Peter Robinson on the aspirations of Derek Mahon’s ‘adaptations’

Derek Mahon
Echo’s Grove
Gallery, €22.50/€13.90

Derek Mahon’s ‘Echo’, subtitled ‘from the Latin of Ovid, Metamorphoses III, 356-402’, begins by explaining how she ‘can’t speak first but answers back’ and concludes: ‘the voice survives. Where? In a hollow cave, / in a valley, a forest clearing, a silent grove’. Naturally, this invites thoughts about the symbiosis

of a possibly narcissistic original text and a helplessly echoing (and self-defeating) translation, which it is forever haunted by. Mahon’s translation effectively imitates the ways her echoing phrases are haplessly ambiguous:

‘Anyone here?’ said he; she answered, ‘Here’.

He paused, surprised, gazing about, and cried,

‘Oh come on!’, hearing the echo cry, ‘Come on!’

The original might be offering good advice about how self-love and the worship of an other can prevent or ruin relationship, for, just as a translation is not metamorphosis (because the original stays the same), so good poems are not narcissistic, because dependent upon relationship with languages, cultures, and readerships, and good translations are not caught in a passively echoic dependency either.

Echo is thus tortured in Ovid and Mahon because her repetitions of the endings of phrases seem always to be interpretable with a sense she doesn’t intend, while the object of her obsession remains uninterested in her. Even this may not be like the relationship between original and translation, because an original, secure in its existence, can usefully be compared with a translation, for a rendering in another language is, in effect, a commentary on its source. What’s more, the translation can’t haplessly echo the original, since it inevitably changes it into the timbres of another language, and, in best cases, another poetic idiom, though not necessarily another’s signature style. Mahon is careful in his foreword to draw a distinction between his Adaptations (the title to his 2006 gathering, of which Echo’s Grove is a substantial enlargement) and Robert Lowell’s ‘imitations’ — one difference lying in Mahon’s actually being adaptations, while what he calls the ‘very uneven quality’ of Lowell’s renderings derives from their not being sufficiently imitative to be appreciable accounts of
the sources.

Echo’s Grove is subtitled Translations. Mahon’s foreword, however, contradicts it by affirming that ‘These aren’t translations, in the strict sense, but versions of their originals devised, as often as not, from cribs of one kind or another’. Yet there is no strict nomenclature for these distinctions: ‘translation’ means any attempted carrying over of one text into another language. So these ‘adaptations’ or ‘versions’ are translations too, even if Mahon can graciously note that the ‘real translator’ of his Propertius ‘exercise’ is Gilbert Highet. Mahon confesses that Propertius ‘gets some rough treatment’ from him, though not as rough as in Ezra Pound’s Homage with its shameless anachronisms: ‘a fridgidaire patent’ or ‘the ancient, respected, / Wordsworthian’. Not sounding like rough treatments at all, the great pleasure of his gathered versions is that you can hear on practically every page the sound of Mahon’s metrical and stanzaic intelligence, his tact and taste as regards linguistic choices, cadences, and rhymes.

He can be freely adaptive, calling his version of Rimbaud’s ‘Ma Bohéme’, for instance, ‘Hitch Hiker’, and Baudelaire’s ‘Je n’ai pas oublié, voisine de la ville’ he calls ‘Antrim Road’. While his renderings from Li Po, Rilke, Pasternak, Guillén, Neruda, Metastasio, Michelangelo, Petrarch and Luzi all recommend themselves, I do feel his versions from such as Baudelaire, Corbière, Rimbaud, Laforgue, Jaccottet,
and Houellebecq benefit from his greater knowledge
of French, because their detail of invention and variation is more closely in touch with what prompts it. Take the fifteenth stanza from Valéry’s ‘Le Cimetière Marin’, Mahon’s ‘The Seaside Cemetery’:

Mixed in a thick solution underground

the white clay is drunk by the crimson kind;

its vigour circulates in the veined flowers.

Where now are the colloquial turns of phrase,

the individual gifts and singular souls?

Where once a tear gathered a grub crawls.

Well, where indeed? Valéry’s ‘L’art personnel’ has been replaced by Mahon’s ‘individual gifts’, and in the dead’s ‘colloquial turns of phrase, / the individual gifts and singular souls’, Valéry’s ‘Où sont des morts les phrases familières, / L’art personnel, les âmes singulières?’ are dust, but resurrected, as another metaphor for translation would have it, in the Irish poet’s colloquialism, giftedness, and singularity. Its rhythms are firm, the late-twentieth-century part-rhyming audible, alluding to the rhyme scheme, rather than fully following it. This too is an echoing effect, not of the original but its own linguistic patterning. There are, inevitably enough, moments when memories of the original in this English-only edition register as regrettable losses, not least for me when in Rimbaud’s ‘Romance’, ‘le cœur fou Robinson’ is done as ‘The daft heart drifts to popular romance’. Where Rimbaud’s allusion to Robinson Crusoe fills his line with a hollowed out heroism, Mahon’s paraphrasing simply re-echoes Rimbaud’s and his own title.

Among many high points here is the sequence ‘Alexandria’, from five poems by Cavafy. ‘Voices’, the third, takes after ‘Phonès’, which, as commentators note, echoes Shelley’s ‘Music’, Tennyson’s ‘Break, Break, Break’ and Verlaine’s ‘Mon Rêve Familier’:

Definitive voices of the loved dead

or the loved lost, as good as dead,

speak to us in our dreams

or at odd moments.


Listening, we hear again,

like music at night,

the original poetry of our lives.

Mahon’s delicate play on ‘original poetry’ sets the living in relation to past voices from both life and literature. His techniques, in his own work too, are keyed to a sound of poetry, like a longed for original, drawn from traditions and resources beyond the competence of any single linguist. Reaching for the sky in versions, for instance, of Lucretius’s ‘On Clouds’, Pushkin’s ‘The Cloud’, and Brecht’s ‘White Cloud’, they aspire to the condition of poetry and, like the aspirant in Collins’s ‘Ode on the Poetical Character’, boldly hunt it as if by sonar. The very least I can say for them is that they achieve this for us too. Inviting readers’ bosoms to return ‘an echo’, the phrase Dr. Johnson used to grant Gray’s ‘Elegy’ its due, this is what they approximately do.

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