Derek Mahon was born in Belfast in 1941 and educated at Trinity College Dublin and the Sorbonne where he studied French literature. His poem A Disused Shed In County Wexford has been anthologised over a dozen times. Human Wishes is a translation of the tenth Satire of Juvenal.
from the Latin of Juvenal (Decimus Junius Juvenalis),
c.AD 50-c.127, Satires X
No one in his right mind would want to be
a big fish gobbling up the smaller fry;
it’s the big fish who attract hostility
like Seneca and the rest in Nero’s day.
You’re better off to sit tight in your room
than be conspiring in the rising steam
among the towels of the baths and gym;
take change if you go out walking after dark,
avoid the war zones and the periphery
and keep your wits about you in the park
where a knife gleams behind each shadowy tree.
All pursue riches in our modern Rome,
gardens, a coach-house and a second home
bought with the revenue from untaxed income
at Capua, Aquinum, Trevignano or Tivoli;
but poison’s seldom served in the wooden cups.
Beware the crystal glass and the golden bowl,
be careful when you raise wine to your lips
dining with colleagues on the Palatine Hill
or old friends in the Caffè Giovenal’
or swan and flamingo, antelope and stuff.
So which philosopher would we rather know
- the one who, staring from his portico,
laughs, or the one who weeps? Easy to laugh,
if we started weeping there’d be no end to it.
Democritus would shake with continual mirth,
even in his primitive times, at life on earth
and showed that stoicism spiced up with wit,
some candour and good sense, can mitigate
even the thick air of a provincial city.
Binge sex and fiscal heroin, discreet
turpitude flickering in a brazier light –
all anyone does now is fuck and shit;
instant gratification, entertainment, celebrity
we ask, but mumbling age comes even so,
the striking profile thick and stricken now,
the lazy tackle like a broken bough,
the simian features and the impatient heir.
What else can you expect from your white hair,
your voice like cinders under a kitchen door?
What use to you the glittering cleavages,
the best box in the house above the stage
when blind and deaf? Now fever and disease
run riot through our waste anatomies,
the old mind dithering in its anecdotage,
the joints all seizing up with rheumatism,
seek guidance of the heavenly gods who treasure
our lives more than we do ourselves. Subdued
by protocol and the fear of solitude,
you wed in haste and now repent at leisure
even as your hands shake in their final spasm.
Ask for a sound mind in a sound body
unfrightened of the grave and not demented
by grief at natural declension; study
acceptance in the face of fate; and if
you want to worship mere materialism,
that modern god we have ourselves invented,
I leave you to the delights of modern life.