Although familiar with some of Derek Mahon’s work, this poem was a fairly recent discovery for me. I can’t remember if I first came across it on Anthony Wilson’s excellent Lifesaving Poems blog, or if I came across his blog while searching for the full text of the poem. Either way it is a poem that brings me alive through its moving mixture of heartbreak and hope.
Although famous for his formality as a poet, Mahon’s initial question is written in an almost conversational style. The casual tone is quickly arrested by the matter-of-fact but devastating assertion ‘there will be dying’. From here the poem settles into a more regular rhythm and increasingly formal rhyme scheme, as if attempting to restore order in the wake of that realisation.
Former U.S. poet laureate, Robert Hass, said ‘Poems must move in two directions at once: enchantment and disenchantment, life and death, knowing and having no idea.’* This poem stitches its polarities of life and death together through its anatomy of ‘i’ sounds, ‘I’, ‘high tide’, ‘dying’, ‘dying’, ‘rises’, ‘spite’, ‘bright’, ‘lie’, ‘riot’, ‘sunlight’, ‘flying’, ‘right’, weaving a subtle tapestry of meaning and music.
There is a sense of waking from a haunted night into a hopeful dawn. The ‘watchful heart’ does not forget the dark dreams but is wise enough to accept the nature of change; clouds move, tides come and go, the sun rises and sets. It’s a matter of perspective. Everything looks better in sunlight and, given enough distance, cities look beautiful and even death can be accepted as part of life.
Although beginning and ending on this note of hope, Mahon communicates that this is a choice rather than a felt certainty. The poem remains as complicated as life itself through repeating its assurance of death and its oh-so-human ‘in spite of everything’. But, most of all, in the foundation of doubt laid by that easily overlooked, small second word, ‘should’.
Everything is Going to be All Right
How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
Derek Mahon, New Collected Poems, 2011.
*Robert Hass, quoted in Kim Rosen, Saved by a Poem, 2009.