||Mulling over Muldoon
by Jana Prikryl
Paul Muldoon's trademark style¨words that are made to skid across the English language like skipping stones and, with each lexical skip, mutate into similar words, many only seen in dictionaries, with the poem generated in the wake of this repeated mutation¨compels a level of concentration that is hard to muster unless you're balling your fists and steadily sipping coffee through a straw. That is to say, Muldoon obliges you to perk up and read closely (almost in the physical sense of getting nearer the page). With most contemporary poets serving up solemn, mono-imagistic, syntactically prosaic verse, Muldoon's poetry is not just a "tonic" to the poetry culture, as Sven Birkerts has said in Ploughshares; it is the type of work that challenges readers' habits and forces them to approach poetry in a whole new way.
The standard Muldoon poem is situated either in the world of memory (which readers are more or less comfortable with) or its parallel, a less traditional hyper-real imaginary realm, where gadgets, words, concepts, and the dead interact without much sense of impropriety. In Moy Sand and Gravel, his ninth collection¨and shortlisted for this year's international Griffin international poetry prize¨memory gets top billing, with the main theme being the poet's childhood in rural Ireland (as well as the more recent domestic calamity of his wife's miscarriage). This seems like a return to his earliest collections in the 1970s, when the influence of Yeats and Seamus Heaney was more pronounced and Muldoon's style in general more straightforward (in fact, echoes of Yeats abound in this volume). The book also shares some surface features with Muldoon's previous collection, 1998's Hay, which likewise includes an extended string of haiku, several translations, a long final poem, and experiments with end-rhyme involving the repetition of a single word.
There is nothing radically new to Muldoon's oeuvre in Moy Sand and Gravel, which is another way of saying he is as difficult and rewarding as ever. One almost fails to notice that the two poems "The Misfits" and "The Turn" are highly accomplished sestinas, because even in blank verse his style is incantatory. "The Misfits" catches a conversation between the young Muldoon and his father while the two are hoisting potatoes. Little by little it becomes clear that a local priest's unsavoury reputation (presaging today's much more public outcries against the Catholic Church) will prevent his teaching guitar to the boy. Even amid the eddy of incidental details that Muldoon manages to sift in ("the splash of red lead/ on my left boot," "a creel of potatoes¨King Edwards, gray as lead," "a bag-apron that read, in capital letters, 'RICH'"), the poem zings with the rhythm of speaking voices, especially the father's:
all right. If you think, after that, I'd let the
Monk give you a lift
into the Moy to see Montgomery bloody Clift
you've another think coming. I'll give him two barrels full of twelve-gauge lead
if he comes anywhere near you. Bloody popin-
jay. Peacock. Ostrich.'
By the end of "The Misfits", that ostrich morphs into an emblem of the boy's hopeless guitar dreams¨a strange, lovely, and ironically liberating conclusion in which the flightless bird impossibly takes wing. This reckless combination of the funny and the serious, and that outlandish analogy of the ostrich, when deployed sparingly in his more linear, memory-based poems, earns Muldoon awards (in 1994 he won the T.S. Eliot Prize for The Annals of Chile), but when such effects pepper his metaphysical, harder-to-follow lyrics, readers tend to disengage on the grounds that that's not what poetry's about.
