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The Mayo Tao

I have abandoned the dream kitchens for a low fire
and a prescriptive literature of the spirit;
a storm snores on the desolate sea.
The nearest shop is four miles away –
when I walk there through the shambles
of the morning for tea and firelighters
the mountain paces me in a snow-lit silence.
My days are spent in conversation
with deer and blackbirds;
at night fox and badger gather at my door.
I have stood for hours
watching a salmon doze in the tea-gold dark,
for months listening to the sob story
of a stone in the road, the best,
most monotonous sob story I have ever heard.

I am an expert on frost crystals
and the silence of crickets, a confidant
of the stinking shore, the stars in the mud –
there is an immanence in these things
which drives me, despite my scepticism,
almost to the point of speech,
like sunlight cleaving the lake mist at morning
or when tepid water
runs cold at last from the tap.

I have been working for years
on a four-line poem
about the life of a leaf;
I think it might come out right this winter.


I love the playfulness of this poem, which doesn’t belie the underlying gravity associated with losing one’s way in life. The poet describes the abandonment of affluence, symbolised by the “dream kitchens”, in favour of downsizing to a rural hideaway in County Mayo in the west of Ireland. His simpler, stripped bare existence in isolation is exquisitely rendered. I particularly empathise with the hours spent “watching a salmon doze in the tea-gold dark” of a peaty Irish river.

Mahon’s self-deprecating humour is evident in the title and in each of the three stanzas – the stone’s ‘sob story’, the ‘immanence’ of the landscape and its inhabitants driving him “almost to the point of speech”. The final stanza crowns the poem as it partly explains the poet’s predicament. Not only is this a man at odds with his previous life, searching for answers in the everyday “things”, but it’s also a poet whose muse has escaped.

The last four lines should strike a chord with anyone who has experienced writer’s block or who finds the creative path an often tortuous one. On the other hand, they are a humorous take on the life of a poet, at least this poet. Mahon is well-known as a constant reviser of his work – he has published different versions of many poems. The idea of “working for years on a four-line poem” captures his creative woes beautifully and would bring a smile to the face of anyone familiar with Mahon’s modus operandi. I don’t think he’s as pedantic as Oscar Wilde however who said: “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”


Derek Mahon, b.1941 – Selected Poems (Penguin, 2000). The Mayo Tao previously appeared in Collected Poems (Gallery Press, 1999)

Tao (pronounced ‘dao’)

In Chinese philosophy the absolute principle underlying the universe, combining within itself the principles of yin and yang and signifying the way, or code of behaviour, that is in harmony with the natural order. The interpretation of Tao in the Tao-te-Ching developed into the philosophical religion of Taoism.