Recycling preoccupations and obsessions

Poetry review

Derek Mahon in July 2010. Photograph: John Allen

Derek Mahon in July 2010. Photograph: John Allen

Sat, Dec 7, 2013, 01:00

Derek Mahon’s introduction to Echo’s Grove (Gallery, €22.50/ €13.90), his collected translations, describes how he looks for “affinities of idea, shape and atmosphere” between his work and the work of those he chooses to translate. As well as exhibiting his taste, this new book might be said, then, to recycle (a favourite Mahon verb) his own preoccupations and obsessions through other poets’ poems.

Mahon’s first book, Night Crossing (1968), included the poem Glengormley, which began: “Wonders are many and none more wonderful than man / Who has tamed the terrier, trimmed the hedge / And grasped the principle of the watering can.”

Forty-five years later Echo’s Grove begins with the stanza to which he alluded then, from Sophocles’s Antigone:

Wonders are many and none

more wonderful than man

whose sail and plunging prow

cleave a windswept path

through life-threatening seas;

who opens the rich earth

year after year with his

worn-out unwavering plough.

“Our visionary technology / outwits the throbbing thrush,” he continues, although this more even-toned adaptation ends up as mortally aware as Glengormley: “Only against / death do we strive in vain.”

Mahon often engineers this kind of allusive surface tension: there is a lot of enjoyable backchat between his poems and these translations.

Such equivalences are evident, too, when he sets his translation of Philippe Jaccottet’s To Henry Purcell a few pages before his translation of Denis Rigal’s Autumn in Grignan. This is itself dedicated to Jaccottet, a poem whose pastoral landscape Mahon’s readers will find familiar: “Some bare-field lavender in wilting rows / and grapes to gather after the first frost / that make this pale white wine, this quiet wine.”

Likewise, Mahon’s translations of Michel Houellebecq bring the French writer to the western fringes that Mahon himself has often haunted, “where sky changes into sea / and sea to memory as if / at the edge of a new world” (The Clifden Road).

The peak of Mahon’s translator’s art is probably his version of Paul Valery’s The Seaside Cemetery, which really does read like a wonderful new poem in English, albeit its philosophical poise and energy also feel like an extension of Mahon’s own style:

Objective noon films with its fiery glaze

a shifting sea, drifters like dipping doves,

and my reward for thought is a long gaze

down the blue calm of these celestial groves.

Readers of Echo’s Grove will discover a kind of Desert Island Discs – Mahon’s selections include the greatest hits of Valery, Sophocles, Ovid, Li Po, Rimbaud (The Drunken Boat), Cavafy (The City) and Rilke, but the book is packed, too, with rarities and interesting B-sides from those poets, as well as a selection from Congolese poets who will be news to most readers and further work from his invented Indian alter ego, Gopal Singh, whose Recycling Song ends:

Throw nothing out; recycle

the vilest rubbish, even

your own discarded page.

Everything comes full circle:

see you again in heaven

some sunny evening in a future age.

The calm, cosmic perspective of Mahon’s translations is absent from recent books by two of his near contemporaries, Brendan Kennelly’s Guff (Bloodaxe, £9.95) and the American poet August Kleinzahler’s The Hotel Oneira (Faber, £12.99).

Guff is “a rough draft of a man / waiting to be rewritten” (Rough Draft), and Kennelly records his musings, self-loathing and baroquely humorous assaults on all forms of boredom.

The monologues circle love and desire (“a certain yearning / that from an early age / he associates with learning”), Ireland (“greatest achievement / that it survived the Irish”), poetry and the life of poets (“to face the faces stabbing his life / a man should be a smiling knife”). The poems meander and often come to an abrupt stop, but they are quick on their feet, too, lively and unpredictable:

Following a sign unrecognised by law

Guff turned left of logic and saw

stones dancing on a stage

of shiny wet sand,

a feather standing up

like a year-old determined to walk,

a broken shell and God

knows who took the pearl,

the skeleton

of a July Christmas tree

homaging a golf-course,

rocks remembering Civil War,

rocks challenging the Atlantic.
(left of logic)

Kleinzahler’s new book presents a more rueful image of the older male poet: A History of Western Music, Chapter 63 (Whitney Houston) updates Ginsberg’s Supermarket in California and finds, “because of your unconventional lifestyle / you have been shopping among women your entire life . . . ” before it asks:

What sort of life have you led

that you find yourself, an adult male of late middle age

about to weep among the avocados and citrus fruits

in a vast, overlit room next to a bosomy Cuban grandma

with her sparkly extravagant eyewear?

It’s good that your parents are no longer alive.


Kleinzahler is a one-off, and this new book is as good as ever, with spiky portraits (and self-portraits) alongside the American landscapes that have become his speciality, moving easily and mysteriously between domestic close-ups of the weather and noodling riffs on the state of the modern world:

At this moment bombers are assembling into their formations over Europe.

Dishes on their rubber racks are almost now completely dry.

Someone is inventing colour TV.

Millions of cans of corn niblets sit in the darkness on shelves across the Midwest.

The streets remain empty.

The circumstances had been made clear to the participants at the start.

Trucks rumble in the distance across the Arroyo Seco,

while the first birds of the day,

unbothered as ever, commence their

singing.

(Rose Exile)

John McAuliffe teaches poetry at Manchester University’s Centre for New Writing

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