At Arm’s Length

Paul Muldoon was born in County Armagh in Northern Ireland in 1951. His father was a farm laborer and market gardener, and his mother a schoolteacher: “She had read one volume of Proust,” he writes in the poem “The Mixed Marriage”:

He knew the cure for farcy.1
I flitted between a hole in the hedge
And a room in the Latin Quarter.

Analogous hybrids of all sorts abound in Muldoon’s dizzying, all-accommodating narratives: mules, talking horses, skywomen, a coney who dissolves into honey, a pig made of soap, an Apache/Irish terrorist, a man-ox, a fish with three gold teeth, a flute fashioned from a missionary’s tibia on which the poet hears “The Lass of Aughrim” played during a trip down the Amazon. And Muldoon’s forms and plots seem to derive from a similar compulsion to bring together the unlikely: his longest poem to date, for instance, “Madoc: A Mystery,” purports to describe the adventures of Coleridge and his fellow poet Robert Southey in America in the 1790s, as if those two ardent pantisocrats, as they called themselves, really had set sail, as they for a while intended, to found a Utopian colony in the New World.

To complicate matters further: (1) the narrative of their journey is presented as in fact a transcription made during the middle of the twenty-first century by means of the scientific framing device of a retinagraph of the right eyeball belonging to a character called John South, a shadowy terrorist figure possibly working to overthrow the power of a futuristic conglomerate called Unitel; (2) each of the 233 sections of the poem is introduced by the name of a philosopher in square brackets, inviting us to connect some aspect of the section with the given philosopher’s life or philosophy. In the [Diogenes] poem we find Southey in his tent on the banks of the Susquehanna bathing in a “claw-foot tub,” and in the [Erasmus] section a reference to a ship from Rotterdam; but, as always in Muldoon, for every ladder there are a multitude of snakes, and even experts in the thought of the third-century-BC Greek peripatetic philosopher Theophrastus might, one imagines, have trouble meaningfully linking his work to his section in the poem, which consists of this single line: “De dum, de dum, de dum, de dum, de dum.”

Muldoon is not himself prone to falling into the jogtrot of the iambic pentameter, and the traditional forms of British poetry suffer at his hands a transformation into something sometimes rich and always strange. Consider, for example, the title poem of his fourth collection, Quoof (1983), a typical Muldoon sonnet:

How often have I carried our family word
for the hot water bottle
to a strange bed,
as my father would juggle a red-hot half-brick
in an old sock
to his childhood settle.
I have taken it into so many lovely heads
or laid it between us like a sword.
A hotel room in New York City
with a girl who spoke hardly any English,
my hand on her breast
like the smouldering one-off spoor of the yeti
or some other shy beast
that has yet to enter the language.

Here again we have the theme of the mixed marriage: it is his father whom the poem connects with the domestic rites and private language of the family. While the poet is adrift in the wide, adult world of strange beds, sexual partners, and New York hotel rooms, “quoof”—the Muldoon family’s word for a hot water bottle—becomes a talismanic signifier of both the losses and excitements implicit in his engagement with the exotic world beyond his parochial upbringing—the “Latin Quarter” life yearned for by his mother. It at once dramatizes the distance he has traveled from his father’s simple rural roots and allows him to defend his most primary sense of self from the threat of erotic entrapment and dissolution inherent in his cosmopolitan philandering.

This, at least, seems to be the theory of the octet, that the lucky product of the mixed marriage might, in the words of the title poem of his 1977 collection, Mules, “have the best of both worlds.” The sestet that follows, however, seems to tell a different story. The sexual encounter with a girl who speaks hardly any English leads to a sense of freakishness and detachment: his very hand metamorphoses into the “smouldering one-off spoor” of some chimerical beast—the antithesis of the warm brick juggled by his father in his homely nightly ritual. And if it is the scene’s stalled randomness and uniqueness that makes it uninterpretable, yet one cannot help parsing it in relation to the octet in the hope of solving the poem’s puzzle, and achieving the momentary “clarification of life” in which Robert Frost—to whose work Muldoon insistently alludes—claimed a poem should end.

Muldoon has frequently praised Frost’s devious ability to say one thing and mean another, and from Frost he learned how to use form as a means of evading self-revelation. The persona of “Quoof,” though willing to disclose a secret word from his family’s private lexicon, nevertheless refuses to relate his experience in a way that allows it to be classified; and while the poem is a sonnet in rhymes and length, it might more accurately be described as an anti-sonnet in its refusal of all the traditional resources of the form, and in its almost mocking half-rhymes: bottle/settle, City/yeti, English/language.

It is to this ventriloquistic elusiveness that Seamus Heaney calls attention in his tiny poem “Widgeon,” dedicated to Muldoon and collected in his Station Island volume of 1984:

It had been badly shot.
While he was plucking it
he found, he says, the voice box—
like a flute stop
in the broken windpipe—
and blew upon it
his own small widgeon cries.

