Sunday, 19 April 2009

Mahon's Ursula.

A warm review of Derek Mahon's latest collection (Life on Earth) in the most recent TLS: Lucy McDiarmid makes a good case for his value as a poet, and the slightly diluted but nevertheless valuable 'musicality and syntactic simplicity' of his current voice. She quotes eight lines from 'At Ursula's', written 'from the inside of a restaurant in Kinsale, safe from the rain and cold':
A cold and snowy morning
I sit in Ursula's place
and fancy something spicy
served with the usual grace ...
Boats strain at sea, alas,
gales rattle the slates
while inside at Ursula's
We bow to our warm plates.
But I can't seem to like this. Rising up against a first-sight sense (that it's pleasant writing) is a reaction that starts, straight away, with 'strains', as if the boats are trying to shit in the bay ('strain at sea' is haunted, as a phrase, by 'strains at stool'). The 'alas', to rhyme with Ursula's, is filler, cheesy with it. Awkward and noncontributory puns dislocate the mood ('grace' meaning Ursula's pleasant manner, or the grace said before a meal? Gales or Gaels?); and the plus-one logic that shifts 'it was a dark and stormy night' into cold and morning makes that first line look not only cliche but, almost, facetious. It culminates in the last line, which hovers awkwardly between a deliberately formal, almost ritualised, rendering of diners tucking in (good), and a stuffed-owlish visual image of everybody at Ursula's poisoned and keeling over, their faces splatting into their grub (not so good).

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