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The Call of the Stallion

Paul Muldoon
Paul Muldoon; drawing by David Levine

“Horse latitudes” is a nautical term referring to areas thirty degrees north and south of the equator. Ships sailing these waters often find themselves becalmed, or thrown off course by baffling, unpredictable winds. Paul Muldoon’s new volume of poems, Horse Latitudes, begins with a sequence of nineteen sonnets obliquely concerned with nineteen battles all beginning with the letter B: some are famous, such as the battles of Bannockburn, the Boyne, Bosworth Field, and Blenheim; others, like Baginbun, Benburb, Blaye, and Bazentin, less so. The sonnets often highlight the role played by horses or mules in these battles, and include a series of jibes at a present-day commander in chief bogged down or becalmed in another battleground beginning with B: Bush in Baghdad.

Intercut with the sequence’s historical snapshots and topical allusions are scenes from a different kind of battle—that of the poet’s former lover, Carlotta, with cancer. The poet and Carlotta appear to have met up again in a hotel in Nashville, where one night on television they watch a journalist sarcastically dubbed “some Xenophon”

embedded with the 5th Marines
in the old Sunni Triangle
make a half-assed attempt to untangle
the ghastly from the price of gasoline.

Puns like this have always been crucial to the way Muldoon’s poems conjugate the events of history; they work almost like Brechtian Verfremdungseffekte, distancing effects that prevent us from indulging in easy empathies or simplistic identifications. His wordplay enacts a fundamental or existential embeddedness, revealing over and again the impossibility of untangling individual words or actions from the dizzying webs of language and history. Like the baffling breezes that confuse sailors in the horse latitudes, Muldoon’s verbal sleights of hand insistently push the poem in unforeseen directions, make it drift into weird patterns and peculiar symmetries. Like his previous nine volumes, Horse Latitudes presents a fiendishly complex weather system that can only be negotiated with patience, open-mindedness, an enormous dictionary, and frequent recourse to Wikipedia.

Most of the horses and mules that feature in this volume’s title sequence come to a grisly end. Muldoon grew up in the Moy, a village in rural Armagh in Northern Ireland. His father was a farm laborer, and his mother a schoolteacher. Horses and mules occur time and again in his poems about his childhood and his native region. “Dancers at the Moy,” for instance, published in his first collection, New Weather (1973), tells of a disastrous horse fair held in the Moy in the economically depressed 1920s. Hearing that some traders are about to arrive to buy horses for a military campaign in “One or another Greek war,” the local populace deluges the town with mares and stallions in hope of a quick profit, or at least relief from starvation. However,

No band of Athenians
Arrived at the Moy fair
To buy for their campaign,

Peace having been declared
And a treaty signed.

Starving, the horses end up eating each other “Like people in famine”—a comparison that calls up the long history of Irish famines, and works such as Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger. As happens also in Swift—the inventor of the horse-crazy Gulliver—savagery and horror are imagined begetting a weird sort of buoyancy. The poem ends:

The local people gathered
Up the white skeletons.
Horses buried for years
Under the foundations
Give their earthen floors
The ease of trampolines.

Muldoon’s second collection was titled Mules (1977) and abounds in mares, jennets, ponies, centaurs, jackasses, chargers, racehorses, foals, plowhorses, and of course mules, the hybrid offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. “Should they not have the best of both worlds?” inquires the title poem, and yet the poor mule is also “neither one thing or the other,” the product, like the poet, of a “mixed marriage.” The poet’s father, owner of the mare, and Sam Parsons, owner of the donkey, “shudder” at the thought of the “gaunt, sexless foal” that results from their crossbreeding.

Muldoon’s mules and horses come to grief in a variety of ways. The funeral horse in “Grief,” included in his next volume, Why Brownlee Left (1980), suddenly collapses midstride while pulling a funeral hearse up Charlemont Street:

He jolts to his knees on the kidney-stones
Where a frenzy of maggots
Make short work of so much blood and guts.
The hearse hasn’t even been uncoupled.
His luminous, blue-pink skeleton
Simply disintegrates.

