “against” implies facing something and a clock has a face in ordinary language, which is thereby shown to be metaphorical in nature. Other examples include the use of yet another naturalized metaphor, “a cliff face/listens amazed to the euphonious wail” (Mahon 2018, 36), but also the “impatient faces” of the “crooked elms” (Mahon 2018, 25). Man-made objects, like the clock of the collection title, can look back at humans, as well as at other objects. Thus the “staring towers” of New York try to “confront” the sun, “as if those eyes could penetrate/whatever turns you [the sun] on” (Mahon 2018, 40) and the similarly phallus-shaped lighthouse “redirects its glance” (Mahon 2018, 45). Metonymy is sometimes combined to the face metaphor to create the perception of an all-seeing nonhuman world: “Our table looks on the mild face of the waters” (Mahon 2018, 19). It should not be concluded from these metaphors that Mahon “humanizes”, and therefore appropriates or colonizes nonhuman objects. Anthropomorphizing is not anthropocentric, on the contrary it is the condition for the possibility of objects talking back to us. Jane Bennett, when confronted with the criticism that her vibrant materialism anthropomorphized nonhuman objects, answered that a measure of anthropomorphism was necessary to reach out beyond the human (Harman 240). OOO goes further and asserts that anthropomorphism is necessary as it is what humans do, how they perceive others, just like a cup “cup-omorphizes” a table, conditioning for example the ways in which a table can relate to it (Morton 2013, 89). The face and eyes metaphor opens up nonhuman objects so they can relate to the poet.

23Playing with the scale of objects in the choice of imagery then enables the poems to bring them closer to the reader’s sensual perceptions, and to replace the sense of sight with touch or proprioception. Thus “A Full Moon in May” has the moon “bobbing up like a balloon among the trees/your [the moon’s] engraved silver image a swung pendant” (Mahon 2018, 42). The reader, who stands in for the absent object “moon”, supplies to it the qualities of the balloon and the pendant, and thereby experiences successively its exquisite lightness, then anchoring weight and reassuring oscillation, like a rocking movement, around her neck. Neuroscience tells us that these sensations are actually felt in the reader’s body, as experiments have shown that the brain simulates the actual experience of vertical or horizontal movement when this is evoked in a text (Bolens 10). The poems thus generate extremely pleasurable bodily sensations, as in “Sun water creams on the hot sand” (Mahon 2018, 16), where the absent water is performed by the reader, who becomes all “creamy”, rich and fluid. The actual experiences of looking at the moon or lying on a hot beach will be transformed forever as the “worlds”, or the zones emitted by formerly separate objects (Morton 2013, 141-146) interpenetrate by virtue of the performative power of metaphor. This is precisely where the ecological value of the poems lies, as the reader experiences, and may therefore care for, the continuum of self, text and world.

24The contradictions and failures of the poetic voice and the manifest content of the poem are redeemed by the poem-as-object and the interobjective relations it is allowed to enter into thanks to its technical and formal features. Representational Mahon certainly can and does utter enormities, as in “Mythistorema”, when visiting an old copper mineshaft in West Cork he muses about “a time when ground/was blown apart without a qualm […]/we consumed landscape/in the days before ecology came around” (Mahon 2018, 36). It does not take expert knowledge (but the facts can be checked, for instance at​energy) to be aware that global consumption of energy, and therefore landscapes, has increased spectacularly since the Allihies Mines and others around Europe closed down, and that the emergence of political ecology in the 1970s has had little to no influence on this. Mining has simply been moved comfortably away from sensitive, eco-conscious Western eyes. On the other hand, Mahon the poet, whom no poem of his will ever exhaust, just as no criticism will exhaust his poems, certainly succeeds in fostering a sense of engagement and solidarity with the nonhuman world. In an object-oriented approach to literary criticism, the author neither towers above the work as in classical liberal humanism nor completely disappears as in Barthesian poststructuralism but is allowed to coexist with other objects in the network of interobjective relations that constitutes the work of art. A new kind of irony emerges which is not the hollow and petrifying postmodern cynicism but a recognition and a hinting at the withdrawn part of (hyper)objects, as well as a tentative desire for knowledge that is an engagement on equal terms with others. Moving beyond representation in this sense can mean suggesting alternative models of both knowledge and art, as Karen Barad does with her diffractive methodology. It can also involve articulating various forms of “non-representational theory”, where “things become parts of hybrid assemblages” (Thrift 9) or by enlarging its definition to include nonhuman modes of relating to reality. This is what the “anthropology beyond the human” explored by Eduardo Kohn proposes to do, considering for example that anteaters’ proboscises “represent” ant tunnels, thereby generating meaning (Kohn 74-75). The same understanding of representation could also be applied to the “cup-omorphizing” of the table, even though Kohn would probably not subscribe to this view, as he considers that only living beings can signify and represent (Conty 75). It is to be hoped that these non-anthropocentric models of representation as relationality will enrich our experience of poetry as well as bring about a more humane, or human-kind (Morton 2019) post-ecological crisis world.

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Catherine CONAN, « Beyond representation? A material-ecocritical reading of Derek Mahon’s “eco-poetry” »E-rea [En ligne], 18.2 | 2021, mis en ligne le 28 mai 2021, consulté le 06 août 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine CONAN

University of Western Brittany
About the author: Catherine Conan (HCTI, EA4249) is an associate professor at the University of Western Brittany (UBO, Brest, France). Her research focuses on contemporary prose fiction and poetry from Ireland, which she analyses through the framework of material ecocriticism and the new materialisms. She has edited with Flore Coulouma the Spring 2019 issue of Etudes Irlandaises on Nature, Environment and Political Ecology in Ireland. Her book-length study of environment and materiality in contemporary Irish literature, La Littérature irlandaise au XXIe siècle: Matière, Espace, Environnement, was published in 2021 by the Presses Universitaires de Rennes.

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