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)

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