Seagull visions

Richard Tyrell finds pain and pitbulls in new Irish poetry
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Derek Mahon wrote some of the best poems of the Seventies and Eighties, and in The Hudson Letter (Gallery, pounds 6.99) has written the loneliest of the Nineties. Opening with a love poem, proceeding through translations and clerihews, it ends with a long sequence evoking post-divorce bachelorhood.

Lonely is the word. Mahon describes a nightmare life. He is elated when five messsages ("5!") are left on his answerphone. He gives thanks for the consolation of the video recorder or a brief phone chat with his daughter (to whom he must apologise since he doesn't have the money for her school fees). His self-image is at a clinically-depressed low:

"I who once had a poem in the New Yorker,/and spend old age, if any, in an old mac/ with the young audibly sneering behind my back."

The howl of despair may be painful, but this is his most human work to date. At times in the past Mahon has been distant, setting his intelligence at play and putting a gleaming enamel over personal feelings. An outstanding formal poet, it now comes as a revelation to have such a sustained focus on his private life, and to learn that he likes King Kong as much as the dainty art of Hokusai or Pieter de Hooch. This is a book that offers great rewards and is, alongside Glyn Maxwell's Rest for the Wicked, the new collection of the year.

Eavan Boland was in college with Mahon in the Sixties. In her Collected Poems (Carcanet, pounds 9.95) she recollects sitting at a table counting out beats. Her fastidious nature underlies a poetry that has flourished in the last decade, though she admits she had a long struggle with spontaneity.

There are two strands to Boland. One the "domestic" poet who probes the nature of womanhood, imagining the wife-and-mother as a sort of Promethean heroine. The other has a roving intelligence that links subtle, often historical, ideas - as in 'That the Science of Cartography is Limited', where the straggling roads you see on Irish maps remind her of work given to starving labourers during the Great Famine. Her images are always precise, her candour and self-knowledge clear, and, whether writing about a black fan, greenhouse fruit or German girls in exile, each poem is engraved like a cameo.

The Tyrone poet John Montague is more prized in America than Britain, but his Collected Poems (Gallery, pounds 13.95) might change all that. It opens with his three long poems, exhibiting his peculiar ability - a breakdown of complex issues into observations that have the power of myth about them. In one master-stroke, he evokes a whole town by imagining a seagull fly overhead and peer down on its people and their symbols.

Montague's subjects are the sectarianisms of Ulster, the lost histories of Gaelic Ireland, the organic chains of local life and the family. At his best, he shows how basic things in Ireland, a gaunt farmhouse or a leaping fire in a Catholic grate, are part of a web of historical of folkloric associations.

He has a deep understanding of character, especially the psychologies and habits of rural people. And his skill with the ordinary details of life make reading him - as was said about Seamus Heaney - feel "as if our minds had been refurnished."

Brendan Kennelly, on the other hand, surely doesn't mean us to take Poetry My Arse (Bloodaxe, pounds 9.95) seriously, but it has rollicking episodes that make it a good Christmas stocking filler. Kennelly writes excessively, often poorly, often with a great humour. This is an "epic'' about the life of Ace de Horner, who, we are told, is the type of artist you find in post-colonial cities like Dublin - a Brendan Behan for the Nineties. Horner goes blind, boozes, bonks, keeps a pitbull terrier, and throws his poems into the Liffey. But beneath the goofiness we catch a glimpse of the biting gossip of the Irish capital.

Modern Irish Poetry (Blackstaff, pounds 14.99), edited by Patrick Crotty, is an excellent anthology. Crotty defines "modern" as post-Yeats, but argues that Irish poets often show Yeatsian obsessions. It is with the generations of the last thirty years - Heaney, the Ulster poets, Durcan and Boland - that one feels a sense of full liberation.

Crotty chooses over 250 pieces from the 1920s to today, though omitting some good poets (no Catherine Byron or Harry Clifton). He refreshingly includes dual texts by major Gaelic writers like Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill. And the historical line, through MacNeice, Kavanagh and Heaney, is boosted by inclusion of recent voices like Maurice Riordan and Ian Duhig.