I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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Not at Rest

Magdalena Kay
Against the Clock, by Derek Mahon, The Gallery Press, 80 pp, €11.95, ISBN: 978-911337423 Derek Mahon’s new volume of poems, Against the Clock, again proves him one of the greatest contemporary masters of poetic form. Preoccupied as he is with his advancing age and the “final deadline” looming in the future, the suppleness and subtleness of his flexible rhythms and rhymes keep the subject from becoming ponderous. Mahon knows all about the dark side of life, but has an extraordinary ability to set his style against it, as it were, so that his formal ingenuity provides a counterweight. It would be false to say that the darkness is vanquished ‑ it is not. A Mahon poem does not engage in illusionary antics or light-headed optimism. It knows the type of world in which it must reside. But its own energy carries it through with panache: “life is short and time, the great reminder, / closes the file of new poems in line / for the printer and binder” ‑ and these lines in parenthesis no less. Rhymes as unusual as “reminder” and “binder” abound in this volume, and display one of Mahon’s greatest talents: his ability to take so-called traditional forms and subject them to change and play. At this point in his career it seems effortless. His play with the units of poetic form is creative to the point of ingenuity ‑ but not quite, since Mahon sets himself against ingenuity for its own sake, or wordplay that is not anchored by deep feeling. And yet “play” is the right word for what this serious poet allows himself to do, and perhaps must do. Some of the poems here were already published in Rising Late, but this volume has a slightly different focus. A sense of artistic calling permeates Against the Clock. Several poems refer to the poet’s work, and manage to strike a tenuous balance between the prescriptive demands of a typical ars poetica and the tonal variation of a typical Mahon poem. Here again, his rhymes are illustrative: in “Working Conditions”, an “inconstant beat” rhymes with, but warns against, trying to be “too ‘great’”, while the rhyme of “time”, “tedium” and “wisdom” needs little gloss. Writing that proclaims itself as “too ‘great’” and wise can indeed seem tedious. Mahon is never one to hold himself above us, or even above his time and place ‑ he has, in another poem, learned how…



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