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  • “A decadent who lived to tell the story”: Derek Mahon’s The Yellow Book
  • David G. Williams (bio)

In 1990, Derek Mahon told an interviewer in the Irish paper The Sunday Tribune that his recent experience of writing translations of Euripides and Molière for the stage was “good practice for arriving at the kind of more conversational verse I’m aiming at now.” 1 The type of verse that Mahon had in mind can be seen in such poems as “The Yaddo Letter,” a verse letter written from the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, to his children, and The Hudson Letter (1995), the second part of which was a long poem called “The Hudson Letter,” split up into eighteen sections, many of them containing his wide-ranging reflections on living in New York City. Mahon was, at that time, a teacher at New York University and Barnard College. The “conversational” mode is particularly in evidence in the title poem, in which the verse letter form—especially in the sections of the poem addressed to his children and to his friend Patricia King—helps to create a note of colloquial intimacy and informality of speech. This is evident, for example, in section XI (“Chinatown”), as he offers to his son fatherly advice mingled with self-mockery:

but, now that you’ve reached the age of rock and soccer and I the age of “serious medicine,” let me, Polonius of the twilight zone —a pseudo-Dionysus, his oats sown— offer you some belated, functional succour. I need hardly speak to you in praise of women since you grew up amongst them. (So did I but there’s a tale will keep indefinitely.) Be thou familiar but by no means vulgar; shun [End Page 111] the fatuous rectitude of received opinion, new-speak and euphemism. 2

Throughout “The Hudson Letter,” Mahon interleaves this ease of address with a host of other idioms and voices from a variety of sources—commercial, demotic, journalistic and literary (the poem is densely allusive)—to create a hybridized style which articulates different facets of Mahon’s responses to living in the intensities of New York. Thus, section XII of the poem (“Alien Nation”) begins with a Hart Crane-like collage of advertisements and graffiti and then moves into a more formal diction, as the poet reflects, with a characteristic concern for the marginalized, on the lives of the outcast around him:

RX GOTHAM DRUG GAY CRUISES SONY LIQUORS MARLBORO ADULT VIDEO XXX BELSHAZZAR FIND THE CURE IGLESIA ADVENTISTA DEL 7MO. DIA... . . . We come upon them in the restless dark in the moon-shadow of the World Trade Centre with Liberty’s torch glimmering over the water, glued to a re-run of The Exterminator on a portable TV in a corner of Battery Park (some have park views, others sleep in the park); and think how sensible the alternative polity beneath the ostensible, pharaonic city glimpsed through rain or dust from an expressway—

(p. 61)

This linguistically variegated vocabulary is attended by a correspondingly accommodating verse line, based on iambic pentameters and tightened every few lines, in which emphasis dictates—by what Mahon has called, in relation to his recent translation of Racine’s Phèdre—a “wandering rhyme.” 3

This new direction in Mahon’s work was a departure—an unwelcome one to some of Mahon’s admirers—from much of his previous work, in which a high premium was put on the creation of clearly shaped stanzas and a precise, even fastidious verbal manner. A beautiful example of the craftsmanlike qualities for which Mahon is so admired can be seen in the opening three stanzas of “Rage for Order” from Lives (1972), a typically ironic dramatic monologue, in which the speaker, a spokesman for the world of political violence of Mahon’s native Northern Ireland, speaks disdainfully (at least initially) about the poet and his formalistic concerns which fail to make appropriate obeisance to the imperatives of history and commitment. But he does so in a beautifully formed and phrased manner, showing, paradoxically, how well he has absorbed many of the aesthetic values which he claims to despise: [End Page 112]

Somewhere beyond...

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