Muldoon appears to consider this poem a good one, for he included it in his selection of Heaney’s work in his 1985 Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry. In its subtle way, it does, however, register a number of reservations about the younger writer’s poetics. Whereas Heaney, most famously and controversially in North (1975), responded to the endless bombs, beatings, and assassinations of the Troubles with a poetry that sought rituals and symbols “adequate to our predicament,” as he phrased it, and that allowed him to acknowledge his own attraction to the myths underpinning Irish nationalism, for Muldoon random death and destruction are givens to be approached in a spirit of complete detachment.

Nearly all of his volumes contain scenes, images, and fantasies of quite astonishing violence: his father being eaten alive by piranhas (“The Waking Father”), a girl made pregnant by the poet strangled by the belt of a whirring corn thresher (“Cuckoo Corn”), a blanket deliberately infected with smallpox “traded” during the Indian Wars (“Meeting the British”), a woman fist-fucked to death (“Blewits”), a pair of trousers worn by the Scottish scout in “Madoc” made from the skin of “at least four, maybe five, hapless Gros Ventre women,” and of course everywhere dismembered and exploded bodies, like that of the local councillor in “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants,” blown up by a booby trap in a municipal parking lot:

Once they collect his smithereens
he doesn’t quite add up.
They’re shy of a foot, and a calf
which stems
from his left shoe like a severely
pruned-back shrub.

What is disturbing is the jocular matter-of-fact tone, the refusal to be outraged or even surprised. Muldoon is described by Heaney as depending on these bad shootings to blow his own unexpected, small cries: the resultant poetry, Heaney seems to suggest, is startling, but uninterested in dignifying the suffering it exploits.

The Romantic model of poetry on which Heaney’s own oeuvre is based is one Muldoon has endlessly teased, sidestepped, and refuted. Heaney’s relationship to the reader depends, above all, on our willingness to trust the voice that explains to us how the poet evolved in relation to landscape, history, culture, and family, and to sympathize with his attempts to make sense of the experiences he describes, which we must believe actually happened. Whether or not the poet of “Quoof” in real life spent a night in a hotel room in New York with a girl who spoke hardly any English, on the other hand, is irrelevant to the impact of the poem. Muldoon tends to figure a poet simply as someone “through whom a poem [is] written,” as he puts it in an author’s note prefacing his Poems; the notion of a stable poetic self providing readers with exemplary “momentary stays against confusion,” to quote Frost’s famous formulation, seems to the postmodern Muldoon an unsustainable fiction. On the contrary, poetry should unsettle our habitual patterns of thought, lead us as through a labyrinth into the heart of confusion.

Muldoon’s most explicit reply to the charges leveled in “Widgeon” is “The Briefcase,” dedicated to Seamus Heaney, and collected in Madoc (1990):

I held the briefcase at arm’s length from me;
the oxblood or liver
eel skin with which it was covered
had suddenly grown supple.
I’d been waiting in line for the cross-town
bus when an almighty cloudburst
left the sidewalk a raging torrent.
And though it contained only the first
inkling of this poem, I knew I daren’t
set the briefcase down
to slap my pockets for an obol—
for fear it might slink into a culvert
and strike out along the East River
for the sea. By which I mean the “open” sea.

The poem alludes to a passage in an early Heaney poem, “Lough Neagh Sequence,” in which he marvels at the eel’s ability to migrate across the Atlantic, and wriggle inland into the heart of Ireland. “The Briefcase” was written shortly after Muldoon himself settled in America, and on one level might be taken as a parody of Irish diaspora culture’s sentimental longing for “home.” Heaney’s vibrant, organic, instinctive “gland” undergoes a highly characteristic Muldoon transformation into a luxury briefcase, one to be held “at arm’s length”—rather as the poem’s form (again a sonnet, but this time with in/out rhymes, i.e., abcdefgfgedcba) seems quizzically at odds with the metaphor of “living form” which the poem makes comically literal. Muldoon is not simply proclaiming here the virtues of the kind of poetic self-consciousness his work embodies; he is also satirizing the possibility of a poet’s controlling the range of a poem’s meanings, and the uses to which it might be put.

From the very outset of his career Muldoon has shown himself acutely aware of the need for poetry to be held “at arm’s length,” not only from writer and reader, but also from the political and cultural circumstances of its historical moment. This issue is a par-ticularly pertinent one in twentieth-century Irish literature: “Did that play of mine send out/Certain men the English shot?” Yeats dramatically demanded in “The Man and the Echo” of his patriotic verse drama Cathleen ni Houlihan. “When, for fuck’s sake, are you going to write/Something for us?” an angry Fenian berates Heaney in “The Flight Path” in his 1996 collection The Spirit Level. Muldoon resists such pressures by insisting on the hypothetical space in which each poem exists—and often, as in his account of Coleridge and Southey’s exploits in America, by developing ostentatiously hypothetical narratives.

