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Language in Orbit

Catherine Phil MacCarthy

Selected Poems 1968-2014, by Paul Muldoon, Faber & Faber, 228 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0571327975.

Paul Muldoon’s Selected Poems 1968-2014 contains five poems from each of his twelve collections. Though individual collections vary in length, this is the pattern sustained: sixty poems, in over two hundred pages of poetry. Each section of five poems is named after the title of the collection from which it is chosen, in chronological order. To what extent do the chosen poems represent a particular core and trace the development of the work? The governing thread in the book charts a life lived from his upbringing in Moy, a town on the Armagh-Tyrone border, to his North-American home, in Princeton, New Jersey. In the process, his poetry engages concerns both private and public, and his poems address an increasingly wide audience. The idea of transformation is a central theme in the work, from the first poem, “Wind and Tree”, to the final one, “Dirty Data”. A facility to pare language to powerfully suggestive essences, or to speak a richly allusive baroque tongue that carries “the wideness of the world” (as Jane Hirshfield terms it, describing what it is that she wants to capture in a poem), is another feature. Obsession with words and sounds, with rhyme, and musical pattern, with how all poems and artworks speak to each other, as well as an immense and eclectic curiosity about the contemporary world and its history, are defining qualities. The poems reflect curiosity too about animals and the changing natural environment.

Poems chosen from the early collections New Weather (1973), Mules (1977), When Brownlee Left (1980)), reflect on his Northern Irish roots, investigate the in-between world he was born into (“The Mixed Marriage”), its reticence, wariness, susceptibility to violence, differences of social and cultural inheritance and mysteries. From the outset, the poetic leaps are compelling; for instance, the disarming disclosure in “Wind and Tree”: “Often I think I should be like / The single tree, going nowhere, / Since my own arm could not and would not / Break the other. Yet by my broken bones / I tell new weather.” The unexpected shift in perspective is from person to tree, and one that stands with others, hence the brokenness. The deeply defended hedgehog (“Hedgehog”), closed to the world, becomes a god under a crown of thorns: “We forget that never again / Will a god trust in the world.” There is a childlike logic to the conclusion that is unassailable, despite the unexpected comparison. Several poems reflect place and places speak magically through the poems, sometimes of a war-torn legacy. “Dancers at the Moy” evokes an Italianate town on the Blackwater (built on Venetian lines by Lord Charlemont) along with a horse fair, while “one or other Greek war / now coloured the town”. The transformation wrought by the death of the horse market suggests that their spirits live on. Was horse worship the reason the bones of horses were laid in the foundations and gave “earthen floors / the ease of trampolines”?

The handling of narrative for different purposes and effects is a fascinating dimension of the collection. The young man in “Good Friday, 1971, Driving Westward” travels through Northern Ireland finding “the road has put its thin brown arm round / A hill”, and his tale becomes oblique, subverting the traditional sanctity of the day as well as the speaker’s veracity the closer he comes to “Gaoith Dobhair”, the watery estuary. Dislocation renders him a playboy of the western world, place speaks through him, and the voice within the poem turns self-conscious and menacing.

Many early poems provide compelling glimpses of figures from childhood and schooldays and of the home industries of market garden and farm. Some speak a colourful vernacular and raise issues of gender: mother, father, uncles, aunts, sister, neighbours. “Ned Skinner” (from Mules) is a most menacing evocation of manhood, against whom the door has been locked (“on the snib”), who taunts Aunt Sarah through the window when he comes “to dress a litter of pigs”. A vernacular voice is engaged through Ned and Sarah’s conversation and Muldoon’s ear for nuance, rhyme and music works to powerful effect. “Cuba” dramatises a father’s encounter with his daughter the morning after a night out, she still “In her white muslin evening dress”. There is anger and irony (with the warning of an imminent world war in the background), and the speaker’s recognition of the innocence of his accused sister. The poem echoes John Montague’s observation of repression on a visit to Belfast as a young man: “‘God is love’, chalked on a wall / mocks a culture / where constraint is all.”

