Incantata Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

To employ a musical metaphor, “Incantata” is the concerto for which Muldoon had been practicing the scales of form. The poet’s considerable technical skill keeps the poem afloat as it makes a space for the grief it embodies. The question that emerges in “Incantata” is what to make of an individual life. If the poet can begin to make sense of the death of his friend, he may be able to come to terms with her philosophy of life. The tension in the poem is enhanced by its form—by the quirky rhymes and the way it seems to slip out from under its own overarching questions—but its source is philosophical, maybe even theological. Mary’s philosophy is described as Thomism—that “the things of this world sing out in a great oratorio”—but a Thomism “tempered by” Jean-Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett. So even as Muldoon tries to honor her sense that death is preordained, he is angry at it (and her?), saddened by loss, and frustrated by his failure to find a meaning in the void.

The result is a tacit resistance; even as Muldoon pays lip service to Mary Powers’s assertions that nothing is random, he provides a seemingly random set of memories. In the first half, he announces his desire to “body out your disembodied vox/ clamantis in deserto,” to let his potato-mouth speak “unencumbered.” In the second half, he abandons the potato-mouth (reduced to “quaquaqua”) in favor of his own embodied voice. In doing so, he illuminates Powers’s life in rich detail.

The final three stanzas are not end-stopped, but spill into each other in a frenzy, a furious desire to pull her back from her beliefs, to find buried in the Irish language and folklore the one herb that would cure her, to speak across the barrier of death and have her respond. Because these stanzas are syntactically complex, framed in the negative, the final image is actually positive; the reader watches Powers reach out her ink-stained hands to take Muldoon’s “hands stained with ink.” The power of the written word has transcended death, however briefly. Finally, “Incantata” is life affirming. It makes of personal grief an “oratorio.”