While most readers’ attention will be drawn to the book- length title poem of Paul Muldoon’s sixth and most ambitious volume, it should be noted at the outset that this title poem is prefaced by seven pieces which are much more representative of the poet’s method prior to “Madoc” and which serve as a telling and testing prologue to the strange epic which comprises the bulk of the book. At first glance, these seven items seem somewhat out of place, and the difficulty in referring to them straightforwardly as poems underlines that sense of dislocation. They have little relation to one another. Formally, they are eclectic (“The Key” being in prose, “Asra” consisting of two lines). Tonally, they may seem somewhat wayward—the moving “Cauliflowers,” an oblique elegy for Muldoon’s father, and one of the poet’s most evocative and moving works (its depth of feeling all the more noteworthy in a poet as notoriously tight-lipped as Muldoon), opens with an epigraph from The National Enquirer. Moreover, they have no apparent bearing on their extended companion piece, except that they provide a basis for Muldoon to perpetuate extravagantly the formal whimsy of all his books since Mules (1977) by closing with a long poem.
With Muldoon, however, the reality of the case is not what lies, reconciled and compensatory, beyond dislocation and difference. On the contrary, the fact that the opening septet of poems have nothing to do with each other or with the larger project to which they are attached is one of their common features. This paradoxical reality—that entities resemble each other by sharing the aspect of difference—is a guide to these individual poems, to their constituting part 1 of Madoc, and to the nature of “Madoc” itself. Muldoon has earned an international reputation, which the verve and originality of “Madoc” will undoubtedly enhance and consolidate, for the elliptical, poker-faced, riddling, and somewhat surreal perspectives of his verse.
Evidence of his technical facility, his formal and tonal informality, the rapidity and quirkiness of thought’s movement in Muldoon’s poetry (aspects of his art which are sometimes referred to as cinematic), is abundantly to the fore in the seven prefacing poems of Madoc. In addition, however, such features have the effect of being present not merely for their own sake. They serve as an overture to the title poem, or rather, the title poem becomes a means of working out their implications. The purely imaginative project which constitutes “Madoc” is the end product of the challenging, light, witty, fastidious artistic sensibility which has been at play in all of Muldoon’s work prior to the publication of Madoc. Or perhaps it would be more in keeping with the spirit of “Madoc” to suggest that it constitutes a parallel universe to that of the somewhat more intimate concerns of Muldoon’s lyrics. As such, “Madoc” articulates with the calmness and idiosyncracy of genius the looking-glass world that all writing inevitably and ultimately denotes, existing, as it concludes about another’s writing, “parallel to the parallel/ realm to which it is itself the only clue.”
Although his work has been available in the United States since the publication of Mules (1977), some sense of Paul Muldoon’s background may be useful in locating some of the energies and purposes which inform “Madoc.” A native of Northern Ireland, he completed his secondary education there at roughly the same time as the present civil strife reached the stage at which British troops were introduced. This development, in turn, was followed by a notable escalation in violence of various kinds in the community. Despite the inescapable cultural and psychological effects of coming of age socially and educationally in such an environment, and despite the example of older poets from Northern Ireland, such as Seamus Heaney, John Montague, and Michael Longley addressing the sociocultural realities of their native province under such radically altered circumstances, Muldoon has not devoted much imaginative energy directly to the matter of Ulster. His response has been typically oblique, understated, more transformative than documentary. Yet it may be that this response is ultimately at least as eloquent as those of his elders by virtue of its characteristic aesthetic.
Muldoon’s uses of uncertainty, his keen sense of the fragmentary, his apparently deadpan attitude to the reader’s interrogation, his quiet amusement at how difficult it is to pin anything down, the transparent craftsmanship with which these elements are brought into coexistence, articulating the potential of relationship without ever necessarily attaining it, may be taken as a gloss on the discontinuous but enduring realities of Northern Ireland. This gloss, however, is also a repertoire of strategies which facilitate formal comprehension of Northern Ireland’s paradoxical continuum of disruption. By the use of these strategies Muldoon places within the realm of formal discourse and, thereby, within the realm of cultural admissibility conditions for which no other text exists. The sustained critique of narrative which forms a fundamental formal and philosophical element in such earlier longer poems as “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants,” in Why Brownlee Left (1980), and “7 Middagh Street,” in Meeting the British (1987), as well as in “Madoc,” may be thought of as a reproach to the linearity...
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