One of the weirdest poems in Moy Sand and Gravel, and the one in most dire need of a gloss, "At the Sign of the Black Horse, September 1999", is also the most exhilarating. I had to read it a few times, over the course of a few days, before it began to swim into focus. Here's the gist: Hurricane Floyd has hit Muldoon's neighbourhood, the streets have become rivers, quite lively dead people float by in Studebakers, including "child-kin" of Muldoon's children, who, as Jews, are being interrogated by Gestapo officers ("in the Poland of the 30s," of course) for preparing a "Verboten" peccary, which itself keeps floating back up in the poem, while other friends and relations intermittently drift past, including "Uncle Arnie," a.k.a. Arnold Rothstein who fixed the 1919 World Series, and all the while Muldoon's infant son, Asher, sleeps in his pram, perfectly immune to the hubbub. Throughout the 17-page poem, Muldoon's own voice yields to a static comparable to stormy telephone lines: generic phrases keep popping up, subverting the words that preceded them, i.e., "his great-grandfather Jim Zabin, an ad-man who held, of all things, the Biltrite account,/ Please Examine Your Change As Mistakes Cannot,/nodded from his death-bed to the red/ stain on the muslin clothÓ." The emotional pressure rises toward the end of the poem as thoughts of Auschwitz and Muldoon's miscarried child turn those generic phrases into a horrible stutter:
The fact that the slew of interlocutors
in Asher's glabrous face now included, of all things, the peccary runt, Do Not Litter,
left me no less awestruck
than if the Studebaker were to be suddenly yanked back to the factory in South Bend
from which it had been packed off, Open This End,
than if the soul of one of the dozen stillborn
lambs sewn into Fanny's astrakhan were to recover radical innocence and learn,
than if scouring the trap by which I had taken that peccary, so lank and lean,
by its dinky hind leg,
Don't Walk, than if, Don't Walk, than if,
than if scouring it might make it clean.
The passage is full of echoes that make it a pleasure to read: "Bend" and "End", "stillborn" and "learn", "awestruck" and "Walk", and that final door-slam rhyme of "lean" and "clean". But what's he saying? Do you really need to reminded of the Studebaker at this point? When you reread the passage you slowly realize that each disorienting detail (the baby, the "peccary runt," the astrakhan made of stillborn lambs, and even the brand-new Studebaker) builds an ominous sense of "radical innocence" betrayed. Muldoon's brilliance lies in the way he diverts readers from the garden path¨leading them astray with tangled grammar, unusual words, outlandish metaphor, promiscuous intercourse between high and low tone¨just before parting the curtain and revealing they were within an inch of their original goal, the uncomplicated epiphany, all along.
There has always been a certain duality in critical readings of his work: he is widely praised for technical virtuosity and inventiveness, but it's the rare critic who can let a review pass without venting some chagrin over the impenetrability of Muldoon's verses. It's almost as though, over the past 30 years, his work has had good or bad reviews based on whether a particular critic could handle feeling excluded from his more difficult poems. Madoc: A Mystery, for instance, arguably his least admired collection (or at least his most "problematic"), was dismissed as too tricky to "do its job" of affecting readers emotionally. Meanwhile, if you can put up with only a bare sense of what is actually happening in the long, sequential poem, its distillation of Muldoon's linguistic baroque offers some breathtaking turns. But because readers today expect each ripple in a narrative to be made clear and present to them, they get impatient with Muldoon's minute sketchiness.
Yet in his own critical writings Muldoon takes an all but mystical view of the poet's right to cover his tracks. In To Ireland, I, his encyclopaedic ruminations on Irish literature, Muldoon presents a structurally simple medieval poem and, with something of a mischievous wink, notes that it contains "the urge towards the cryptic, the encoded, the runic, the virtually unintelligible." In the same chapter Muldoon mentions, in passing, Richard Ellman's observation about James Joyce's relationship to his schizophrenic daughter: "Joyce had a remarkable capacity to follow her swift jumps of thought which baffled other people completely,"¨the ability to leap tall thoughts in a single bound being Muldoon's specialty, and one of the techniques that stumps readers. It's not that he intends to stump readers (although you sense he could live with that too); his obscurity is a serious method, the cousin to Keats's negative capability.
For Muldoon, the imagination (or thought itself, or feeling) is a performance occurring at no fixed abode. His most original poems aren't memories but bemused, elegiac fantasies, and their worlds' physical laws generally derive from language itself. Half rhymes and half-remembered events suggest themselves through the tricks of their own telling, and that's why the successful reader has to pick up on cues different from those in most contemporary poetry. If the poems withhold or complicate information, it's because the obscure approach sometimes happens to be the most truthful one. Like the strange flower he describes so precisely in "Yarrow" from The Annals of Chile, the meaning of experience is elusive and many-petaled, and it would be misleading to pretend otherwise:
Achillea millefolium: with its bedraggled, feathery leaf and pink (less red
than mauve) or off-white flower, its tight little knot
of a head,
it's like something keeping a secret
from itself, something on the tip of its own tongue. ˛