One of the most pervasive themes of his astonishingly precocious first book, New Weather (1973), published when he was twenty-one, is the precariousness of identity, how many roads not taken diverge from and shadow the one that was. In one mini-parable, “Identities,” a somewhat Audenesque spy-figure falls in with a woman, also on the run, who suggests she steal papers for them both, that they escape the following night by boat, and then marry. We never learn, needless to say, of his response to the alternative life suddenly presented to him, but are offered instead these cryptic afterthoughts:

I have been wandering since, back up the streams
That had once flowed simply one into the other,
One taking the other’s name.

This time when streams “flowed”—or seemed to—“simply one into the other” without resulting in hybrid offspring is as close as Muldoon will come to indulging in the illusions of innocence. This poem, called “Identities,” is about evading the complications and consequences of sex, and the poet’s nostalgic wanderings, or wonderings, are analogous to his evoking the word “quoof” in strange beds.

More often, though, Muldoon’s poems explore the peculiar conjunctions and transformations attendant upon accepting—or making—proposals such as that of the woman in “Identities.” In “Whim,” for instance, he picks up an unnamed her in the bar of the aptly named Europa Hotel. He invites her back to his flat—not that they make it that far:

They would saunter through the Botanic Gardens
Where they held hands, and kissed,
And by and by one thing led to another.
To cut not a very long story short,
Once he got stuck into her he got stuck
Full stop.
  They lay there quietly until dusk
When an attendant found them out.
He called an ambulance, and gently but firmly
They were manhandled onto a stretcher
Like the last of an endangered species.

This little misfortune (known in slang terms as dog-knotting) is again presented as the literal enactment of a metaphor—that of making the beast with two backs. While in “Quoof” the lovers’ encounter begat the image of a creature so shy it had “yet to enter the language,” the more knowing couple of “Whim” metamorphose into one about to disappear from it. Particularly characteristic of Muldoon here, in fact probably the most distinctive hallmark of his entire oeuvre, is his use of the conditional tense—“They would saunter….” We can never quite be sure in Muldoon’s narratives of the borders between fantasy and reality. In a poem from the same volume (Why Brownlee Left, 1980) we learn of a man about to join holy orders. However,

The night before he was to be ordained
He packed a shirt and a safety razor
And started out for the middle of nowhere,
Back to the back of beyond.

He marries a childhood sweetheart, inherits his uncle’s fortune, buys land, and is found dead one morning by his favorite granddaughter. Only the poem is called “The Bishop,” and the implication is that this is his dream on the eve of ordination of the life he will never lead. Muldoon applies the same technique to a number of poems about his father, who almost emigrated from Ireland in the 1930s. In the end he didn’t, but Muldoon is much drawn to pondering the implications of this unfulfilled scheme. “It’s an image,” he has commented,

that’s troubled me for ages, since it underlines the arbitrary nature of so many of the decisions we take, the disturbingly random quality of so many of our actions. I would speculate on my father’s having led an entirely different life, in which, clearly, I would have played no part.

He sets about trailing his “father’s spirit/From the mud-walled cabin behind the mountain/Where he was born and bred,” to “a building-site from which he disappeared/And took passage, almost, for Argentina”:

The mountain is coming down with hazel,
The building-site a slum,
While he has gone no further than Brazil.

That’s him on the verandah, drinking rum
With a man who might be a Nazi,
His children asleep under their mosquito-nets.

And none of these children is the poet—whose conception is described in another sonnet in the same volume as an equally arbitrary occurrence, as probably dating back to

a chance remark
In a room at the top of the stairs;
To an open field, as like as not,
Under the little stars.

Far from clarifying his sense of self, the attempt to imagine his biological moment of origin only emphasizes his awareness of the random: whatever the circumstances, as this poem (“October 1950”) punningly concludes, “it leaves me in the dark.”

In the dark,” however, is exactly how many readers feel when confronted with Muldoon’s longer poems—peculiar, hard-to-define, comic-epic quests such as “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants,” “Madoc: A Mystery,” or “The Bangle (Slight Return)” from Hay. These oblique narratives exhibit a density of allusion and wordplay that brings to mind late Joyce. For although a kind of chaos theory seems to underlie Muldoon’s sense of the way events happen in the world, his large-scale poetic structures embody this randomness by its opposite, a manic overpatterning that decrees that every detail in a poem must somehow connect with every other detail in it. In his later long poems in particular, the ludic deliberately shades into the ludicrous (to use a Muldoonish pun), and the formal challenges he sets himself become ever more demanding, and bewildering: why, for instance, does he have the rhyme scheme of his long poem “Yarrow” track that of another long poem, “Incantata” (both collected in The Annals of Chile, 1994)? Both poems, further, bristle with references to an encyclopedic range of myths and texts and contain more than the odd scrap of Gaelic and other foreign languages; are these allusions, too, one begins to wonder, part of some elaborate hall of mirrors?