The assembled mourners watch on in horror. And what, one wonders, will become of the stolid plowhorses with which this volume’s title poem ends, after their owner, the eponymous Brownlee, vanishes equally unaccountably, abandoning one bright March morning his fields of barley and potatoes, his bullocks, his milker, his slated farmhouse, and his plow and team:

By noon Brownlee was famous;
They had found all abandoned, with
The last rig unbroken, his pair of black
Horses, like man and wife,
Shifting their weight from foot to
Foot, and gazing into the future.

In “Gathering Mushrooms,” which opens his next volume, Quoof (1983), he himself turns into a horse and gazes into the future, though only after ingesting quantities of the kind of mushrooms you don’t find in shops. The poem moves from his father, dressed in “that same old donkey-jacket,” unloading wagon after wagon of horse manure into his mushroom sheds, to the poet, fifteen years later, tripping outdoors with a friend, and finding “my head had grown into the head of a horse/that shook its dirty-fair mane/ and spoke this verse.” The visionary verse inspired by the magic mushrooms makes reference to the hunger strikes and dirty protests staged in the early eighties by Republicans held in the Maze prison; the protesters who smeared their cells with their own excrement—are figured as horses penned in their stables, and their “dung” imagined as giving a “spring” to their step analogous to that imparted by the horses’ skeletons in “Dancers at the Moy”:

If sing you must, let your song
tell of treading your own dung,
let straw and dung give a spring to your step.
If we never live to see the day we leap
into our true domain,
lie down with us now and wrap
yourself in the soiled grey blanket of Irish rain
that will, one day, bleach itself white.
Lie down with us and wait.

Waiting, often while suffering bodily indignities, is the only course available to many of the personages we meet in Horse Latitudes. (With this theme Muldoon returns to a subject he explored in 1994’s T.S. Eliot Prize–winning The Annals of Chile; the book included “Incantata,” a long, brilliant elegy for his late lover, Mary Farl Powers.) Carlotta is one of three cancer victims the book commemorates: the others are the poet’s sister, Maureen (1953–2005), to whom it is dedicated, and Warren Zevon, with whom Muldoon collaborated a few years back, elegized in the eleven-page terza rima “Sillyhow Stride,” the volume’s final poem. The last lines of the first sonnet of the title sequence strike the dominant tone of enduring, if possible, with a spring in the step:

Proud-fleshed Carlotta. Hypersarcoma.
For now our highest ambition
was simply to bear the light of the day
we had once been planning to seize.

Her spring in the step comes, in part at least, from the occasional indulgence in her drug of choice, a “pile of toot/ on a mirror.” Though now in his mid-fifties, and as institutionalized as a poet can get, laden with honors, the Howard G.B. Clark Professor of the Humanities at Princeton, and Oxford Professor of Poetry from 1999 to 2004, Muldoon has lost none of his fondness for the argot of the streets, and in particular for slang relating to the “chemical life”—a phrase of Auden’s quoted in “Sillyhow Stride.” As this poem makes clear, the “horse latitudes” this volume delineates include those induced by “another hit/of hooch or horse that double-ties the subtile knot.”

The real horses and mules of Horse Latitudes are brought to a different kind of halt. At Benburb in Ireland in 1646, for instance, a Scottish cavalry charge was foiled by chevaux-de-frise, rows of spikes set in ditches and camouflaged:

However jerry-built,
those chevaux-de-frise have embogged
the horses whose manes they had hogged
so lovingly and decked with knots
of heather, horses rooted to the spots
on which they go down on their knees
as they unwind their shoulder plaids and kilts,
the checkered careers of their guts.

As these lines illustrate, violence in Muldoon—and there’s plenty of it—is by no means granted exemption from the operations of wit. Nor, of course, is sex:

As I was bringing up her rear
a young dragoon would cock a snook
at the gunners raking the knob
of High Wood.

Like Auden before him, Muldoon has frequently been exhorted to grow up, to ditch the adolescent wunderkind aspect of his talent; this volume makes clear yet again that he has no intention of doing so. “Yeah right”—to quote the catchphrase of “Sillyhow Stride”—one imagines him responding to such charges. Or perhaps “heehaw,” or “for the love of Mike,” the other repeated taglines made use of in poems here.