There is something pristine in the observation of the boy in the classroom and his early experience in “Anseo”. From the measured opening, lines capture a childhood memory for generations of schoolchildren, and witness a boy whose name, “Joseph Mary, Plunkett, Ward”, mimics that of a signatory of the proclamation. There’s an echo of heroic sacrifice, and ambiguity, soon quelled by “the Master’s droll / And where is our little Ward-of-Court?” The next stanza moves into a frank realisation of the boy’s predicament and the ferocity of punishments doled out to him, suggested by his preparation of the stick that is “an ash-plant”, “a sally-rod”, “the hazel-wand” and finally “a whip-lash”. It is one of the many poems that address cultural and political inheritances from different perspectives. Equally, “Why Brownlee Left” questions why a man “who should have been content” abandoned his life and left his horses at the plough standing in the field “like man and wife”. History, and politics, local or further afield are implicated in “Ma”, “The Mixed Marriage”, “The Sightseers”, “The Coney”. There is poverty and prejudice in the society revealed, as well as myth and mischief in the realisation of it.

Already with Quoof (1983), and Meeting the British (1987), the journey across the Atlantic is under way. From here on, poems that look back do so from a distance, span the Atlantic or the Americas, capture the in-between world (now Ireland and America), as in his elegy for the death of a colleague and friend, “The Soap-Pig”. From now on, places in Ireland have a spaciousness, are more imagined than topographical, seen through the lens of an idea like the painter Christo’s wrapped landscapes, or marvellously through the fretwork of a sestina, like “Cauliflowers”. There is greater openness and a sense of freedom and discovery as the title poem “Quoof” suggests: “How often have I carried our family word /f or the hot water bottle / to a strange bed”. There is greater exploration of poetic form too, more experimentation and stylistic innovation and many sections end with a long poem of nine pages or more. Occasionally, his native place is background where individuals on the run are cast thriller-like in disconnected vignettes, as is “Galloghly”, (“The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants”). 

With the poems selected from Madoc: A Mystery (1990), homemaking is a process, as is the making of films (“The Key”), or apple jelly, and increasingly, the dislocation and exhilaration of a new, exotic world is a preoccupation. The sense of a daily working life comes across, and the poetic leaps are tantalising, and deftly choreographed. An eel-skin briefcase (“The Briefcase”) that slips in a downpour (while the speaker is “waiting for a cross-town bus”) may become again the eel finding its way to the East River, and “the open sea”. The “meat-hook” on which was once hung the last panther in Massachusetts (really?) puts a jinx on the apple jelly: “The air directly under the meat-hook – / it quakes, it quickens; / on a flag-stone, the smudge of the tippy-tip of its nose.” And if this layered domestic scene is not enough, “the last panther” may be cue for a detective series on TV.

In four poems from The Annals of Chile, love, domesticity and childbirth are at the centre. “Brazil” opens with the boy in choir at Benediction, mortified at seeing the shape of Brazil or Uruguay in the breast-leak on his mother’s dress and ends with his sexual awakening (America is now South or Latin). The hesitant babe who refuses to leap “into the groundswell of life” (“Footling”) is addressed, having become “a gladiator in the womb” (“The Sonogram”) and “scorns” to leave the safe harbour. “The Birth” celebrates his daughter’s arrival with a riff that engages the alphabet in a story-book vision of the world that she has entered. These poems play richly and humorously with language, the idea of creativity and geography, as does “Incantata”, an elegy that celebrates the life and mourns the death of his artist friend Mary Farl Powers, painter, printmaker and graphic artist. Written in forty-five stanzas of eight lines, over fourteen pages, “Incantata” captures Mary’s charged influence and untimely death, the life shared between Dublin and Belfast, the work created. It is a portrait of the artist as a gifted woman, whose cultural inheritance and milieu is evoked, (as well as a multitude of influences: Beckett, Sartre, Spinoza, André Derain, Amelia Earhart, Enrico Caruso …) The repetition of “I thought of you, tonight”, creates a pulse of inconsolable loss: “I saw you again tonight, in your jump-suit thin as a rake, / your hand moving in such a deliberate arc / as you ground a lithographic stone / that your hand and the stone blurred to one”. Seamus Heaney’s review of The Annals of Chile gives affirmation and access to a poet whose work is often difficult, referential and at times unexpectedly candid:

Poetry is language in orbit. It may start with recollected emotion or immediate anger or rapture, but once that personal boost has helped a poem to lift off, it runs on its own energy circuit. And the energy coursing in the circuit is generated and flows between the words themselves, between the words and the metre, the metre and the line, the line and the stanza and so on.

