Derek Mahon

copyright ©Derek Mahon 2008

Scratch of a match
fierce in the dark. The alarm clock,
night-vigilant, reads twenty minutes to four;
wide awake, as so often at this dead hour,
I gaze down at the lighted dock,
trawler and crated catch,
as if on watch.

The bright insects
of helicopters drop to the decks
of gas rigs ten miles out in the heavy waves,
their roaring rotors far from our quiet leaves,
before midnight, and the ship that shone
at dusk on the horizon
has long since gone.

Nothing stirs
in garden or silent house,
no night owl flies or none that we can hear;
not evening the mild, traditional field-mouse
runs nibbling, as you’d expect, under the stairs.
Boats knock and click at the pier,
shrimps worship the stars.

The whole coast
is soporific as if lost
to echoes of a distant past –
the empty beach house with no obvious owner,
the old hotel liked a wrecked ocean liner
washed up one stormy night
and left to rot.

That woman from
the Seaview, a ‘blow-in’
of some kind from a foreign shore,
seems out of her element and far from home,
the once perhaps humorous eyes grown vague out here.
What is she? A Lithuanian, or a Finn?
We’ve met before

beside some flat
road bridge and bleak strand road,
two men in black at the corner staring hard,
far off in the stricken distance perhaps a shipyard,
chimneys, power plants, gasometers,
oil refineries, Gothic spires
and things like that –

where a cloud climbs
and swirls, yellow and red
streaking the estuary, and a soul screams
for sunken origins, for the obscure sea bed
and glowing depths, the alternative mud haven
we left behind. Once more we live in
interesting times.

Notes on the Poem

While carefully and beautifully assembled, Derek Mahon's poem "Insomnia" - from his 2009 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Life on Earth - is almost painful to read because it so precisely captures aspects of that affliction. The poem's consistent line structure but slightly off-kilter rhyme and near-rhyme scheme ("clock/dock" and "house/mouse", but also "insects/decks" and "'blow-in'/home" - perhaps a somewhat fractured rhyme royal?) seems to capture the essence of drifting between drowsiness, a semi dream state and stark wakefulness. Some things are logical, others seem so but truly are not ... What does each stanza's expanding and contracting line length resemble? To this reader, it replicates the sense of breathing in and out rhythmically. It's kind of like some of the advice offered insomnia sufferers: "when you're lying there wondering how to slip off, some breathing exercises, in which you fill your mind with observation of the breath coming and going, can usefully divert the restless mind." The poem's subject matter and images capture intimately what is close at hand, from "Scratch of a match fierce in the dark. The alarm clock, night-vigilant, reads twenty minutes to four" ... and spools out afar, from the dock, to rigs offshore, to the whole sea coast, from shrimps down below worshipping the stars far above. In other words, the poem ranges near and far the way one's desperate mind is likely to when suffering acute and frustrating sleeplessness.

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