Saturday, September 5, 2009

Derek Mahon's "Matthew 5 v. 29-30"

I'll post an exercise for this next week; but it's here as an example of hyperbole, or perhaps reductio ad absurdum:

Matthew 5 v. 29-30

Lord, mine eye offended, so I plucked it out.
Imagine my chagrin
when the offense continued.
So I plucked out
the other; but the offense continued.

In the dark now, and working by touch,
I shaved my head.
(The offense continued.)
Removed an ear,
another, dispatched the nose.

The offense continued.
Imagine my chagrin.

Next, in long strips, the skin--
razored the tongue, the toes,
the personal nitty gritty.
The offense continued.

But now, the thing finding its own momentum,
the more so since
the offense continued,
I entered upon a prolonged course
of lobotomy and vivisection,
reducing the self
to a rubble of organs, a wreckage of bones
in the midst of which, somewhere,
the offense continued.

Quicklime then, for the calcium, paraquat
for the unregenerate offal;
a spreading of topsoil,
a ploughing of this
and a sowing of it with barley.

Paraffin for the records of birth, flu
and abortive scholarship,
for the whimsical postcards, the checques
dancing like hail,
the surviving copies of poems published
and unpublished; a scalpel
for the casual turns of phrase engraved
on the minds of others;
an aerosol for the stray thoughts
hanging in air,
for the people who breathed them in.

Sadly, therefore, deletion of the many people
from their desks, beds, breakfasts,
buses and catamarans,
deletion of their machinery and architecture,
all evidence whatever
of civility and reflection,
of laughter and tears.

Destruction of all things on which
that reflection fed,
of vegetable and bird;
erosion of all rocks
from the holiest mountain
to the least stone;
evaporation of all seas,
the extinction of heavenly bodies--
until, at last, offense
was not to be found
in that silence without bound.

Only then was I fit for human society.

Derek Mahon


  1. This is a piece I have to read over and over again. I understand the message, but I think the deliverance is overwhelming. This is a piece I would read a couple of times ang give up.The title also helped understand. Not a fan of this style.

  2. I love the reductio in arguments. If it is pulled on right (oral presentation) it can really vitiate the opposing contention. I try to footnote them and make them understated. Once the absurdity of an contention or argument is brought to life, it is very, very difficult to rehabilitate it later. This piece is a little weird for me. It is hyperbole on top of hyperbole. The original argument is that Heaven is so much greater than anything else, that it is better to cut out your eye to curb your sin than to miss out. It is better to remove an eye (a painful experience without anesthesia) than to continue to sin with it. It is supposed to bring about an "eternal" perspective via hyperbole. To respond to it or to apply it tongue in cheek or as a reductio makes it all a big mess.