The comment offers valuable insight into a poet whose virtuosity exasperates as well as delights.

An increasing abstraction in style and preoccupation with language is a dominant feature of poems selected from Hay (1998). There is a push back against constraints, a critique of the given note and of received wisdom, a making explicit of fundamental patterns of language and thinking, and a discovery of latitude in the disruption of those patterns. “Lag” compares a relationship to the Siamese twins Chang and Eng (“we were joined at the hip”), though here the speaker is in North Carolina, while his companion is in London. Words are brought under the microscope in “Errata”, and change with the loss or shift of a letter – altering an entire text: “For mother, read other / For harm, read farm / For feather, read father”. There is a randomness in the slips, the words coupled, where possible connection and meaning is sought. In “Symposium”, proverbs are split and there is wit in the reversal of the expected outcome and a growing pandemonium in the tangle: “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it hold / its nose to the grindstone or hunt with the hounds”. “Long Finish” celebrates ten years of marriage (shadowed by an awareness of violence in his native province) and implicates the characters from Matsukaze, a Noh play, “Pining Wind and Autumn Rain”, in a parallel world of desire, longing and loss with which he courts the beloved and vows to “rouse ourselves each dawn, here on the shores of Suma / with such force and fervour as spouses may yet espouse”.

With Moy Sand and Gravel (2002), (for which Muldoon won a Pulitzer Prize), there is a sense of arrival, of a poet coming full circle, and language is certainly in orbit. How history and the contemporary world are interwoven, and the influence of war, alongside ordinary life, making meals and raising children, are important sources of material in this selection in “At the Sign of the Black Horse, September 1999” (on which more further along). A hole in the wall of a two-hundred-year-old house “cut for a dimmer-switch” is investigated with “finger”, “ear”, “nose”, “eye”, “mouth” (“Loaf”). The hole is a powerful visionary space through which flows the original horsehair, the spades and shovels, the graves “where thousands of Irish have lain”, as well as “a seed” of grain for bread-making. The birth of a son is welcomed and cheered on by the observation of “forty or fifty thousand birds” (“Redknots”) that stop over along Delaware Bay, and lift off again, “getting up all at once / as if for a rock concert encore.” Excitement is palpable, not least because of the occasion that underpins it. There is a sense in all of these poems of a subtle and powerful poetic at work, and of a poet working to the brim of his extraordinary powers.

The poems chosen from Horse Latitudes (2006) continue to reflect on language, and the connection between destruction and creativity is at the heart of “Medley for Morin Khur”, a meditation on a musical instrument made entirely from the body of a horse. “The Old Country”, in the form of thirteen sonnets, is an inventory of idiomatic phrases, cliches and satirical opinions that make visible inherited Irish attitudes, mindsets, and self-talk. Both repetition and rhyme build momentum as a circling sense of limitation is wrought, and the lingo-patchwork creates a diminishing sense of possibilities:

But every boy was still
“one of the boys”
and every girl “ye girl ye”
for whom every dance was a last dance
and every chance a last chance
and every letdown a terrible letdown
from the days when every list was a laundry list
in that old country where, we reminisced,
every town was a tidy town.

There are poems that reflect on forebears in the old country, and an elegy on the passing of his mother and her final gift sent to a grandchild, as well as a powerful narrative on the habits of vultures (“Turkey Buzzards”).

