The word on Review St is Derek Mahon has become the junior partner in Northern Irish Poetry Corp, all the while being the most tangible common influence in Gillis, Flynn and Laird, a plucky up-and-coming firm ready to unseat Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Laborious metaphors aside, DM’s focus on the quotidian and unmatched adeptness with irony seem to me the key unifying factors in the younger poets (if you feel the need to identify any), or perhaps are just more easily identified than those of Heaney, Longley and Muldoon. Getting into all that would require a pretty close look at the contemporaries who DM’s reputation is both fettered to and measured against, which will happen (hopefully) in the coming days.
For now, the book at hand is An Autumn Wind, his third book of poems (four if we’re including Adaptations, which is more of a greatest hits anyway) since his Collected in 1999. The politics of assembling a collected volume are particularly fraught with Mahon in light of his tendency to rewrite or omit old material, and it’s rather tempting to tie this instinct into his habit of idealising the past, particularly since the 90s. It’s also rather tempting to divide his displeasure at the West’s materialistic and ostensibly hollow modern culture down two streets: one written in the voice of Derek Mahon – poet, scholar, roving polemicist; the other in a range of translations and adaptations, harnessed and led by Mahon’s earthy demotic. The latter has the effect of bringing the original poems closer – historically and geographically – to the emotional ground of the contemporary reader; in An Autumn Wind they radiate with a restrained humility, sad and soft and made wise by time. The former is an old fart.
I exaggerate. But arranging the book into its three discrete sections – i) [untitled], largely Mahon as Mahon, though this section also ends with an encouraging handful of versions of various European poets; ii) River of Stars: Mahon as Li T’ai-Po, Ch’iu Wei and Tu Fu, three 8th century Chinese poets, some of the finest poems in the book; iii) Raw Material: Mahon as a made-up and rather more formally relaxed Hindi poet Gopal Singh – shoves most of the weaker work together towards the beginning. This makes the long slog to the good stuff all the more irksome, like a bad warm-up act at a fringe show. (I’m being unfair of course. Mahon’s weak poems are still B+ material, but no point in giving the star pupil an easy ride.) Here’s a quick taster before the void stares back:
It’s time now to go back at last […]
time to create a future from the past,
tune out the babbling radio waves
and listen to the leaves.
(“A Quiet Spot”)
Next year, when a new crop begins to grow,
let it not be genetically modified,
but such as the ancients sowed
in the old days.
(“World Trade Talks”)
But out here in the hot pastures of the west,
no Google goggling at our marginal lives,
there are still corners where a lark can sing.
And so on. Are larksong and Google mutually exclusive? Would the ancients have given their left nut for tech advances in crop yields? More alarmingly, why would one who so viscerally condemned Northern Ireland’s past-fetishists be so keen to revisit these hypothetical simpler times?
Point made, let’s get to the good stuff. There are some beauts in here. The first poem was enough to convince me to buy the thing (on amazon.co.uk, of which DM might disapprove). “Ithaca” is a version of the episode in Homer in which Odysseus is dropped off home by the Corfu sailors in his sleep, as treated by Longley’s poem “Homecoming” in 1991’s Gorse Fires. Unlike that poem, DM stays with the hero after the lyric moment of arrival, long enough for him to awake and recognise his homeland. What is it with Nordy poets and the classics? Someone should write a book about how we’re so amazing. Anyway, something is working beautifully; O’s first words are ‘Oh, not another island!’, while Pallas Athene charmingly tells him, ‘you must be far gone not to recognise / a famous country known to east and west’. (It barely needs to be said how uncannily similar are Ithaca and Ireland: ‘It boasts fine pastures for cows and goats, / oak, pine and boatyards. It’s not vast, / as you will see, but rich in crops and wine / and generously fed with dew and rain.’ The boatyards are a dead giveaway, and did you know another word for a crane used in shipbuilding is ‘derrick’? Moving on.) The concluding lines are matter-of-fact and hopeful:
‘Our first task,’ said Athene, ‘is to stow
your gold and bronzes in the sacred cave
and then decide on where we go from there.’
They are so poised and far-visioned it’s easy to forget that where O does go from there is on a killing spree. So maybe we should. What does bear thinking about is the master’s ease with which DM traverses the metre and loose couplets in the poem that match so seamlessly with the gentle atmosphere of waking and being welcomed.