At the opposite end of the spectrum Horse Latitudes reveals again his delight in arcane vocabulary and recherché terms: words deployed here you may have to look up include barm, ganch, lanner, sowens, numbles, sangar, lant, cahow, durian, eryngo, frizzen, scaldy, skelf, and stover. You may not know that a Fomorian is one of a group of Celtic sea demons, or, unless you’re familiar with the cultures and peoples of the Gobi Desert, that a morin khur is a horse-headed violin that is the national instrument of Mongolia—at least until you read the poem “Medley for Morin Khur”:

I
The sound box is made of a horse’s head.
The resonator is horse skin.
The strings and bow are of horsehair.
II
The morin khur is the thoroughbred
of Mongolian violins.
Its call is the call of the stallion to the mare.

This poem was translated into Chinese in advance of a visit Muldoon paid to Shanghai and Beijing. One can’t imagine it went down that well with the authorities there:

III
A call which may no more be gainsaid
than that of jinn to jinn
through jasmine-weighted air.
IV
A call that may no more be gainsaid
than that of blood kin to kin
through a body-strewn central square.
V
A square in which they’ll heap the horses’ heads
by the heaps of horse skin
and the heaps of horsehair.

“Medley for Morin Khur” seems to me one of the book’s most successful poems. Like “Dancers at the Moy” it explores the relationship between art and slaughter, though here the music is explicitly nationalistic, and presented as the cause of the cataclysm rather than the result. It typifies Muldoon’s vision of history as an ongoing tribal conflict, whatever gloss apologists for “globalization” might want to put upon it. The American empire and its Roman forerunner are neatly linked in “Hedge School,” in which he imagines his daughter and the rest of her “all-American Latin class” one day being “forced to conjugate/Guantánamo, amas, amat.” The poem’s title alludes to the illegal outdoor schools set up and attended by Irish Catholics, including his “great-great-grandmother,” who would carry to her class each day a mat to sit on, “a mat that flashed/Papish like a heliograph,” in defiance of the “soiled grey blanket of Irish rain” from “Gathering Mushrooms.” Mediating the Roman and American empires is of course the British; the poem cuts to Muldoon in St. Andrews (“where, in 673, another Maelduin was bishop”), having just learned of the worsening of his sister’s condition, and trying

to come up with a ruse
for unsealing the
New Shorter
Oxford English Dictionary back
in that corner shop
and tracing the root of metastasis.

But roots in Muldoon are no more traceable than the source of cancer. All cultures, such a poem insists, are a fluctuating amalgam of hybrids, shaped by the uncertainties of conquest and crossbreeding, as uncontrollable as the spread of cancerous cells.

Further, to attempt to enshrine some ideal of national identity is to succumb to the kind of nostalgia lambasted in “The Old Country,” a pitiless sequence of thirteen linked sonnets made up largely of clichés. Their effect is intensified through repetition, since the last line of each sonnet becomes the first line of the next. In “the old country” “every town was a tidy town,” “every meal was a square meal,” “every resort was a last resort”:

Every track was an inside track
where every horse had the horse sense
to know it was only a glorified hack.
Every graineen of gratitude was immense
and every platitude a familiar platitude.

This is a good poem to turn to when feeling exasperated by the obliquity and recalcitrance of Muldoon’s more puzzling poems; for this is their opposite. Here is language reduced to a set of “familiar platitudes,” although Muldoon’s sly slippages and deft elisions continually alert us also to the kinds of menace that platitudes attempt to disguise:

So it was that the defenders
were taken in by their own blood splendour.
Every slope was a slippery slope.

“The Old Country” is adept at illustrating the way clichés screen out complexity, particularly when used to foster a nostalgic nationalism of the kind politicians on the stump like to generate. Muldoon has always enjoyed guying mythical visions of Cathleen ni Houlihan, and bringing to the fore the untidiness and incongruities of Irish history, especially those generated by the Irish diaspora. There will be no simple “leap/into our true domain” of the kind that the hunger-strikers of “Gathering Mushrooms” dream, but a slippery slope, made the slipperier by nationalist myths of martyrdom, or “blood splendour.” Another sonnet in this collection, “The Treaty,” has some devious fun with the plotting and wrangling that has prevented the implementation of the Good Friday agreement, making extended use of the metaphor of a tailor unable to finish a suit:

he’s sizing up what follows
from our being on the verge
of nation-
hood when another broad-lapelled, swallow-tailed swallow
comes at a clip through the dusk-blue serge
to make some last-minute alterations.

