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:

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