The Mirror Wal4 Richard Murphy, Wolfhound Press/Bloodaxe IWake Forest University Press, £10.95 (hbk) & £4.95 (pbk).
Trial-pieces, test drillings, acts of homage, or simply as a clearing of the decks ... one by one, early or late, our poets admit the allure of translation and turn to the enriching encounter between some acquired discourse and their own poetic vernacular. The reason for this accumulation of imported or recycled material, in versions, imitations or adaptations, probably lies in a combination of circumstances. Many of the poets came to maturity in the 1960s, at a time when poetry in English everywhere was caught up in the new internationalism. Many of them grew up in a culture which paid lip-service to one language while speaking another; a possible way of dealing with that shibboleth was to set up an artistic negotiation between different traditions. And Irish poets in English are the inheritors of a line which asserted itself a generation or two ago through poetry derived from pre-existing material: old Irish narrative, Connacht love poetry, eighteenth-century harp songs, and more. Latter-day translations have afforded various notable excursions and pilgrimages, if not holidays abroad: Hartnett's 6 Bruadair, Heaney's Sweeny, Hutchinson's Catalan pieces, Kinsella's anthologies, Mahon's Jacottet, Simmons's From the Irish ...
Richard Murphy has long been conspicuous in that he is one of the few of his generation who has seemed to by-pass that particular track. His New Selected Poems, which gathers nearly all the work up to and including The Price of Stone (1985), allows us an overview of a self-sufficient poetic that tests language on its own terms. For a poet who feels that "the past is happening today", and that the "battle cause ... Has a beginning in my blood", there was no real need to work through to another way of saying things.
Both of those statements come from "The Battle of Aughrim", which in retrospect can be seen as having played a major formative part in Murphy's development. Commissioned for and
from one-tenth or so of the total of nearly seven hundred texts transcribed and translated in the scholarly edition by Senarat
There is a sense of invented form in these poems, which use
short measured line groupings in the manner of William Carlos Williams. They appear at first sight to be blank verse, but many of them use subdued half-rhymes - as if alluding to the possibilities of a less subtle full rhyme.
Because we do not have any source texts or alternative versions readily available, the pieces in The Mirror Wall do take on the autonomy of what might be called "original poems". Furthermore, the poetry establishes itself as recognisably Murphy's in
No! You must not believe Those beauties you can see In that sheltered grotto Are happy or true.
The world is passing away The world is suffering The world has no identity.
Murphy nowhere refers to these pieces 'as "translations" "adaptations" or "versions" perhaps, but not translations although really such coyness is unnecessary. These are "translations" in the richest sense, with a meaning carried over to and supplemented by the receiving culture. In their relationship to an antecedent discourse - text, folklore, history, - they are equivalent to "The Battle of Aughrim"; The Mirror Wall also enters momentarily into the lost lives of individuals caught up casually by history. The net in which they are caught is wove.n from the enigmatic representations of the women, the poetic comments of the medieval Sinhalese, and the responses of a pre.sent-da~ western~r. The multiplicity ?.r perspe.cti~;s is ?int.ed at m the nch punnmg throughout the InvocatIOn which 10-
itiates the group of poems:
Take up a style
And let the Rain Girls give you airs to lift songs from the scores
that pierce the Mirror Wall.
The Rain Girls are inspirational muses, but they come provided with textual goods. "To lift", after all, can mean both "to raise up" and "to steal"; an act of stealth will serve as the prelude to the growth of a poet's mind. "To translate" has, as one of ,its senses, "to remove"; theologically, it can mean "to take up into heaven". The Rain Girls, who also figure as "cloud nymphs", would surely approve. These translations are fine poetry, at once an appropriation and a restoration.
Two final points: it is unlikely that the year will produce any collection with a more evocative or appropriate title; "mirror wall", with its suggestions of boundaries, of reflections given back, conjures an aura around the poems even before connections with the actual and evidently breathtaking site at Sigiriya are made. And Wolfhound Press and the associated publishers are to be congratulated on producing a worthily handsome trade edition of the poems.