Friday, 24 September 2010

Old Fart? Derek Mahon's new collection

Derek Mahon's new collection of poetry left me in two minds. On the one hand, he can craft poems with deceptive ease which explore their subjects with intelligence, wit and sensitivity. On the other hand, he's swallowed anti-globalisation politics, and he expresses its reactionary mind-set in heavy-handed didactic verse using tired tropes. Its strongest points are the translations and the final section, where he seems to be translating the 'fictitious Hindi poet Gopal Singh'; its weakest when he's being himself.

The collection begins with a striking translation/ adaption of Homer. Like Heaney, he uses colloquial idiomatic phrases to make formal poetry sound as if it is form of speech. The selection is also appropriate because the poem is about the beginning of a return, and many poems in the collection refer to this idea, whether it be in relation to Hindu philosophy or his own life, in retirement.

Blueprint, the next poem, is an ode is three parts which contrasts city and country. Capitalism is failing and we need to 're-enchant the world'. There's some clumsy didactic writing in it and the ideas within it are too leaden to rescue it from its stylistic failings.

A Quiet Spot which follows gives the game away. Mahon's retired to the sea side and has turned his back on cosmopolitan life. There's some sentimentality in the poem but I think he carries it off, Gaia reference and all, because of his mix of traditional regular verse forms and contemporary vocabulary. In case, you were wondering why I called him reactionary, he exhorts his audience 'to create a future from the past', echoing the theme of return which appears in many guises throughout this collection.

The Thunder Shower is one of the weakest poems in the collection. The Poulenc and Brahms of rain is contrasted with 'bits of recorded pop and rock' which emanate from the city. I'll try not to mention the 'tiny voices in a creche/ piercing the muggy air'. I'll pass by the fact that Poulenc is 'plinky' and Brahms is 'groaning'. On the plus side, Mahon does try to offer a critique of neo-con madness, but in my view, a good political poem needs nuance and subtlety, and this has neither, although it isn't as chronically bad as World Trade Talks:

Next spring, when a new crop begins to grow,

let it not be genetically modifed

but such as the ancients sowed

in the old days.

When I read stuff like this I really get a sense of Mahon looking out at sea from a house paid for by a generous public sector pension cursing the rest of us for our materialism and waste. And I just want to quote one of his great poems from the 1970's, Afterlives: What middle-class cunts we are and leave him to chew on that.

Beached Whale is a lot better although it is slightly marred by the random attribution of an afterlife consciousness to the dead beast:

Dead of some strange respiratory disease
she knows we aim to make a study of her.

Sorry, that just doesn't wash (lol)!

Thankfully, the poems in this section do get better as you go on. At the Butler Arms and Sceilig Bay benefit from focussing on historical subjects. Art and Reality is addressed to the dead poet, James Simmons, and is the sort of far-reaching verse letter Mahon excels in writing. Everything is concrete, even those most high-minded of abstractions 'reality' and 'art', with Simmons and Mahon playing these parts respectively in a dispute 'in the Longley's house'. OK, so on the face of it this may sound like name dropping, but I read this as intimate chat within which we're all neighbours. The same epistleory format is used in the impressive Under the Volcano, which veers from observation, to references to histocial fact, geographical information and speculative thinking. This may not sound very poetic but what I think Mahon is doing is attempting to be Homeric by including lots of stuff in poetry which usually gets left out of the contemporary lyric. The poem itself is in danger at points of becoming another one of his dreadful eco-poems but it's rescued by the way he contrasts nature's chaos with his own 'rage for order'. Ultimately, the salvation of philosophical poetry is complexity, ambivalence and ambiguity (indeed, if you're perfectly clear about something you might as well write an essay, or blog).

Possibly the best poem in this section is Autumn Skies. This starts off in history and moves on to the here and now, with a spiritual vision and a comment on the peace process, which is particularly moving coming from one of the greatest poets of 'the Troubles'. Its key lines, and perhaps the key lines of the collection are:

If a thing happens once
it happens forever

The cheekist and most brilliant lines are these on the intellectual tuition provided by rugby:

learning from the scrum/how to advance against/the exigencies of form

The next section contains some marvellously lucid yet down-to-earth translations of Chinese poets, including Tu Fu. They are quite different from David Hinton's intense free verse renderings. Somehow they manage to be both Northern Irish and Chinese

As you'd expect, we are too poor for wine/ but somewhere I've got a drop of the old moonshine

These translations can be impish but more often than not they are beautiful, melancholy and wise. Autumn Fields is probably the key to Mahon's own state of mind. Although the poem is an authentic translations (at least the subject matter is very similar to Hinton's) the tone is Mahon's. The key lines are:

An autumn wind shivers my walking stick/ but peace of mind resides in ferns, flowers

The last section is, in my opinion, the best and most original. They deal with the questions of development and tradition that Mahon is interested in, but being Indian, the spiritual is a bit more everyday and taken a little less seriously. Thus in Dharma Bums, Western kids on the eastern spiritual trail

.....sit like tramps/ beside the road,/ each on a dusty bum,/ when they should be at home in advertising.

Advertising the benefits/ of our spirituality -/ Ganesh the god of profit,/ Sarawati the celebrant of it,/ Rama of many dominions/ and Krishna, 'brighter than a thousand suns'.

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