At Arm’s Length

Paul Muldoon
Paul Muldoon; drawing by David Levine

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.

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