Muldoon’s far-fetched, elaborate metaphors in many ways resemble Metaphysical conceits in their yoking together of disparate strands of imagery through a virtuoso display of his wit. The literary scaffolding to “Sillyhow Stride” is provided by a series of references to the most fantastical of the Metaphysicals, John Donne; along with lines from Donne’s Songs and Sonnets, the poem weaves together memories of time spent with his friend Warren Zevon, harrowing images of his sister in the hospital, an encounter with the ghost of Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, now dressed as a busker in a Tibetan cap and playing a flute, and freeze-frames of machete-wielding child soldiers from the Ivory Coast and Zaire.

The hook linking Zevon and Donne is as ingenious as one of Donne’s more outlandish analogies: on Grammy night, amidst “all those bling-it-ons in their bulletproof broughams,/all those line managers who couldn’t manage a line of coke,” didn’t you (i.e., Zevon—or rather his spirit, for his Grammy for The Wind had to be awarded posthumously) feel “as incongruous/there as John Donne at a junior prom”? Muldoon’s wit, like Donne’s, induces an intense self-consciousness about the powers of rhetoric to manipulate and control, most especially when he pushes his conceits to the edge of absurdity. But “Sillyhow Stride” is also a double elegy, and he uses Donne’s “The Triple Fool” to launch a meditation on the efficacy of poetry as consolation:

I want you to tell me if grief, brought to numbers, cannot be so fierce,
pace Donne’s sales pitch,
for he tames, that fetters it in verse,

throwing up a last ditch
against the mounted sorrows, for I have more, Warren, I have more….

The sillyhow (literally a happy hood) of the poem’s title is another word for a caul, which was supposed to protect those born with one from ever drowning. It serves here as a visual comparison to the oxygen mask his dying sister wears during her final days in hospital:

I knelt and adjusted the sillyhow

of her oxygen mask, its vinyl caul
unlikely now to save Maureen from drowning in her own spit.

Stride, meanwhile, is a jazz piano style: Zevon is figured, with a little help from Donne, astride his piano as if it were a horse—

Go tell court huntsmen that the
oxygen-masked King will ride
ten thousand days and nights

on a stride piano, yeah right.
His rich and varied career in drugs provides further occasions for many an intertextual jest:

Were we not weaned till then from Mandrax and mandrake
or snorted we in the seven sleepers’ den

a line of coke….

“Sillyhow Stride” itself shares with many of Muldoon’s longer poems a hallucinatory quality, as it tacks and veers between its various narratives and image clusters, throwing up, in the process, implausible rhymes such as “Mountain Dew” with “mesotheliomata,” “sashimi” with “zoom zoom,” “last lamenting kiss” with “loosey-goosey.” Ben Jonson once declared that Donne, “for not keeping of an accent, deserved hanging”: What kind of death, one wonders, would he have asked the executioner to devise for Muldoon’s serial crimes against the conventions of poetry?

Donne does not furnish any of the fifteen poems discussed by Muldoon in the fifteen lectures he delivered during his stint as Oxford Professor of Poetry, but is seen as instrumental in provoking Yeats to revise the opening lines of “All Souls’ Night,” the subject of his first talk. In its magazine publication in The London Mercury of March 1921 the poem began:

‘Tis All Souls’ Night and the Great Christ Church Bell….

This, Muldoon argues, echoes too closely for comfort the opening of “A Nocturnall upon St. Lucys Day”:

‘Tis the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes….

Accordingly, in the final version published in The Tower in 1928, Yeats shifted the opening clause to line 3:

Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell
And many a lesser bell sound through the room;
And it is All Souls’ Night,
And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
Bubble upon the table.

This is the first of many illustrations the lectures in The End of the Poem offer of Muldoon’s central thesis: that all poems are in an ongoing dialogue, sometimes acknowledged, sometimes disguised, sometimes subliminal, with other poems, and it is this, more than any other factor, that shapes them. He quotes with approval a dictum of Robert Frost, the poet who influenced the early Muldoon more than any other: “The way to read a poem in prose or verse is in the light of all the other poems ever written.” Taken literally, this must mean that there is no “end of the poem,” that almost any line can be shown to activate echoes of innumerable other lines; or, conversely, it can be shown to be engaged in deactivating echoes in its quest for originality; or it may, as Muldoon suggests of Yeats’s revision, be attempting to annex the force and prestige of an earlier line somewhere below the level of consciousness. Yeats, Muldoon writes, “manages to take the curse off the overt reference while retaining what one might call its covert operation.”