I’m amazed I got this far without going down a tangent. But here it is, tangent fans! An ongoing bugbear, particularly after shelling out a few too many greenbacks for Identity Parade, is how few contemporary poets know how to (or care to) string a line together. Of course there are pitfalls in the formal endeavour – it wouldn’t be exciting otherwise – but as we know the strongest and most affecting special FX in poetry are those that run closest to the sentimental and overused. It seems to me that this is precisely what so much free verse lacks: risk and the attendant possibility of failure. Free verse works best when used in opposition or contrast to the more rigid forms – as I’ve said many times on this blog, books made entirely of free verse (or indeed any single metrical pattern: the enemy here is not free verse but lack of variety) are generically dull, cannot help but be dull, and the best will in the world cannot save them from feeling tedious toward the business end. (It’s my belief that a good book of poetry, like a good film, should be consumed in one sitting, at least the first time round. But that’s another story.) Sides, coins, etc., and as my main man Donny P has written in the two most recent issues of Poetry Review (both available at the Scottish Poetry Library), it’s just good science. The length, rhythm and sonic construction of the line are the techniques poetry uses (has always used, wouldn’t exist if it didn’t use) to engage the boroughs of the brain that are lit up by repetition and patterns (see also Michael Donaghy’s The Shape of the Dance). And the best part is that when done well it attracts no attention to itself, and waits for illuminati like me to point it out to the unwashed. </rant>
The Chinese translations are little gems. DM lives so easily in them it’s tempting to call them his own. From his preface to Adaptations:
‘…the mode has been around too long to need excuses. I’ve taken many liberties; but I hope these adaptations, materializing over the years with the idle intensity of doodles, will read almost like original poems in English, allowing their sources to remain audible.’
What is this if not instruction for how to plug into the tradition at large? Who can write any poem without a handful of dead guys breathing down their neck? Who can write about snow without conjuring Frost or MacNeice? In great work the sources are by necessity audible, because no one writes in a vacuum. But I digress. Often. Let’s look briefly at “A Kettle of Wine”:
A party of three: the moon, my shadow and me.
The moon is no drinker, sadly; however
I toast the spring and the spring flowers.
“Thinking of Li Po”:
Severance caused by death is an end of life
but the lost living are a persistent grief.
and “A Shabby Welcome”:
As you’d expect, we are too poor for wine
but somewhere I’ve a drop of old moonshine.
The versions hold each other up; their common talk – for the most part explicitly addressed to each other – about departures, distances between friends and stoicism in the face of an uncertain future lend them a moving solidarity. That DM has successfully carried all this over is one of the book’s quiet victories. Lastly I’d like to draw attention to the third section, “Raw Material”, whose positioning gives it a DVD-extra feel, but is central to the book and in some ways a continuation from his last collection. Life on Earth concludes with a sequence, “Homage to Gaia” and the single poem “Homage to Goa”, which feature some of DM’s most convincing treatments of spirituality. In creating a (pretty translucent) mask for himself, he gives himself leave to explore while maintaining his delicately ironic tone; his conclusion has faith in the capacity of mankind to escape not only the karmic cycle but the trap of monetary inequality:
You too will sip champagne one of these years
despite the old, self-perpatuating pantheon;
but what do we worship now the old gods have gone?
The sequence provides a refreshing tonic to the dry, didactic, eco-liteness of the book’s first half. And it’s hard not to like the poem “Dharma Bums” – ‘What do they know / of dharma, these spoilt kids / without warmth, without charm? / Eternity takes time. // They sit like tramps / beside the road, / each on a dusty bum, / when they should be at home / in advertising’ – as much for seeing DM going old-school as for making pretty effective use of his kind-of avatar.
There are several other enjoyable poems, but time is short and this is long. I’m thinking of “Romance” (merely given a ‘highly recommended’ or whatever by the Forward Prize, the philistines), “Beached Whale”, “A Building Site”, “Antrim Road”, and the blazing version of Quevedo’s “An Aspiring Spirit”. Had DM taken a chance, ditched half a dozen of the weaker poems and made the collection much more focused on his versions and explorations, I would have said this was an important addition to the pantheon of Northern Irish poetry. If you take a well-directed pair of scissors to the copy you’re no doubt holding it could still be. But maybe a future Mahon will take care of that for us, and as it stands it’s a great piece of work.
Coming soon: Michael Longley’s A Hundred Doors.