Raw Material by Derek Mahon

Raw Material
Derek Mahon
Gallery Press, Paperback; 79 pages
ISBN: 978 1 85235 523 4
Price: £10.50

George Potts


‘An important school of thought (Nabokov and Ted Hughes for example) has always insisted on literal translation’, writes Derek Mahon.. Adhering to a concept of translation  markedly different from that of Nabokov and Hughes, he explains that his most recent volume of translated poems are ‘poems adapted from their originals … to make something not only respectable but also readable, and perhaps re-readable, in a different language’. This volume’s title, like that of his earlier Adaptations (2006), makes clear that a poem of Rilke’s or Pushkin’s is for Mahon a  resource to be mined by a later poet, with which to build another poem without worrying about the fallacy of perfect translation.

Mahon has devoted much of his life to translation, and Raw Material can be seen as a continuation from earlier works such as Words in the Air (1998) and Adaptations. However his range of languages has never been as all-encompassing as it is in here. In 79 pages we move from familiar territory such as Ovid and Rimbaud to Jorge Guillén and the poetry of the Tang dynasty. Included as well are a series of ‘translations’ from the fictional Indian poet Gopal Singh, a creation of Mahon’s who also featured in An Autumn Wind (2010).

The strength of Mahon’s later output – particularly of his work since the 1990s – is a matter of critical debate. Mahon’s endless revision of his work has not helped matters; in the years between Collected Poems (1999) and New Collected Poems (2011) numerous works have been revised, renamed and re-published in other collections. This has confused even Mahon’s most devoted readers. Almost all the poems in Raw Material have already been published elsewhere: ‘Ariadne on Naxos’ in Life on Earth, ‘The Lady from the Sea’, ‘The Clifden Road’, ‘Antrim Road’ and several others in An Autumn Wind. The result is utterly baffling for the reader, who has no idea which book to turn to for what, and is left only with the impression that half these poems will have changed again by the time Mahon’s next volume is released.

Hugh Haughton’s The Poetry of Derek Mahon offers a compelling insight into Mahon’s conception of translation. Commenting upon ‘The Seaside Cemetery’ (from Valéry’s ‘Le Cimetière Marin’), Haughton dwells upon several lines of Mahon’s translation:

But even as fruit consumes itself in taste,
even as it translates its own demise
deliciously in the mouth where its form dies

‘In making “the fruit consume itself in taste”’, Haughton notes, Mahon ‘draws on the self-involved simile … and draws attention to the self-involvement of the poet in translation’. Mahon warns us that the act of translation, in always involving the translating poet, cannot avoid the transformation and appropriation associated with the poet’s interpretation of the source.

A fine instance of Mahon’s ‘adaptation’ theory of translation would be ‘Antrim Road’. We are told the poem is ‘from the French of Charles Baudelaire’, although it is set in Belfast in a ‘suburban house’ when the ‘fiery evening sun’ burns down upon ‘mushy peas and spuds’. The minutiae of the poem’s images (‘white homework’, ‘bottle ships’) and its perfectlyjudged half rhymes (‘clock’/‘book’, ‘hot’/‘hut’) beautifully capture the peace and domesticity of Mahon’s childhood:

A ‘Dresden’ figurine next to the clock
holding her skirt out as she reads a book.

The line echoes ‘A Bangor Requiem’ (originally titled ‘Death in Bangor’, another irritating revision), Mahon’s earlier elegy on the death of his mother and his Northern Irish heritage:

with your wise monkeys and ‘Dresden’ figurines,
your junk chinoiserie and coy pastoral scenes

Which poem of Baudelaire’s has been adapted by Mahon we are not told, which is a shame. While Mahon’s poem seems wholly sui generis, that it is included in a volume of translations tells the reader this is not the case; Baudelaire’s original poem is surely useful in understanding what Mahon is doing in ‘Antrim Road’. Why bother to inform the reader that this is a translation if it is a translation so radically different as to make the source is unrecognisable?

If ‘Antrim Road’ is Mahon appropriating French poetry into the language of his native Ireland, his translations of Michelle Houellebecq offer an interesting contrast to this. Houellebecq, the internationally renowned French novelist, lived for several years on the west coast of Ireland (which features in his award-winning novel Atomised). Houellebecq’s poems ‘La Longue Route de Clifden’, translated in Raw Material by Mahon, is set on Ireland’s west coast:

À l’ouest de Clifden, promontoire
Là où le ciel se change en eau
Là où l’eau se change en mémoire
Tout au bord d’un monde nouveau

Le long des collines de Clifden,
Des vertes collines de Clifden,
Je viendrai deposer ma peine.

Mahon adapts this poem as ‘The Clifden Road’:

West of Clifden on a cliff
where sky changes into sea
and sea to memory as if
at the edge of a new world

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

The poem was also recently translated into English by Delphine Grass and Timothy Matthews, in The Art of Struggle. If we compare the opening of their translation, ‘The Long Road to Clifden’, with Mahon’s version:

West of Clifden, headland,
Where the sky changes to water
Where water changes to memory
At the edge of a new world

Along the hills of Clifden
The green hills of Clifden
I shall lay down my pain.

There are several choice words in the two translations. Mahon translates ‘promontoire’ as ‘cliff’ rather than the more literal ‘headland’, which Grass and Matthews use. The geographical location of the poem is technically a headland:  Sky Road, ‘west of Clifden’ on the Irish coast from which one can gaze out onto the Atlantic Ocean. Mahon’s choice of ‘cliff’ offers little apart from the rather monotonous echo of ‘cliff’ and ‘Clifden’.

The main issue in Mahon’s translation is his choice of title. Grass and Matthews translate the title literally as ‘The Long Road to Clifden’; Mahon chooses ‘The Clifden Road’. Mahon’s title seems rather plain; in dropping the word ‘long’, it loses that sense of enduring struggle that is so important to Houellebecq’s poem. ‘Peine’, translated as ‘pain’ or ‘grief’ in these two versions, is transcended in some way as one gazes out at the Atlantic Ocean. Houellebecq is looking to Ireland’s west-coast as a source of redemption much as he does at the ending of Atomised and the road to this redemption is made all the more poignant for being a long one.

There are many wonderful poems in this Raw Material, including ‘Antrim Road’, ‘A Hot October’ and the magnificent ‘A Window’ (‘a rustling poplar makes a visible breeze, / the twilight describes a circle of peace / and a soaring sky adapts to my own horizon’). If there is a criticism to be made, it is that so much of this volume has been published before and that this is not made clear anywhere in it. Those who own other recent Mahon books such as Adaptations and An Autumn Wind may be disappointed to buy Raw Material and find much that they’ve read before.

For those who have not invested in those volumes Raw Material contains much to be enjoyed, in particular the translations of the Spanish poet Jorge Guillén, which are published here for the first time. If there is one thing Mahon’s readers can hope it is that he stops incessantly revising his own work, a fear Mahon seems to recognise in ‘A Year of Grace’ from this collection: ‘I’ll never write so well again, / only the same poems over and over’.

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