Derek Mahon, Raw Material

These poems don’t read like translations at all – Mahon has made them so much his own that they come across as original compositions in English, and mostly as compositions of rare brilliance.[1] All his gifts are on display – the golden-tongued eloquence; the sensitivity of imagination that fills his words with so much of the life and movement of the things they describe; the instinct for form that makes his lines sing and that leads us so artfully through dances of expectation and surprise; the ranging intelligence, at once embracing and sceptical; and the delicacy of expressive touch that lets wide vistas of unstated suggestion accumulate around individual phrases. These qualities make the poems delight on first reading but also make them endlessly rereadable, offering new things to your own intelligence and imagination each time you go back to them.

While all the poems read like original work, without the muffled quality you tend to find in more literal translation, different voices and sensibilities come strongly through them, fused, as it were, with Mahon’s own. This gives the book tremendous variety and range as the perspectives and life experiences of different speakers are played against each other. The sense of dramatic projection is most immediately arresting in the poems from Propertius (the “Sextus and Cynthia” section) but Mahon’s gift for capturing the movements and inflections of speech within formal metrical and stanzaic structures is put to vivid use throughout the book to imaginatively differentiate the voices of the different poets he translates or adapts. This is a natural development of something we see throughout his writing life. He’s always been drawn to contradictory positions, writing poems fraught with self-division, projecting himself into imagined personae, and vividly aware that what you see depends on how you look and where you look from. He’s always incorporated the translated voices of other poets into his books. In this one, he does so on a larger scale, in a more systematic way as he shifts from one inspiring poet to another[2].

Paradoxically, one of the most poignant effects of this emphasis on the natural movement of speech comes with the deliberate abstention from such a sense in “The Clifden Road”, translated from Michel Houellebecq’s “La Longue Route de Clifden”. In the second stanza the cadences of song completely replace the cadences of the speaking voice:

on the long hills of Clifden
the green hills of Clifden
I will lay down my grief

In other poems qualities of song and speech are artfully entwined so that the lines speak and sing at the same time. Here, when the lines stop singing the impression is not of a shift to speech but of the song’s failing to lift itself off the ground:

To accept death it must be
that death changes into light
that light changes into sea
and sea into memory.

The effect is extremely powerful, and it’s an effect of sheer form. Firstly, the breaking into a birdlike purity of song both universalises the yearning that is being expressed and makes it seem poignantly out of human reach. Secondly, the breaking down of the song suggests how the yearning has to struggle against not only external obstacles but its own weakness or the weariness of the speaker. We see this struggle in the last stanza I quoted, where the patterned repetitions of “death”, “light” and “sea” seem to strain to lift the lines into lyricism but where sound and rhythm refuse to supply the necessary lyrical lift[3].

It might seem odd to have included the “Raw Material” section of poems “translated” from the fictitious Hindi poet Gopal Singh in a volume of actual translations from real people. I think these pieces earn their place not only because several of them are particularly fine but also because of how they fit into the structure and idea of the volume as a whole. Be that as it may, the last of the group – “Up at the Palace” – is enormously powerful. The section on the Dalits or “untouchables”, imagined as staring “like crows” at the sumptuous goings on at the town palace, is made almost unbearably moving by the formal elegance and restraint, the compassionate hopelessness, with which the speaker describes the extremity of their oppression, in which they themselves are made complicit by the power of the myth of karma:

The curse of karma keeps them in their places
gazing at lighted windows with rapt faces.
People, the terrible things you must have done
when you were soldiers of fortune, local kings
or naughty nautsch girls in the old days!
Did you crush pearls for aphrodisiacs,
poison your cousins for a shaky throne
or cripple your tenants with a punitive tax?

No, you did nothing of the kind of course
but you were born into a dream of shame
whose violent colours filled the universe …

I can’t read or type those last two lines, coming at them through the whole poem, without being overwhelmed by emotion.

Phrasing in this passage appears simple but immense poetic power and sophistication go into the unobtrusive loading of the words with reverberations. To take a few random examples, the cliché “keeps them in their places” is given a literal strength and weight of meaning by the vivid emphasis on the physical, spatial separation of the different groups of people in the poem. They really are not just in but kept in different places, because karma and caste are for life. For modern Europeans (I’m thinking of Mahon’s readers) the idea of people being “kept in their place” evokes scorn at forms of snobbery that seem outmoded and laughable. That complacent response starts into life only to collide against awareness of the dreadful power of caste divisions in India. “Crush”, “poison” and “cripple” enter the poem with a ring of irony introducing lurid fantasies of the wrongs the Dalits might have done in past lives but then settle on our imaginations with leaden weight as apt descriptions of the wrongs done not by the Dalits in past lives but to them in this one. The urbane Gopal Singh, one foot in India and one in the West, dismisses the idea that the Dalits did do these things  – perhaps reluctantly, because if they had done there would at least be a kind of justice to their present sufferings – but part of the pathos of the situation is that the Dalits themselves not only probably do believe it but may even cling to the belief as a consolatory fantasy. The power of the phrase “dream of shame” seems to me to depend above all on sound and how it fits into the movement of sound within the stanza as a whole but semantically it brings a violent clash between ideas of the unreality of a dream – and thus the fragility and transience dreams should have – and the unbreakable power of this nightmare . Finally, the phrase “violent colours” with its violence of metaphor and (in the context of this poem) of sound brings to mind the (to us) often garish colours of Indian art, particularly perhaps in pictures of the battles between gods, demons and mythical kings; the violence attributed to the Dalits in a previous life; and above all the violence done to them as they’re crushed and crippled and their whole existence is poisoned by this hideous myth.

Physically the paperback is a beautifully produced object, like Mahon’s Adaptations, also by Gallery Books.


[1] As he says in his introduction, they are adaptations, “looking to recreate the spirit [of their originals] and employing some extraneous devices … to make something not only respectable but also readable, and perhaps rereadable, in another language.”

[2] It’s been objected that many of the poems of Raw Material have already been published in recent volumes, so a Mahon enthusiast is being asked to pay again for what he probably already owns. This is a fair point but I think it misses another one. Raw Material is a total composition. Bringing these poems together allows a more organised interplay of their contrasting perspectives than when they were scattered among other pieces.

[3] If you want to see how much the musicality of Mahon’s version is his own creation, compare the quotations from Delphine Grass and Timothy Matthews’ translation of this poem that are given at and at (another review of Raw Material). You can find the whole of “La Longue Route de Clifden” at

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