Indeed, to decode fully much of Muldoon’s recent work you’d need to have read and remembered pretty much all that he himself has read and remembered—and that’s a very, very great deal. In 2000 he published a set of lectures he delivered as Oxford Professor of Poetry under the title To Ireland, I.2 These consisted of alphabetically organized entries on Irish writers, from the twelfth-century bard Amergin to Zozimus, the pseudonym of a blind nineteenth-century Dublin ballad-maker. And almost every writer mentioned is shown somehow to be referred to in James Joyce’s “The Dead”—or, in the entries for post-Joycean writers such as Elizabeth Bowen or C.S. Lewis, to contain somewhere buried allusions to Joyce’s wintry short story.

To Ireland, I is a brilliantly entertaining and informative work of criticism, but it is also almost a spoof of the genre. What it does undoubtedly demonstrate, however, is Muldoon’s unique way of reading literature like some dazzlingly versatile, perhaps almost compulsive exponent of the art of the dot-to-dot puzzle. Certainly it sheds an intriguing—if not wholly reassuring—light on the intricate cross-references and recurring tics and themes that pattern Muldoon’s own relentlessly allusive longer works. Joyce once commented of Ulysses: “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” The exegesis of Muldoon’s oeuvre has only just begun, in monographs such as Tim Kendall’s 1996 Paul Muldoon and Clair Wills’s 1998 Reading Paul Muldoon, but it promises to evolve into an equally time-consuming project.

Muldoon has now been resident in America for around fifteen years. Moy Sand and Gravel—which was awarded this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Poetry—is his most concerted attempt yet to evolve a poetry that fuses his overwhelmingly Irish preoccupations with his day-to-day life on the East Coast (he teaches at Princeton) with his wife, Jean Hanff Korelitz, and their two children. The mixed marriage he contemplates in this volume, most directly in the eclogue “The Grand Conversation,” is his own:

She. My people came from Korelitz
where they grew yellow cucumbers
and studied the Talmud.
He. Mine pored over the mud
of mangold- and potato-pits
or flicked through kale plants from Comber
as bibliomancers of old
went a-flicking through deckle-mold.

This “conversation” also dominates the book’s long concluding poem, “At the Sign of the Black Horse, September 1999” (a reference to their house in New Jersey), in which Muldoon plays off his rural Catholic Irish origins against his wife’s Judaism, and ponders the mix of their disparate cultures and genes in the face of the recently born Asher Muldoon (“in Hebrew ‘blest’”). As its numerous references to Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Daughter” emphasize, this is Muldoon at his most domestic, hymning the fragile delights of family life in the face of the forces of nature (the poem is set in the aftermath of the “haystack- and roof-levelling wind,/Bred on the Atlantic,” of Hurricane Floyd), and historical suffering, alluding in particular to the themes of Irish hunger and the experiences of Polish Jews during World War II. The poem presents a series of glimpses into the lives and times of Jean’s extended family, but also, as is Muldoon’s wont, knits together many of the images and characters featured earlier in the book to create his densely textured intertwining loops of reference and language.

Moy Sand and Gravel is unlikely to strike Muldoon aficionados as a great leap forward, but it still offers a number of poems that demonstrate why he is regarded by many as the most sophisticated and original poet of his generation. It contains two of his very best sestinas (“The Misfits” and “The Turn”), some wonderful translations from Horace, Montale, and Valéry, and three poems (“Unapproved Road,” “John Luke: The Fox,” and “The Loaf”) that make brilliant use of terza rima. Its short title poem revisits the anxieties of merging that galvanize early poems such as “Identities” and “Mules,” contrasting the coming together of two movie stars in a screen kiss with the two towers of a sand and gravel company across from the cinema he used to visit as a child growing up in Armagh. Here the fantasy of balanced union Muldoon strives so hard to make credible elsewhere in the collection seems to be, if not exactly rebuked, then severely qualified. In the book’s opening poem Muldoon pictures himself driving around Ireland “with a toe in the water/and a nose for trouble,” keeping his “wound green.” “Moy Sand and Gravel” memorably shows why—no matter how hard he washes it—that wound could never be any other color:

To come out of the Olympic Cinema and be taken aback
by how, in the time it took a dolly to travel
along its little track
to the point where two movie stars’ heads
had come together smackety-smack
and their kiss filled the whole screen,

those two great towers directly across the road
at Moy Sand and Gravel
had already washed, at least once, what had flowed
or been dredged from the Blackwater’s bed
and were washing it again, load by load,
as if washing might make it clean.

  1. 1

    Farcy is a bacterial disease that afflicts horses.

  2. 2

    Oxford University Press.