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Derek Mahon, Against the Clock – review

Against the Clock, by Derek Mahon. Gallery Press. 80 pp. €11.95

Life on Earth is my favourite among Mahon’s later collections. Nothing in Against the Clock seems to me as electrifying as that volume’s “Homage to Gaia”, but this too is a remarkably rich work by a mature master.

In the title poem, Mahon is seen spurring himself to write hard and as well as he can against the deadline of death. He describes how he encourages himself to take example from great poets who, whatever their faults in life and art, kept going to the end as writers. Then he describes … Continue Reading

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 … Continue Reading

Yeatsian echoes in Derek Mahon’s “The Lady from the Sea”

Though this poem is subtitled “from the Norwegian of Henrik Ibsen, 1828 – 1906” it seems to me that its dialogue with Yeats is at least as interesting. The line “I stare astonished at the harbour lights” echoes the ending of Yeats’ “Her Triumph” loudly and clearly:

And now we stare astonished at the sea,
And a miraculous strange bird shrieks at us.

In its rhythm and slightly mannered phrasing the line “we might have saved ourselves great misery” sounds exactly like Yeats, and that lends the word “misery” resonances from its context in “No Second Troy” (“Why should I blame … Continue Reading

Derek Mahon, “After the Titanic” – 2

You can find a text of “After the Titanic” here.

The subdued, muttering rhythms, the rich phonetic patterning and the extreme beauty of some of the images heighten the poem’s poignancy and horror in different ways. All three contribute to a play of constantly shifting tensions and contrasts that run through it, vivifying everything in it and keeping our responses to everything alert, divided and alive. They also have more particular effects, some of which I’ll try to describe.

The subduing of the rhythm seems to me a notable achievement of imaginative tact and technical skill. So much in the … Continue Reading

Derek Mahon, “After the Titanic” – 1

You can find a text of “After the Titanic” here.

Friends and I were discussing this poem and a number of others by Mahon a few weeks ago and it produced interestingly mixed reactions. Several liked it the best of all the poems in the batch under consideration. One or two found it more limited in resonance than poems like “A Disused Shed in County Wexford” and “The Snow Party”. I find it both extraordinarily rich and extraordinarily delicate, crammed with complex, interweaving  emotions twined around a series of simple vignettes or imaginative mises-en-scène in a way that combines … Continue Reading

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 … Continue Reading

Derek Mahon, “Life on Earth” – “Homage to Gaia”

It seems too late to write a review of Life on Earth, though Pound did once define poetry as news that stays news. Anyway, as a volume it’s given me steadily renewed pleasure for nearly two years now.

The “Homage to Gaia” sequence in particular seems to me to show a kind of greatness that is almost opposite in nature to the kind that we find in Mahon’s earlier work, for all its continuities with that earlier work in terms of preoccupation and theme.

It’s partly a matter of sheer technical mastery. Again, there is continuity as well as difference. Mahon has … Continue Reading

Derek Mahon, “Afterlives 1”: to face or to evade

I’ve always disliked the way Mahon changed the first line of the fourth stanza of “Afterlives 1” from the original “What middle-class cunts we are” to “What middle-class twits we are” or “What middle-class shits we are”.

I used to think I was simply irritated by his replacing a strong, brutal word with a weaker one and so diluting his expression. But really the nature of the betrayal is more specific than simple dilution. It goes to the heart of the poem. This poem doesn’t just talk about attitudes and ideas, it acts out the emotional conflict in the speaker. It’s … Continue Reading

Rage for Order: Derek Mahon

I’ve just opened a package from Amazon in the kitchen and taken out Derek Mahon’s Life on Earth. The first poem I glanced at was “Paolo and Lighea”. It’s a little six-liner with a wry throwaway feel, a slight piece in a way, but it gave me an instant shock of pleasure and a strong sense of coming home which contrasted quite markedly with the kind of pleasure I’ve had from other very good new books of poetry I’ve read recently. Admittedly, I’ve been reading … Continue Reading