Reading these lectures I was often put in mind of Henry James’s definition of the artist’s dilemma as that of drawing a circle around relations that really “stop nowhere.” Since Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence of 1973, to which Muldoon pays handsome tribute in his lecture on Ted Hughes’s “The Literary Life,” this has increasingly become the dilemma of the poetry critic too; the search for a poem’s meaning primarily involves decoding its relationship to another poem or poems, and eventually, in Frost’s phrase, to “all the other poems ever written.” As one might expect, Muldoon sets about this task with a mixture of gleeful cunning and acute literary sophistication. In his trawl for sources for the words each poet uses, or refuses to use, he moves well beyond the conventions of traditional studies in influence, rarely limiting himself simply to interpoetic allusion hunting. These lectures set out to dazzle rather than convince; they constitute an intriguing account from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, of how Muldoon himself reads poems, which is with barely a graineen of horse sense.

Like many a Muldoon poem, these lectures often begin innocuously enough: we get the text of the poem, details of publication, a little biographical and historical background. It is only as his close readings develop that one begins to wonder who’s been hitting the hooch: that muscatel, for instance, in line 4 of Yeats’s “All Souls’ Night” encrypts, he would have us believe, via various borrowings from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” (“beaded bubbles winking at the brim,” “emptied some dull opiate to the drains”), a reference to Yeats’s wife, whose maiden name was Georgie Hyde-Lees—as in the lees or drains of a bottle of wine. And though no avian imagery appears in Yeats’s poem, its allusions to Keats’s ode are seen as calling forth from the depths a phantom bird, in a textual equivalent of the wine’s summons to Yeats’s dead comrades in spiritualism; its muscatel points, Muldoon argues, to a couplet from Keats’s “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern”:

Have ye tippled drink more fine
Than mine host’s Canary wine?

From this putative songbird we jump to Yeats’s love of linnets, the relationship between linen (i.e., poetic) lines, and linnets, which feed on flax, and thence, via Blake, to the sculptor John Flaxman. Then, approaching the same word from a different angle, Muldoon notes that before pouring out his muscatel, the poet would have to have removed from the bottle its cork,

a word that would have been much in Yeats’s mind at the beginning of November 1920, given that the mayor of the city of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, had died in Brixton Prison only a few days earlier,… after being on hunger-strike for seventy-four days.

The cumulative effect of these and numerous other related hypotheses is the part creation, part excavation of a shadowy, underground poem whose existence we can neither quite disprove nor believe in.

“But all the fun’s in how you say a thing,” as a sleuth-type character called Doc Pinkerton remarks in “The Country Club,” one of Muldoon’s early poems. In fact he’s quoting directly from Robert Frost’s “The Mountain,” discussed in the third lecture, which draws attention to the various puns and lacunae and riddles with which Frost (who from 1906 to 1911 was employed at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, New Hampshire) mocks the narrator’s—and reader’s—hankering after certainties. Line 14 of Frost’s poem, “and driftwood stripped of bark,” leads, it almost goes without saying, to the philosopher George Berkeley, while Henri Bergson is evoked through more complex means:

“He said there was a lake
Somewhere in Ireland on a mountain top.”

Ireland—élan—élan vital, which was central to Bergson’s L’Évolution créatrice of 1907… Whether or not one buys such readings, it does emerge clearly from this lecture that what Muldoon admires in Frost is the way his equivocal directives bind us to a vision of boundlessness, make of the need to live with uncertainty a certain, almost ethical prerogative. Though poems end, there is no end of the poem, as the inconclusive conclusion to “The Mountain” so deftly illustrates. “You’ve lived here all your life?” the narrator asks the enigmatic drover:

“Ever since Hor
Was no bigger than a——“ What, I did not hear.
He drew the oxen toward him with light touches
Of his slim goad on nose and offside flank,
Gave them their marching orders and was moving.