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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.

  1. 1

    Farcy is a bacterial disease that afflicts horses.

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