The title of one of Paul Muldoon’s earlier collections The Prince of the Quotidian (1994) aptly describes the poetic personae that he wished to present at the stage of his writing life when he had published seven volumes of poetry. In spite of the implications of the title, Muldoon had already distinguished his work by his inventive, even extravagant employment of an allusive technique that carried the often-specific circumstances of the poems toward an imaginative realm constructed from a frame of linguistic possibility.
In Horse Latitudes, Muldoon might be seen as claiming to be the Lord of the Land of Allusion, so energetically and enthusiastically has he pushed the styles of allusive exploration toward the outward reaches of a poem’s language field. As he told an interviewer in 1996 with respect to innovation, he had already advanced along “a road down which I can’t really go any further. The next step is Finnegan’s Wake,” James Joyce’s 1939 novel, where he would be “always a kind of fourth-rate Joyce.” “On the other hand,” he mused, “I don’t like the idea that there are limits.” This aspect of Muldoon’s poetry, however, is just one of several particularly prominent elements that he has introduced and refined in previous volumes.
The jacket cover of Horse Latitudes explains that the title is meant to convey a feeling of stagnation, referring to the region “where sailing ships tend to stand becalmed in mid-ocean,” where sailors on Spanish vessels transporting horses “would throw their live cargoes overboard to lighten the load.” For Muldoon, according to his publisher, this represents “fields of debate in which we often seem to have come to a standstill,” but that might be subject to a renewal of motion due to language “restruck and made current.”
Although Muldoon’s zest for exuberant linguistic invention is one of the defining features of his poetry, perhaps just as important is the implication of a voyage across waters, a recurring consideration in Muldoon’s work, and one that has its origins in Muldoon’s traverse of the Atlantic from Ireland to America. In Hay (1998) Muldoon directly addressed provincial Irish critics who felt that he was turning away from a cultural heritage. His poetry, to the contrary, has been guided by a desire to link what might appear to be disparate entities and by juxtaposing them, offer new ways of seeing and understanding each one. Discussing his work in 2006, Muldoon insisted that there was no “need to get hung up on whether I’m an Irish or American poet. None of that matters.”
The prevalence of aquatic imagery in myriad forms is one of the central elements in Horse Latitudes, and the circumstances of its occurrences is one of the ways the different subjects and styles in the volume are linked. Muldoon’s use of allusion is a technique that has been an identifying signature of his poetry from its inception, developed and refined in following volumes, but has reached the stage in Horse Latitudes that it seems to be the singular attribute that commands and controls almost all others.
Poet Gary Snyder’s environmental vision of a universe that is “interconnected, interpenetrating, mutually reflecting, and mutually embracing” aptly describes the linguistic fields of many of Muldoon’s poems. It is not surprising to learn that Muldoon composes a poem, as Dylan Thomas did, line by completed line. “I can’t be bothered writing a draft or something and then throwing it all away or rewriting it” he has observed, and how a word leads to another word is at the core of his method of composition.
The title section of Horse Latitudes consists of a nineteen-poem sequence, each title beginning with the letter B, each one the name of a place, often a famous battle, like “Bannockburn,” or “Bosworth Field,” or “Blenheim,” “Bunker Hill,” or “Bull Run.” The apparent subject of the poems is a kind of tryst between the speaker and a woman named Carlotta. The first section of the title poem, “Beijing,” introduces the situation and demonstrates the method that Muldoon employs:
I could still hear the musicianscajoling those thousands of clayhorses and horsemen through the squeezewhen I woke beside Carlotta.Life-size, also. Also terra-cotta.The sky was still a terra-cotta friezeover which her grandfather still held swaywith the set square, fretsaw, stencil,plumb line, and carpenter’s pencilhis grandfather brought from...
(The entire section is 2014 words.)