NEW COLLECTED POEMS:
Billy Ramsell reviews Derek Mahon's latest publication
Billy Ramsell was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1977 and educated at the North Monastery and UCC. Complicated Pleasures, his debut collection, was published by the Dedalus Press, Dublin, in 2007. He has been shortlisted for a Strong Award and a Hennessy Award. He lives in Cork, where he co-runs an educational publishing company. In 2012 he takes up the editorship of the Irish domain on www.poetryinternational.org .
Photo © John Minihan
New Collected Poems
(Gallery Press, 2011)
€20 paperback/ €35 hardback
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In Collected Poems, published in 1999, ‘In Carrowdore Churchyard’, one of Derek Mahon’s most admired and anthologised performances, boasts the following unforgettable second stanza:
Your ashes will not fly, however the rough winds burst
Through the wild brambles and the reticent trees.
All we may ask of you we have; the rest
Is not for publication, will not be heard.
Maguire, I believe suggested a blackbird
And over your grave a phrase from Euripides.
However, in New Collected Poems, published this year, the stanza reads:
Your ashes will not fly, however the winds roar
Through elm and bramble. Soon the biographies
And buried poems will begin to appear,
But we pause here to remember the lost life
Maguire proposes a blackbird in low relief
Over the grave, and a phrase from Euripides.
The alteration comes with a jolt; like returning from the shops to find your favourite room unexpectedly and radically redecorated. (As a further surprise the poem has been retitled ‘Carrowdore’).
Each new Mahon compilation raises again the persistent and persistently interesting debate surrounding appropriateness or otherwise of revision. To what extent should the elderly or middle-aged poet meddle with the efforts of his or her younger self? It is a question that has much informed discussion of Kinsella and Auden among others. (Yeats, oddly enough, himself an inveterate reviser of his published works, is only seldom mentioned in this regard).
There is a sense in which Mahon views his rewriting as a provocative act of recoupment. Through revision he asserts ownership once more of his verses, of immutably hewn octosyllabic and tentative haiku alike. The poems, he seems to declare, have not been released into the wild. They are no independent participants in a vast and amorphous cultural eco-sphere. They remain his.
Lovers are conservative. We consumers of culture are naturally resistant to revisions such as Mahon’s, inevitably protective of the works we so foolishly fall for. Nobody wants to put on Sergeant’s Pepper’s and find it transformed into grime-core or wake to find every extant copy of St Matthew’s Passion redone as bossa nova. Yet there is something almost objectively unsettling, something eerily anachronistic, about this revisionist impulse. It stands out; like the coloniser’s flag replanted in a territory long settled into independence.
Thankfully, then, Mahon’s editorial touch has remained relatively light this time round. The changes to ‘Carrowdore’ highlighted above being perhaps the most obvious and egregious. Surely only Mahon himself will view them as an improvement. 'Courtyards in Delft', another classic, has had its final stanza un-and re-installed several times over the years. Here the stanza is retained, but in what seems a fatally weakened form. In 1999 the poem’s last lines were:
I must be lying low in a room there
a strange child with a taste for verse,
while my hard-nosed companions dream of fire
and sword upon parched veldt and fields of rain-swept gorse.
The ‘New Coke’ 2011 version concludes:
I must be lying low in a room there
a strange child with a taste for verse,
while my hard-nosed companions dream of war
on parched veldt and fields of rain-swept gorse.
A number of poems, like ‘The Yaddo Letter’, an informal and moving verse missive to his estranged children, have been harmlessly yet pointlessly tinkered with. A very few, like the recent ‘Shorelines’, have been expanded. Both ‘The Yaddo Letter’ and ‘Shorelines’ have been renamed; the former is now dubbed ‘Yaddo, or A Month in the Country’ and the latter ‘Sand Studies’. Indeed there are many such seemingly arbitrary changes of title: ‘North Wind: Portrush’ is now known as ‘Northwind’, ‘De Quincey in Later Life’ as ‘De Quincey at Grasmere’ and ‘Achill’ as ‘Beyond the Pale’.
And then there are the omissions. From early in his career Mahon has exactingly shaped and reshaped his canon, excluding and occasionally readmitting poems as he moves from one compilation to the next. The present volume is no exception. Every Mahonite will find a favourite or two seemingly inexplicably as láthair. Not only neglected gems like ‘Ariadne on Naxos’ but also major statements like ‘A Kensington Notebook’ have failed to make the grade this time around. Even sui generis meditations like ‘The Forger’ and ‘The Apotheosis of Tins’ are left on the cutting room floor.
Of the recent ‘Kinsale Trilogy’ An Autumn Wind fares by the far the worst, losing two entire sections. The poems in question are victims of Mahon’s tendency to keep separate his original works from his translations, versions and poems ‘after’ other poets. The ‘original’ and ‘unoriginal’ mingle fairly freely in individual slim volumes but are segregated when it comes to compilations and retrospectives. Yet the omission from the present book of ‘Raw Material’, a series of translations from what is after all a ‘fictional’ Indian poet, surely represents an over-application of this rule.
It would be fascinating if Mahon were to someday publish some essay or statement describing his editorial policy, letting us in on the instincts and thought processes that determine which poems do or do not pass muster at a given moment of compilation. When all’s said and done, however, who are we to gainsay the master and his methods?
And it was a mastery that came early. The opening pages of New Collected Poems provide a salutary, perhaps even depressing, reminder of just how fully formed he came to publication. In pieces like ‘Spring in Belfast’, ‘Glengormley’ and ‘A Portrait of the Artist’ we watch a young perfectionist come close as makes no difference to perfection. It is the same perfectionism, no doubt, the brings him again and again to tinker with his published texts.
One of the present volume’s great pleasures is the opportunity it affords to track once again Mahon’s development from the detached wanderer of the early years, debonair, Francophile, ironic, to the somewhat cookie-cutter environmentalist and anti-capitalist of the 2000’s, dreaming on a Goa beach of solar panels and reincarnation.
In between, of course, there was the grouchy and nihilistic ‘man out of time’ behind The Hudson Letter and The Yellow Book. (Here unfortunately renamed ‘New York Time’ and ‘Decadence’ respectively). These volumes marked a loosening or slackening of Mahon’s taut early style and received at best a mixed reception. Yet they have aged well; they feel somehow timelier in our present crisis than at their moment of publication and seem well worth their place in the oeuvre.
The slow journey through this volume’s nearly four hundred pages will leave any reader almost exhausted from brilliance; not only from well-flagged highlights like ‘The Snow Party’ and ‘Last of the Fire Kings’ but also from half-forgotten beauty spots like ‘Goa’ and ‘Brian Moore’s Belfast’. Newer achievements like ‘The Cloud Ceiling’ and ‘Monochrome’ contribute to the dazzling.
It would be remiss not to commend Gallery Press for the book’s production values. It must be one of the most physically attractive books of poetry published in the last year. It is an exquisite blue box full of exquisite things.
©2012 Billy Ramsell
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Poems and extended bio at Poetry International Web
Ramsell to read in the 2012 Cork Spring Poetry Festival