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Playing with the Bits

Carlo Gébler

Lamentations, by Paul Muldoon, Gallery Press, 80 pp, €11.95, ISBN: 978-1911337263

“What’s it like facing the blank page?” is a question I’ve been regularly asked. I think most writers have. Behind the question there lurks, of course, the idea that invention is nothing less than making something from nothing, like God did when he made the earth. But of course no writer is creating in a void; the writer has a ton of stuff when they start to help them write; all the literature that’s ever existed for a start: and all the writing that’s ever been written in the history of the world is budded from what’s already exists in some way or other. Our words all come out of other words.

Now some writers don’t like to admit this: they want you to think they are god-like makers whose creations are unique and have no connection with what proceeded them. But other writers, wiser and saner souls, know they spring from the tradition and moreover not only freely acknowledge the truth that they spring from the humus of literature, but have made the business of taking what already exists and reworking it in a new form a core part of their aesthetic practice. TS Eliot in world literature springs immediately to mind as an outstanding practitioner of this kind of making, while in modern Irish letters we have Paul Muldoon. His latest (and excellent) collection, Lamentations, is entirely made of work grown from and out of the canon.

Lamentations has five works, a mix of translations from the Irish (and what translations from the Irish) and Irish-informed lyrics produced for performance (with musical accompaniment). All are lamentations; all are elegiac; all spring from, reflect and amplify Hibernia’s thwarted, unhappy past right down to recent times. Misery, Muldoon would have us know, wasn’t just back then. We’re still mired in it. His pessimism is bracing but never depressing: this has quite a lot to do with his wit and his lightness, both of which are considerable.

The collection opens with “The Churchyard at Creggan”, from the Irish of Art Mac Cubhathaigh (Art McCooey, 1715-1773), an extraordinary piece, unknown to me, which has a defeated Irish Jacobite sleeping in a graveyard woken by a female who invites him to come with her and lead an irregular life:

“Since the rout of the tribes at Aughrim and the Boyne,
worse luck,
the Irish, who’ve always stuck by their poets, have themselves
become unstuck.
Wouldn’t you be better off in a fairy fort with me by your
flank
than have Williamite arrows hitting your heart point blank?”

Williamite arrows, though an anachronism, work here wonderfully and is a typical example of Muldoon’s shtick, the way he’ll take something and bend it, quite far, but never too far, so he can expand his register and enrich his meaning. Our Jacobite of course, a nice bitter twist, is stuck on Ireland, and her poetry, and won’t take the way out he’s offered. Well, that’s the Irish for you, you might say. Bleeding truculent so-and-sos.

Part Two is “The Lament of Art O’Leary”, a reimagining of “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire” by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. This I do know: it’s been widely translated and even made into a film by Bob Quinn starring the English playwright John Arden. Can the world take another version? Well, they can certainly take this one which manages to combine in one pass, celebration of Art O’Leary’s physical prowess

When you strode through the market towns
that are themselves steadfast and slavish
the very shopkeepers’ wives
would offer you a curtsey
for they recognized immediately
your prowess as a bed-mate,
as a front runner on horseback,
as a father of children.

with rage, unbridled and absolute

I want you to get up and go
to James Baldwin’s house.
That plug-ugly landlord,
that bow-legged louse.
I want you to demand satisfaction
for the loss of your mare
and the wasting away of your bright love.
May Baldwin and his six children fade and
fester!

while never letting either overpower the other, but keeping the two in balance, so that one finishes knowing it’s never one or the other, it’s never love or hate, but always both, always love and hate.

Parts Three and Four are lovely pieces of ventriloquism, first of Benn Gunn, he of Treasure Island, given here a Fermanagh childhood (and why not?), a rich inner life and a yearning for Hy Breasil, and second Mary Mallon (born Cookstown, Co Tyrone, 1869, died New York state, 1938) better known a Typhoid Mary, the first person in the US to be identified as an asymptomatic carrier of the pathogen associated with typhoid fever and probably the cause of some scores of deaths. These are lyrics which tell stories, so the poet’s primary duty is to clarity and to the story rather than to language. They work as pieces of compressed story-telling and because they are so compressed and rhythmic they get inside the head like a worm (or under the skin if you prefer) and there they stay in a way that prose narrative never manages. Poetry, in this regard is like Heineken, refreshing the parts that rivals cannot reach.

The fifth and final piece, “Olagón”, the most experimental and perhaps the most typically Muldoonesque of the collection, takes something old, the pillow talk of the Medhbh and Ailíll section from the Táin Bó Cúailnge, gives the material a twenty-first century comb-through, and produces something, a mash-up of old and new, totally unclassifiable, full of energy and not like anything any of us have read before, (except in other Muldoon collections, for this is something he does):

For years Medhbh cavorted in the semi-nude
On a Celtic Tiger skin modified to self-inflate
She lived on the long finger on finger food
Now the Celtic Tiger’s head is screwed
Into the wall of a house on a ghost estate
The wall of a house on a ghost estate

Muldoon is a sprightly, ludic, fiery writer: these virtues are in evidence here just as they are elsewhere in his canon. He has sometimes been accused of cleverness (where else except in the mad world of letters would too much cleverness be considered a vice rather than a virtue?) and sometimes of being too difficult. (And poetry is supposed to be easy? Who said?) But he is also, as this latest collection demonstrates, a committed and accomplished communicator: there are things he wants to get into your head and having got them into your head he wants them to stay there, rattling about, driving you a bit mad, but giving you a lot to think about in the process. If that’s your thing then read Lamentations, but don’t say you haven’t been warned. Once you load this material into your brain you won’t get it out so easily.

1/4/2017

Carlo Gébler is a writer and teacher

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