As If Washing Might Make It Clean
Jun 1, 2003
9 Min read time
Moy Sand and Gravel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22 (cloth)
No one writes originary myths like the Irish literati, and no one’s is more protean—and so more compelling—than that of Paul Muldoon. The legend goes like this: the young Muldoon (age 16? 20? a stripling from Armagh? a student at Queens University? a poet writing in Irish?) is “discovered” by reigning guru Seamus Heaney. His first book is published when he is 21; according to Heaney, the genius was there already. Over the next 30 years Muldoon conquers the international poetry scene despite—or perhaps because of—his penchant for esoteric references, verbal gymnastics, and a refusal to state outright that his work has any more significance than linguistic figure-eights inscribed on the page. Stephen Burt’s 1997 claim in the New Leader that “something like a consensus now deems Paul Muldoon the best Irish poet younger than Heaney” has held true. 2003’s crown jewel of consent: Muldoon has won the Pulitzer Prize for his most recent collection.
Moy Sand and Gravel deliberately begins anew after 2001’s collected Poems: 1968–1998, examining the self that previously remained hidden beneath Muldoon’s characteristic quick tongue and engaging narratives. The ruling motto of early Muldoon is “this must be some new strain in my pedigree” (from “Immram,” in 1980’s Why Brownlee Left), a pedigree that assiduously avoids pre- or over-determination. Lineages here are not dual but multiple and multiplying, deconstructing the English/Irish dichotomy that perpetuates Northern Ireland’s unrest and voiding political allegiances by figuring all radical searches as fundamentally impossible. Thus “Immram” rewrites the Irish quest poem as a hallucinogenic blur of literary history and geography, where foundations are unearthed only to relapse into the uncertain ground. But Muldoon’s outlook has recently changed, and it’s tempting to mark the birth in 1999 of Muldoon’s first son, Asher, as having instigated that change. Tropes Muldoon has depended on for years—miscegenation, the “twisted fruit” of history, the shifting sands of ancestral descent, and the muddle of patrimonial relations—are reengaged on a personal level, not least of all because Muldoon is clearly the genealogical quester and emerges as a distinct (and distinctly sentimental) personality.
Much of the difficulty in reading Muldoon stems from his self-portrait as a dabbler, stubbornly refusing to admit that his words might be read by, let alone affect, others. In a 1987 interview he claims that:
one would almost be tempted to believe that the writer has some status in Ireland . . . or that anyone pays attention to what writers say, which they don’t. . . . Nobody gives a damn what I do or where I live. I have no sense of an audience; nobody reads me.
The facetious (particularly for the president of Britain’s Poetry Society and recent winner of the Pulitzer) insistence on his unimportance is accentuated by a tendency towards formal high jinks that push even the most serious topics toward the trivial. Muldoon likes words. He likes playing with them, rhyming them, seeing how far he can get by matching sound to like sound. In Moy Sand and Gravel there are ten sonnets (for Muldoon, any 14-liner) and a variety of other rhyming forms. He is able to rhyme “crystal meth” and “shibboleth” or “tongs” and “quantongs” (an Australian fruit), constructing poems on the far reaches of sestina territory, around one or two rhymes or even a single word. A corollary of this exploitation of the sheer expanse and etymological multiplicity of modern English is his claim to being an outsider, “belong[ing] to no groups, no tribes.” When it comes down to it, Muldoon can claim, as he often has, that he is just fooling around with words.
What then, to make of the “Hard Drive” that opens the new collection? “With my back to the wall / and a foot in the door / and my shoulder to the wheel / I would drive through Seskinore.” This pressurized endeavor sounds more like driving a nail than cruising through towns, and while it sounds as though Muldoon chose his towns (Belleck, Ballananleck, Derryfubble, Dunnanmanagh) purely for sound, the path they trace winds west through Fermanagh, then north through Tyrone to end in Derry. The heart of Northern Ireland’s political strife is also the poet’s birthplace, and so the prodigal son’s emotional struggle is intensified by a confrontation with his own ancestry and his own son’s Irish-Jewish heritage.
I would drive through Derryfubble
and Dunnamanagh and Ballynascreen,
keeping that wound green.
While the operative preposition is “through,” this is hardly a touristic drive-by. “Keeping that wound green” assumes a wound that is Irish in origin and, because of that origin, already gangrenous. Part of keeping the wound green is keeping it open, though it is unclear whether that causes corruption or airs out an already existing infection. Muldoon takes his closing rhyme from the ballad of the early-18th-century patriot Shane Crossagh, “a plough boy that ploughed in Ballynascreen” pursued by British soldiers for “the wearing of the green.” The end of the story has Crossagh convincing them to surrender to a false army of sticks and sod. This moment is suggestively closer to nationalism than Muldoon ever comes, though his “nose for trouble / and an eye to the future” maintain the ambiguous positioning of the Irish intellectual, the wary exile’s return to a torn land and the lament of a poet armed only with sticks and sods. Similarly, the titular poem, about an industrial plant rather than a Heaneyesque bogland, nonetheless ends with a favorite trope of ethnic conflict—the failure of natural and industrial cleansing methods: “washing it again, load by load, / as if washing might make it clean.”
