April 1, 1999
Apr 1, 1999
9 Min read time
By Paul Muldoon.
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, $22.00
Has Paul Muldoon started repeating himself? Hay, his seventh full volume, includes two sonnets whose end-words recur rather than rhyme ("your quarry / lies exhausted at the bottom of an exhausted quarry"); a two-page poem in which each line ends in "hand"; double villanelles; double sestinas; a pantoum (a Malaysian-French form which uses each line twice-over); a ghazal (a Persian and Urdu form in which each couplet ends on the same phrase); and a Provençal form with two refrains. One might look up the name of that last form in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Princeton being where Muldoon teaches—and such coincidences being, now, the kind on which Muldoon's poems thrive. Muldoon seems to me one of the five or so best poets alive; to most of Britain and Ireland, he seems the single most influential. As his powers have gained broader notice, his ambition and confidence have grown: the new poems incorporate more virtuosity, more showing-off, more randomness, and more tenderness than any of his earlier volumes, and make Hay by turns irritating, charming, and worth cherishing.
First the bad news: some of Hay is, simply, performance. The clearest examples repeat earlier successes. Muldoon grew up in Northern Ireland. When he lived there, and in London, he wrote some disturbingly off-hand poems of sexual-cum-political aggression, poems set in Ulster gangster dreamworlds. He still writes such poems, but nothing in them surprises—ironized stand-ins allude to the Troubles and boast, predictably, of racy behavior:
It was the week after the Aldershot
bomb and we were all lying low
for fear of reprisals from Donegall Pass
and Sandy Row.... "The description of a 'greene
gowne' sported by Lecherie in The Faerie
for example ..." That vodka on the side
gave my glass of Heineken, which had fallen flat,
a little bit of pep....
Muldoon's latter-day strengths lie in precisely the territory readers of such work would never expect: the poet seems happy to be an American husband, a father, a Hopewell, N.J., homeowner. This newer Muldoon is the sort of bourgeois that the racy author of "Green Gown" wants to shock, but the bourgeois is now the better poet. Hay holds a few of our era's best, and most fun, poems of marital love—big poems like "The Mud Room" and small ones like "The Train." In the latter, a train wakes poet and spouse, "tonight as every night,"
and then, since it takes forever to pass
with its car after car of coal and gas
and salt and wheat and rails and railway ties,
[ ... ] it seems determined to give the lie
to the notion, my darling,
that we, not it, might be the constant thing.
This train will pass; Muldoon and his wife will pass (away) someday too. But the reminder of death includes a deep comfort: this husband will cease to be "constant" only in death, so that the last phrase whispers, also, 'til death do us part. Even the stagy, clearly "occasional" poem for Muldoon's tenth anniversary, "Long Finish," with its jokey japanoiserie and Provençal repetends, manages to charm and convince because its virtuosic form and juggled odd properties become a means to the comic-erotic devotion at each stanza's end:
Barely have Autumn Rain and Pining Wind renewed
than you turn back toward me, and your blouse,
while it covers the all-but-cleared-up patch of eczema,
falls as low as decency allows,
and then some.
The domestic Muldoon gives this volume its peaks; the rakish performer contributes some valleys. Another Muldoon created the style they share. That Muldoon conceives of poems as puzzles without answers, quests to no Grail, allegories, or examples of the interconnectedness, and consequent unpredictability, of every decision and event. He is the Muldoon who once compared his poems to unpleasant parties from which the host escapes through the bathroom window. When he takes sole charge the poems become stories about frustration. "The Point" tells us its point is no Yeatsian "consecrated blade." Instead:
What everything in me wants to articulate
is this little bit of a scar that dates
from the time O'Clery, my schoolroom foe,
rammed his pencil into my exposed thigh
(not, as the chronicles have put it, my calf)
with such force that the point was broken off.
The pencil is mightier than the sword; but its work may end up point-less.
Lines like these serve as guides to Muldoon's technique: poems, phrases, sentences shift modes, contexts, raisons d'etre midway through, and leave without stable grounds for action or belief, much as the mixed-up, hybridized proverbs in "Symposium" leave us without advice:
A bird in the hand is better than no bread.
To have your cake is to pay Paul.
Make hay while you can still hit the nail on the head.
For want of a nail the sky might fall.
("Pay Paul"? "Make hay"? Surely no coincidence.)
When Muldoon is simply performing, or bored, he won't bother to replace the assumptions his endings demolish: the poem says, to subject and readers, "Whatever." When Muldoon has something he cares to finish by saying, to someone, about something, the poems—and not only the love poems—work wonders. Here's the whole of "Tract":
I cleared the lands about my cabin, all
that came within range of a musket ball.
"Tract" means "tract of land," and "religious tract," and "pamphlet," like the nineteenth-century pamphlets advising poor Irish and British folk to emigrate; Muldoon's poem becomes an anticolonial "tract," as his Thoreauvian settler's self-sufficiency switches contexts to reveal roots in violence.
