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This review is taken from PN Review 164, Volume 31 Number 6, July - August 2005.

BETWEENNESS PATRICK McGUINNESS, The Canals of Mars (Carcanet) £6.95

Patrick McGuinness was born in Tunisia. He is half Belgian and half Irish by immediate descent. (He bears an uncanny facial resemblance, albeit distinctly softened, to a certain member of Sinn Fein.) He is the partner of a Welsh-language novelist and he lives in Wales. There he is engaged in left-wing and nationalist politics but for a living he teaches French at Oxford, where he is a Fellow of St Anne's. As a scholar he is an authority on 'la poésie symboliste et décadente', on the Belgian dramatist and poet Maeterlinck, on Mallarmé, and on international modernism. By any account he is an exotic (a very Belgian idea, as might not be widely suspected).

This is his first and somewhat belated collection of poems (groups of which have already won prizes). But it is not the first book-length excursion to signal his poetic talent to the world. To experience that, readers should buy his translation into English of Mallarmé's fragmentary 'tombeau' (more generally the genre where éloge meets elegy) to his eight-year-old son Anatole. Here the great symbolist poet, faced with something as 'real' and unabstract as personal grief to write about, is, or has commonly been dismissed as being, unable to hold his act together. In McGuinness's rendition we are shown terms on which failure succeeds. Now Mallarmé triumphs in his grief. A tragic poem is not resurrected from the dead but brought to poetic light. It is a strange and very poignant ...


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