The final poems in this book are from Maggot (2010), and One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (2015). Sometimes the preoccupation is with animals, and the way in which they may parallel human lives (“A Hare at Aldergrove”). There are dolphins and quails, seagulls and otters. There’s an elegy on “the decomposition of a poem” that parallels the death of a woman (“The Humours of Hakone”), prompted by a visit to Hakone and its sulphur springs, a nine-page meditation spoken by a forensic detective with little to go on for time and cause of death of “the cadaver of a poem” that remains a mystery. Given the material it is a complex discourse on death and disintegration. Places have become more various, and in the final poems there is a return to Anglo-Saxon and Celtic terrain, and in a single poem contexts are harder to grasp. Mixtures of fictive and actual events mean shifts in language appear entirely random and fluid (“Dirty Data”). The selection ends with a long elegiac poem that references Viking and Celtic language and history and takes as its starting point the cell of the saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. It is dedicated to the memory of Seamus Heaney (“Cuthbert and the Otters”). A visit to Havana with his daughter, now a young adult (“Cuba 2”), reflects on a hidden world behind the cars, health tourism and gambling casinos.

One of the most exhilarating and powerful poems (of which there are many) in this selection is “At the Sign of the Black Horse, September 1999” from Moy Sand and Gravel, a poem of 360 lines, forty-five stanzas of rapturous energy that run to nineteen pages. The poem observes the aftermath of a hurricane while a baby son sleeps on, and the infant’s Irish and Jewish forebears appear. As the 360 suggests, the poem is emblem of a globe, and speaks to a universal audience. “Awesome, the morning after Hurricane Floyd, to sit out in / our driveway and gawk at yet another canoe or kayak / coming down Canal Road now under ten feet of water.” The speaker watches his infant son, “wrapped in a shawl of Carrickmacross lace”, wearing “a bonnet of his aunt Sophie, in finest needlepoint”, garments that mingle Irish and Jewish ancestral traditions. The opening lines echo Yeats’s “Prayer for my Daughter”, and there are references to “the roof-levelling wind”, as well as “Gregory’s wood” and the gale on the Atlantic. However, while Yeats invites a safe passage for his daughter into the future, on a stormy night in civil war Ireland, Paul Muldoon’s poem is an extraordinary vision, suggested through the baby’s face, of “a slew of interlopers” that come “floating by” as the river carries “tonne upon tonne of clay, hay, hair, shoes, spectacles”. All the while a Jewish meal is being cooked in the background (cumin and corn starch are being rubbed into a loin of peccary by Helene, who is a cousin of his Jewish wife, Jean) and there are many references to food. The Prohibition is swept in, along with “uncle Arnie”, a possible forebear, the White Sox bribery scandal of 1919, and the “rum-running Irish navvies” who once dug the canal and the roadways. A great-grandfather appears, Sam Korelitz, who asks “By which authority did you … deny Asher a bris?” The questioning continues as to why the boy has been denied an Orthodox upbringing, as Asher’s father reflects on possible likenesses seen on his son’s face, “that kale-eating child on whom the peaked cap, Verboten, / would shortly pin a star of yellow felt / having accosted him on the Mosaic / proscription, Please Secure Your Own Oxygen Mask”.

This poem develops like a jazz improvisation, as one instrument or melody gives way to another, now the piano or saxophone or drums taking the floor, changing the tone as strands of the narrative are interwoven and the Holocaust shimmers in the foreground against the backdrop of the hurricane. The lines combine an intimate world with experiences that carry the wider world into readers’ heads and hearts.

Paul Muldoon’s Selected Poems 1968-14 comes full circle with a spare intense lyric (“Pelt”) where the visitor on the way from a Catholic burial realises his own difference and separateness. There’s a sense of integrity and originality, a rare being-at-ease: “I gave way / to a contentment / I’d not felt in years, / not since the winter / I’d word the world / against my skin, / worn it fur side in.” The book brings together a reader-friendly choice of Muldoon’s greatest hits.

1/3/2017
Catherine Phil MacCarthy’s collections include The Invisible Threshold (2012), Suntrap (2007), The Blue Globe (1998), This Hour of the Tide (1994), and One Room an Everywhere, a Novel, (2003). She is a former editor of Poetry Ireland Review (1998/99). She won the Fish International Poetry Prize in 2010, and received The Lawrence O Shaughnessy Award for Irish Poetry in 2014. A forthcoming collection, Daughters of the House is due for publication.

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