All three long poems in Hay, and both in The Annals of Chile (1994), use the same rhymes in the same order—narrow/Jura, for instance, parallels Maro/jackaroos and barrow/Herrera. Other symbols and terms recur throughout Hay: bales of hay, the phoneme "hey," the color white, mirrors, Virgil, Aeneas, Joseph Beuys, Rilke, rock records, skewed proverbs. Nicholas Jenkins suggests that these overlaps and recyclings discourage us from reading poems—or any human actions—as self-contained units: Muldoon's digressive, associative methods see the world as a great web of stimuli on which we barely fix order. All the props in Hay recur in its closing thirty-sonnet sequence, "The Bangle (Slight Return)," in which Muldoon enjoys an elaborate meal, converses with Virgil on shipboard about the Aeneid, and envisions the life his father might have led had he emigrated, Aeneas-like, to Australia. The sonnets' breezy, evasive, allusive style can handle anything except the narrative they promise; the final bits admit as much:
"For 'maxims,'" Virgil again drew himself up, "read 'Maxime's.'
For 'flint' read 'skint.'
The beauty of it is that your da and that other phantasm
no more set foot in Queensland
than the cat that got the cream
might look at a king. That's the sheer beauty of it.
Ne'er cast a clout, heigh, in midstream.["]
Muldoon's long poems have always been hard to follow, but most are ballasted by emotion, and attentive to their odd characters. But "The Bangle (Slight Return)" has the "beauty" of practical jokes and shaggy-dog stories: it's hard to know what happens, or to care.
The sooner you give up on the closing sonnets, the more time you'll have for the beginning: the best poem in Hay is the first, "The Mud Room," a dream-vision in which the Irish Muldoon and his American Jewish wife follow a "she-goat" up a Swiss mountain; Muldoon carries a folding skating rink and ice skates, Jean "a feminist Haggadah / from last year's Seder." As wife, husband and goat make their way up an Alp and into the foyer to Muldoon's house, they encounter all manner of bric-a-brac—"schmaltz and schlock from Abba to Ultravox," "cardboard boxes from K-mart and Caldor," remaindered copies of The Annals of Chile. That she-goat—"walking on air, / bounding, vaulting, pausing in mid-career / to browse on a sprig of ... myrtle"—is a stand-in for Seamus Heaney, who advised himself in a recent poem to "walk on air against your better judgment." But such in jokes (there are more, and I enjoy most of them) fortunately recede before the real work of the poem, the merger of Irish and Jewish symbolisms, of climbing-up and moving-in, which celebrate the marriage: steers' and rams' horns, for example, become menorahs and shofars. Muldoon writes about this adaptable couple in suitably flexible couplets, careering out into seventeen jumbly syllables, then huddling in five. And the gradual sorting-through of the poem's cascade of nouns becomes Muldoon's way of exaggerating, and enjoying, his adjustment to domesticity:
It was time, I felt sure, to unpack the Suntory
into the old fridge, to clear a space between De Rerum Natura
and Virgil's Eclogues,
a space in which, at long last, I might unlock
the rink, so I drove another piton into an eighty-pound
bag of Sakrete and flipped the half door on the dairy cabinet
of the old Hotpoint
and happened, my love, just happened
upon the cross
section of Morbier and saw, once and for all, the precarious
blue-green, pine-ash path along which Isaac followed Abraham
to an altar lit by a seven-branched candelabrum,
the ram's horn, the little goat whirligig
that left him all agog.
"The Mud Room" works so well as a poem of domestic happiness partly because it's so exuberant—any line could go anywhere—and partly because (as in "The Train") Muldoon has found ways to acknowledge the fears and dangers with which real happiness coexists: "little goat whirligig" denotes the binding of Isaac and the sacrifice of the first scapegoat.
Hay holds lighter pleasures, too. "Myself and Pangur" adapts a ninth-century monk's poem in Irish. In the original the monk is a grammarian; in Muldoon he is translating Virgil, and in both he resembles his cat:
Myself and Pangur, my white cat
have much the same calling, in that
much as Pangur goes after mice
I go hunting for the precise
word [ ... ]
Something of his rapture
at his most recent mouse capture
I share when I, too, get to grips
with what has given me the slip.
Take this seriously: Muldoon is our cat-poet. He likes to hide, to slip away, and then to pounce; he is by turns predatory and sensitive; readers value his tenderness all the more because he is neither predictably nor consistently sympathetic. We care for our cats more than they care for us: they accommodate our habits, but don't take orders—you can't tell a cat to stay, but if you play with her she might warm to you. Muldoon can get himself stuck up erudite trees, too (literally, in his older poem "Yggdrasil"); and, as "the man who can rhyme cat with dog" (Michael Longley's affectionate epithet), Muldoon may even know that cats can produce about a hundred vocal sounds—dogs only have about ten. "Paunch" begins as a joke about middle-aged spread, and ends when Muldoon's kitten confirms his growing likeness to a grown cat:
our eight-week-old stray kitten, Pyewacket,
ventures across what might have seemed a great divide
between her and me, had she not
now begun to nag and needle
my paunch for milk. The bucket fills with human fat.
The chair takes a dim view through a knothole.
The ninety—ninety!—rhyming "Hope-well Haiku" in the middle of Hay amount, I think, to an understated, extended elegy for "the bold Pangur Ban," discovered dead "under a shed" in XLVIII. If the ghazals and pantouns display Muldoon's craftiness, these seem meant to chasten it:
Wonder of wonders.
Your mother shows me a photograph of you got up in lace.
White crepe-de-chine. White bonnet. White mittens.
Once, on a street in Moscow, a woman pushed snow in my face
when it seemed I might have been frostbitten.
The author of that repeats his words and methods to arrive at deep, new, results: he leaves us with plenty of reason to care.
While we have you...
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
April 01, 1999
9 Min read time