from Art Notes

by Derek Mahon

1 A LIGHTHOUSE IN MAINE

– Edward Hopper

It might be anywhere, that ivory tower
reached by a country road. Granite and sky,
it faces every which way with an air
of squat omniscience, intensely mild,
a polished Buddha figure warm and dry
beyond vegetation; and the sunny glare
striking its shingled houses is no more
celestial than the hot haze of the world.

Built to shed light but also hoarding light,
it sits there dozing in the afternoon
above the ocean like a ghostly moon
patiently waiting to illuminate.
You make a left beyond the town, a right,
you turn a corner and there, ivory-white,
it shines in modest glory above a bay.
Out you get and walk the rest of the way.

Notes on the Poem

Derek Mahon's Art Notes - of which "A LIGHTHOUSE IN MAINE" is just one from the collection "Life on Earth", and just one of variations found in earlier Mahon works - take visual arts as the cue for their poetic explorations. When a poem looks to another art form for its content and inspiration in this fashion, is the approach likely to generous expand or problematically constrain what the poet produces? The painting that sparks Mahon's reflections here is Edward Hopper's The Lighthouse at Two Lights. As the description provided by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York suggests, "standing proudly upright and seen from below, the lighthouse at Two Lights seems to symbolize a resolute resistance, even refusal, to submit to change or nature." Mahon echoes this same sense of stalwart constancy with: "with an air of squat omniscience, intensely mild, a polished Buddha figure" Mahon addresses the painting with a balance of specificity, pointing out from the title that it's set in Maine, it's reached via country road (in fact, he directs the potential visitor with lefts, rights and turns) and generality ("it might be anywhere"). Is that "anywhere" reference ironic, or genuine? Does he suggest that the lighthouse and how it is presented in the painting is a mundane or pedestrian sight, or is he suggesting that it has an uplifting universality to it, from which viewers of the image can derive many things? The last two lines of the poem might have an answer: "it shines in modest glory above a bay. Out you get and walk the rest of the way." While examining Mahon's poetic discourse in some detail in the essay Painting into Poetry: The Case of Derek Mahon, professor Rajeev S. Patke of the National University of Singapore makes an observation that sums up simply and delightfully what we get to enjoy in this poem: "The poet talks to the painting: we simply overhear."

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