Asda and aerobics

THE HUDSON LETTER by Derek Mahon Gallery Press pounds 12.95/pounds 6.95
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The Independent Culture
THERE's a story about an Irish poet shouting the odds in a pub, back in the early 1980s, and getting up everybody's nose with his blether. Michael Longley banged his pint down on the table and said: "Now let's get this straight! Seamus is number one, Derek is number two, and I'm number three. Get in the drink like a good boy and shut your face."

It may be apocryphal, it would have raised hackles in Dublin (what about Thomas Kinsella and Paul Durcan?), and it failed to allow for the meteoric rise of Paul Muldoon, but it expresses the general consensus of the time. The Nobel prize confirms Seamus Heaney's position as king of the cats, and it couldn't have happened to a nicer or more scrupulous poet. Meanwhile, far from the promotions and hungry generations, his friend and contemporary Derek Mahon goes on showing us why other poets rush out to buy, beg or steal his latest book, whenever one appears, in order to check their sensibilities against his austere craftsmanship and high, secular, mystical imagination.

It's easy enough to make spiritual-sounding noises by throwing around religious words ("grace" is the all-time favourite) and pretending that thought is the enemy of feeling, thus paving the way for second-hand pieties about the birds and bees; or to take the opposite tack and bury your head in the convenience food of "cultural constructs", like Ashbery and Peter Porter, in the belief that a TV dinner is a more honest buy than a ploughman's lunch. Mahon sticks to the harder school of the via media, attempting to make sense of angels as well as of Asda and aerobics, the rock music of real rocks, sensing intimations of immortality in a coal shed or a New York bar, revising our "insolent ontologies" to reinstate the numinous alongside the bathetic. Who else would write a poem called "The Apotheosis of Tins", or go looking for "the banished gods" not amongst the relics of Romanticism but in the "terminal democracy" of a rubbish-strewn tideline?

At first sight, The Hudson Letter is a less commanding book than The Hunt by Night (1982) or the Selected Poems of 1991, its "magic and redemption" buried under a snowstorm of quotations and epigraphs, the wry lyricism giving way to "Burbles" ("after Beckett"), "Anglo-Irish Clerihews", light- verse quatrains and various translations. Once past this small beer, however, there's "The Yaddo Letter", addressed to the children he's now separated from, and the 40-page title poem, a series of meditations on his current life in Manhattan, where he teaches writing and courts his elusive muse: "Now that we all get laid and everyone swings,/ who needs the formal continence of l'amour/ courtois...?"

A broken marriage, and its consequent guilts and loneliness, is one recurring theme ("I go nightshopping like Frank O'Hara I go bopping / up Bleeker for juice, croissants, Perrier, ice-cream" or come home to "sixty channels of mind-polluting yuck"). The difficulties of remaking his soul in verse is another. It's a more open, confessional sort of book than the ones we're used to, though it has nothing to do with madness and breakdown, more with the attempt to rekindle that rage for order which coexists with his destructive streak (see those Maenads at the end of "Courtyards in Delft") and "rich despair".

The best poems here tend to be those issued in the voice of a persona, such as "Sappho in 'Judith's Room' ", and those in which raw pain is mediated by the babel of culture. "Beauty and the Beast", for example, a paean to Fay Wray: "I've had them all in my room on video - / Leigh, Grahame, Taylor, Kelly and Monroe; / but why so few poems for the women I know?".

The tone throughout is one of assertive humility. He calls himself all sorts of hard names, while issuing prayers for his son and daughter, and bellowing an excess of allusions on the cold night air - "A Haitian driver, riffing like Racine, / whisks me up Hudson St in a thunderstorm". A touch of the Lowells there, perhaps. Racine, the acme of propriety, playing riffs is as engaging idea as the "dream / of redemptive form" that underpins Mahon's whole enterprise. A "Polonius of the twilight zone" he may be, in this latest guise, but one with some princely monologues still up his sleeve.