Books: Poetry: A man's aesthetic

THE YELLOW BOOK by Derek Mahon Gallery Press pounds 12.95/pounds 6.95

THE TROUBLES go on troubling and Irish writers go on writing first- rate novels, poems, memoirs and plays. Whether there is some deep, subterranean relationship between these two facts, or whether it's sheer coincidence, cultural historians will perhaps tell us in due course. Meanwhile we can simply rejoice that Ulster should have thrown up three such brilliant and diverse poets as Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Paul Muldoon in the space of a few short years.

Heaney is a household name now, who exacts ritual obeisances from reviewers, and who is as likely to be dining with the President of Harvard or the Emperor of Japan as having a quick one in Grafton Street. Muldoon, now in America and teaching at Princeton, is a three-ring circus in which every aspiring young poet learns to tumble. Of the three it is Mahon who has kept the greatest distance between himself and the poetry circuit, though he has sometimes dabbled in literary journalism and the writing seminar. Mostly he just likes to get on with the business of being damned.

He's more cerebral than Seamus, less puckish than Paul, a devotee of high art and low thrillers, a formalist half in love with chaos and old night who summons the maenads even as he tucks himself up in the ivory tower of metre and rhyme. As the title implies, The Yellow Book is all about art. What price the old verities, and what place for the artist who tries to uphold them in "an age of sado-monetarism"? Pater is one presence, Huysmans and Klimt look in, so does Eugene Lambe (to whom the book is dedicated), a quondam Ginger Man, "one of those perfect writers who never write"; and there's a wonderful poem about Oscar Wilde, that "old windbag. Still full of hot air, / still queer as fuck, and putting on the style, / you spout in the Odeon given half a chance / for yours is the nonchalance of complete despair" ("Rue des Beaux Arts").

This is not Oscar the folk-hero of Channel 4 and gay bars but the semi- heroic wreck who "visits a church to chew the altar rail", "A man of griefs", "an old trendy" whom we don't quite know whether to pity or to cheer.

Pity and scorn and defiant celebration are doled out in tributes to J G Farrell, Elizabeth Bowen, Yeats, Baudelaire, Zelda Fitzgerald, the iron in the souls of Juvenal and Schopenhauer, the cheery goings-on "At the Chelsea Arts Club": "shirts by Jekyll and Hyde, the wine and roses, / the sniftery dandies at their studied poses".

MacNeice's eclogues come to mind occasionally, Lowell's manic zest and Rochester's high-voltage nihilism, the best of which puts the yea-sayers to shame. There's a seemingly dry-eyed elegy for his mother too, and his Belfast childhood: "You too were a kind of artist, a rage-for-order freak / setting against a man's aesthetic of cars and golf / your ornaments and other breakable stuff / ... a glimmer of hope indefinitely postponed". That last line fits the city as well as the individual life, a city he leaves for the ironised "ranchhouses" and "blue skies of the republic".

This "Cold epitaph from your only son" - shades of Yeats in the phrasing, and of Joyce in the lineage - matches the cold eye he turns on himself throughout these poems. "Bone-idle, I lie listening to the rain / ... must I stand out in thunder yet again / who have thrice come in from the cold? Sold / on sobriety, I turn to the idea of nicotine ..." ("Smoke"). The artist as hero and artist as old fart cohabit, without ever becoming self-important or lachrymose, or putting on the fin de siecle purple. "If we started weeping there'd be no end of it" is the closest he comes to a kneeling posture, and that comes in a version of Juvenal. "'Today is the first day of the rest of your life'? / - tell that to your liver; tell that to your ex-wife / ... each line the pretext for a precious cadence, / I keep alight the cold candle of decadence".

But this decadence is of the bracing sort that explodes its own myths and walks the high wire of the singing line, the sort that smiles and weeps over late-century pluralism, "the pleasures of the text ... / some languorous prose at odds with phone and fax". The lonely midnight tower he sits in - "I'm going crazy up here on my own" - might be a tower block, ( a hotel, a crumbling tenement, but it was once sat in by Milton and Yeats. This is his best book since The Hunt by Night, crazy with allusion, marbled with grief, "base metals dreaming of gold".

The Celtic T (above) is from the lace knot alphabet in Celtic Alphabets by Aidan Meehan (Thames and Hudson, pounds 7.95)

Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
artSistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?