The trouble in this volume comes when Muldoon examines the personal side of this genealogical and historical nexus. When he speaks to or of his family and self he shies away from speaking his emotions, relying instead on his verbal acuity. “The Grand Conversation,” in which “He” and “She” play a game of ancestral persecution one-upmanship—“Mine would lie low in the shtetl / when they heard the distant thunder . . . Indeed? / My people called a spade a spade”—finds He initially following She’s curative lead: “Mine were trained to make a suture.” But as He assumes a lover’s voice, he pulls back with a seemingly nonsensical rhyme: “Between fearsad and verst / we may yet construct our future / as we’ve reconstructed our past / and cry out, my love, each to each / from his or her own quicken-queach.” The initial impulse to vocalize a bridge between two pasts, between the Irish for sandbank,fearsad (also the etymological root of the river that underruns the Falls Road) and the Russian/Yiddish unit of measure verst (or, clearly, verse) is squelched. The pose of impersonality implied by the Eliotic echo and the sheer incomprehensibility of the “quicken-queach” (literally a grove of Rowan trees, this Muldoonage is coined from obsolete words with appropriately obscure etymology) break the mood. As She moves towards the pastoral enclave of the “mountain ash[er?],” He rejoins with “some young Absalom / pick[ing] his way through cache after cache / of ammunition and small arms.” It is difficult to tell whether the reference to Absalom (who in Muldoon’s version remains “hanging between heaven and earth”) denotes parental guilt, the pride that goeth well before a fall, or the inexorable pressure of tradition. Most likely it is a parable about rewriting a story by stopping midway, so that the eternally suspended Absalom becomes an unlikely emblem of potential balance between the material and the ethereal. The most we can say is that the poet’s cagey responses get him “caught on a snag.”
Caught on a snag is--arguably--precisely where Muldoon wants to be. The sentimental in these poems is continually voiced by others, written through allusion, or deflated by a turn towards light verse. The long poem “As,” whose stanzas end “I give way to you,” mask any emotion behind Muldoon’s amusement at his own somersaulting reflection, his ability to liken anything to anything: “a little nook gives way to a little nookie . . . catamite gives way to catamaran . . . and nine gives way, as ever, to zero” (outrageously clever, but hardly the most heartfelt figures of romantic surrender). Similarly, Muldoon’s Joycean parody writes poor Molly’s exuberant monologue into bland, indeterminate sexuality, buoyed entirely by the poet’s rhythmic sense: “I might have something the something groan / of the something plowboy who would with such something urge / the something horses.”
When Muldoon’s evasive tactics work, the result is flawless. “The Breather” is a simple four lines mourning an unborn child:
Think of this gravestone
as a long, low chair
at a turn in the stair.
The reference, to the staircase in Robert Frost’s “Home Burial” from which Amy daily views her child’s grave, amplifies a quiet elegy with an acknowledgment of the familial trauma engendered by such a loss. Moreover, it reminds us that in Frost’s poem, “the little graveyard where my people are” holds both the “child’s mound” and “three stones of slate and one of marble.” The gap between husband and wife is figured most fully by his failed vision, which allows ancestral monuments to block access to his loss, which values memorialization before memory. Or, as Amy puts it, “You—oh, you think the talk is all.”
But Muldoon is only rarely capable of such astute recognitions of the distinction between public and private. “At the Sign of the Black Horse, September 1999,” which gives the stanzaic form of Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Daughter” a complicated repetitive twist, places Asher, “the A-, B-, and C-lists of forebears in his glabrous face,” in a shifting crowd of Jews, Irish, and the odd Arab on an apocalyptic floodplain. Meant as a serious consideration of the emergence of his wife’s history in Asher’s face—“a slew of interlopers / not from Maghery . . . [but] that kale-eating child on whom the peaked cap, Verboten / would shortly pin a star of yellow felt”—it figures current intercultural relations as “the morning after Hurricane Floyd.” Yet, between the verbal interlacings, the cultural memorials, the bad puns, and references to Joyce’s tower and Yeats’s radical innocence, both child and father are reduced to a cultural mishmash. Muldoon describes his own parentage thus: “I have it in me to absolutely rant and rail while, for fear of the backlash, / absolutely renounce / the idea of holding anything that might be construed as an opinion.” Ironic self-awareness is well and good, but oh for Molly’s vital affirmations, for Muldoon to plunge into the storm-torn waters he is testing here (screw the backlash), and use his linguistic shenanigans to make good on his “total disregard for any frontier.” Instead, we are left with Asher—oblivious, pre-verbal, and unconscious. He is the ambiguous child of a more ambiguous future who, “despite his thrush, / despite his diaper rash,” despite the millennial collapse of the world around him, “slept on, half hid / under the cradle hood.”
June 01, 2003
9 Min read time