Many Voices: a review of Echo’s Grove by Derek Mahon

I don’t suppose there’s anyone in the world who could have translated all these poems out of direct knowledge of their original languages. In his introduction, Mahon tells us he used cribs and commentaries for ones written in languages he doesn’t know. Where he does know the language, he’s written adaptations, not point for point translations. “I’ve taken many liberties,” he says, “in the hope that the results will read almost like original poems in English, while allowing their sources to remain audible”. He succeeds triumphantly in both aims. All his versions are good poems in their own right, many are superb, and however close to or far from their originals they may be in detail, as you read through the volume you have a strong sense of being addressed by different voices and being made to see the world through different eyes.

Essentially it’s a matter of balancing different kinds of fidelity. I share the view that, as Dryden put it, “a good poet is no more like himself in a dull translation than his carcass would be to his living body”. Another seventeenth century poet-translator, Sir John Denham, tells us “Poesie is of so subtile a spirit, that in pouring out of one Language into another, it will all evaporate; and if a new spirit be not added in the transfusion, there will remain nothing but a Caput mortuum, there being certain Graces and Happinesses peculiar to every Language, which gives life and energy to the words.”

Sometimes this transfusion may involve major changes. In one of several examples where I’ve made the comparison I think Mahon has actually improved on his original. Umberto Saba’s attractive little “Campionessa di Nuoto” becomes more beautiful, more subtly poised and intelligent in its rebirth as “A Siren”. By changing “a te mi lega un filo” (literally “a thread links me to you”) to “I tie a thread … to your toe”, Mahon both vivifies his version with a stroke of surreal fantasy, and leavens its pathos with wit. I wouldn’t say that he improves Baudelaire’s poem beginning “Je n’ai pas oublié, voisine de la ville” by bringing it home to his own Belfast childhood, as he does in “Antrim Road”, but for all the changes he makes to its imagery, his version seems to me very close to the original in its feeling. Moreover, the image of “bottled ships” with which it closes resonates with many of Baudelaire’s other poems, as well as with autobiographical glimpses in a number of Mahon’s.

Resonance with Mahon’s own experiences and preoccupations is very much to the point. It’s what enables him to give his translation poetic life. As Eliot said, “Good translation is not merely translation, for the translator is giving the original through himself, and finding himself through the original.” We see both processes at work again and again. In the lovely “An Orphan at the Door”, from the Irish of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, the speaker peers through her lover’s letterbox and recognises in his home’s Georgian proportions “An intricate crystal structure / that bodies forth and hides a god”. We’re reminded both of Mahon’s much older Nerval translation “Pythagorean Lines” (“Even now a god hides among bricks and bones”) and of his own poem “The Banished Gods”. The whole situation of the mistress at the door reminds us of “A Tolerable Wisdom”, where the speaker is a man shut out of a woman’s house. In these and other ways Mahon finds Ní Dhomhnaill through himself. And yet the whole tone and feeling of “An Orphan at the Door” seems to me profoundly unlike those of anything else in Mahon’s work. Its special poignancy depends on Mahon’s ability to suppress the dandified ironic wit that’s so much a part of his general style, finding his way to a more single-minded, unselfcritical voice through the voice of another, as he does in radically different ways in several of these poems (the Brecht adaptation “White Cloud” is one notable example, “Sceilg Bay” after Tomàs Rua Ó Súilleabháin is another).

It’s interesting to compare the Chinese poems of the “River of Stars” section with Ezra Pound’s Cathay. Both Pound’s and Mahon’s versions proceed by means of a montage-like juxtaposition of brief, clear, self-contained images. However, where Pound’s are in unrhymed free verse and have a kind of airy lightness and fluidity, Mahon’s are rhymed and in a measure that always at least approximates to iambic pentameter. His approach is organised and architectonic, in terms of both poetic and syntactical structures. I don’t want to suggest that either poet’s way is superior to the other’s. They complement each other and have opposing strengths. In Cathay, individual images and the music of individual lines are exquisitely shaped but whole poems can seem to disintegrate into component details. In such lovely, unforgettable poems as “The River-Merchant’s Wife: a Letter”, or “Exile’s Letter”, although the latter is purportedly written by an old man, the sharp freshness of the images and the piercing pathos of feeling coexist with a kind of childlike simplicity of tone. The culture evoked is materially wealthy and sophisticated but seems essentially young, as if its people were somehow impervious to experience. In Mahon’s versions we feel the weight of a civilisation both built up by and already burdened with immense age by the eighth century AD, when the poems of Li Po (Pound’s “Rihaku”) were written.

Admittedly most of these poems are already available in different collections by Mahon. Such a substantial number are in either Raw Material or Adaptations that the general reader who owned both those volumes might hesitate before buying this one. However, I think there are huge gains to the way they’re brought together here, and amplified by other poems. This really is a book that asks to be taken and read through as a whole, following the historical sequence of poets and their cultures, allowing echoes to accumulate and one’s awareness of difference and contrast to grow.

I would like to thank the editors of Acumen for permission post this review, published in Acumen 80 last September.

Echo’s Grove by Derek Mahon. The Gallery Press. 208 pp. €13.90 paperback

Leave a Reply