Echo’s Grove comprises a wide range of poems, ancient and modern, translated or ‘adapted’ from their languages of origin. Many have appeared in previous publications by Derek Mahon, Adaptations (2006) and Raw Material (2011) — to which are now added, among others, new poems based on Ovid, Corbière, Laforgue and ‘Gopal Singh’ (the author’s own invention). The Propertius, T’ang, trobairitz and Nerval sequences are here, together with ‘The Seaside Cemetery’, a much admired version of Valéry’s ‘Le Cimetière marin’; and choruses from the plays.
These versions take many liberties in the hope that they will read almost like original poems in English, allowing their sources to remain audible.
All his versions are good poems in their own right, many are superb, and however close to or far from their originals they may be in details, as you read through the volume you have a strong sense of being addressed by different voices and being made to see the world through different eyes.
. . . Resonance with Mahon’s own experiences and preoccupations is very much to the point. It’s what enables him to give his translation poetic life. As Eliot said, “Good translation is not merely translation, for the translator is giving the original through himself, and finding himself through the original.
. . . Admittedly most of these poems are already available in different collections by Mahon. Such a substantial number are in either Raw Material or Adaptations that the general reader who owned both these volumes might hesitate before buying this one. However, I think there are huge gains to the way they’re brought together here, and amplified by other poems. This really is a book that asks to be taken and read through as a whole, following the historical sequence of poets and their cultures, allowing echoes to accumulate and one’s awareness of difference and contrast to grow.
— Edmund Prestwich, Acumen
Recycling preoccupations and obsessions
Derek Mahon’s introduction to Echo’s Grove, his collected translations, describes how he looks for “affinities of idea, shape and atmosphere” between his work and the work of those he chooses to translate. As well as exhibiting his taste, this new book might be said, then, to recycle (a favourite Mahon verb) his own preoccupations and obsessions through other poets’ poems.
Mahon’s first book, Night Crossing (1968), included the poem Glengormley, which began: “Wonders are many and none more wonderful than man / Who has tamed the terrier, trimmed the hedge / And grasped the principle of the watering can.”
Forty-five years later Echo’s Grove begins with the stanza to which he alluded then, from Sophocles’s Antigone:
Wonders are many and none
more wonderful than man
whose sail and plunging prow
cleave a windswept path
through life-threatening seas;
who opens the rich earth
year after year with his
worn-out unwavering plough.
“Our visionary technology / outwits the throbbing thrush,” he continues, although this more even-toned adaptation ends up as mortally aware as Glengormley: “Only against / death do we strive in vain.” Mahon often engineers this kind of allusive surface tension: there is a lot of enjoyable backchat between his poems and these translations.
Such equivalences are evident, too, when he sets his translation of Philippe Jaccottet’s To Henry Purcell a few pages before his translation of Denis Rigal’s Autumn in Grignan. This is itself dedicated to Jaccottet, a poem whose pastoral landscape Mahon’s readers will find familiar: “Some bare-field lavender in wilting rows / and grapes to gather after the first frost / that make this pale white wine, this quiet wine.”
Likewise, Mahon’s translations of Michel Houellebecq bring the French writer to the western fringes that Mahon himself has often haunted, “where sky changes into sea / and sea to memory as if / at the edge of a new world” (The Clifden Road).
The peak of Mahon’s translator’s art is probably his version of Paul Valery’s The Seaside Cemetery, which really does read like a wonderful new poem in English, albeit its philosophical poise and energy also feel like an extension of Mahon’s own style:
Objective noon films with its fiery glaze
a shifting sea, drifters like dipping doves,
and my reward for thought is a long gaze
down the blue calm of these celestial groves.
Readers of Echo’s Grove will discover a kind of Desert Island Discs — Mahon’s selections include the greatest hits of Valery, Sophocles, Ovid, Li Po, Rimbaud (The Drunken Boat), Cavafy (The City) and Rilke, but the book is packed, too, with rarities and interesting B-sides from those poets, as well as a selection from Congolese poets who will be news to most readers and further work from his invented Indian alter ego, Gopal Singh, whose Recycling Song ends:
Throw nothing out; recycle
the vilest rubbish, even
your own discarded page.
Everything comes full circle:
see you again in heaven
some sunny evening in a future age.
— John McAuliffe, The Irish Times
Has Mahon succeeded in writing versions that are “readable and perhaps re-readable” as he had hoped in his foreword? Very much so. Each of the texts can be enjoyed on its own, as a poem in its own right, and for its refreshing take on the original, but it truly is in reading the collection as a whole, and in rereading it several times, that Echo’s Grove comes to life, as the poems begin to form a dialogue across centuries of literature. This is a beautiful and ambitious volume which reaffirms the importance of Derek Mahon’s voice in the dialogue between Ireland and abroad.
— Florence Impens, Dublin Review of Books
Year Published: 2013
ISBN PBK: 978 1 85235 566 1
ISBN ebook: 978 1 85235 623 1