Horse Latitudes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2014

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.

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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 Roma.Proud-fleshed Carlotta. Hypersarcoma.For now our highest ambitionwas simply to bear the light of the daywe had once been planning to seize.

Muldoon does not make everything clear, a distinct impediment for some critics, but the obscurity of some of the images is more an inducement to continue on in the sequence than a detriment to understanding. What remains compelling and enticing is the relationship between the two people and the audacity of Muldoon’s dexterity with the sonnet, a form generally assumed to belong to another era, generally ill suited to contemporary poetic expression. Muldoon’s construction of the linear arrangement uses end-rhyme judiciously, varying to a small degree, but fundamentally linking lines four and five, then three and six, then two and seven, then eight and nine, then ten and eleven, then one with twelve, then thirteen with two and seven, and then fourteenthe close of the octet, with six, the last word (though not the close, necessarily), of the sestet.

The rhymes rarely seem forced, the form not twisted or tortured to maintain the scheme. Once the reader becomes familiar with the pattern, an anticipation of its appearanceespecially when the poem is spoken, an essential act for a poet who is so concerned with soundcontributes to its effectiveness. Muldoon’s variations of the traditional sonnet shape, an adjusted reversal of the octet/sestet order, is given an additional contextual perspective by his work with the more conventional shape in the sequence “The Old Country,” a poem in thirteen parts that uses the standard sonnet ambitiously. He has the ability to sustain the dense, rhyme-locked lines throughout the sequence, as in the start of section VI:

Every slope was a slippery slopewhere every shave was a very close shaveand money was money for old ropewhere every grave was a watery grave

It is a dazzling demonstration of a characteristic capacity for syntactic complexity that has delighted some commentators and irritated others, notably Helen Vendler, who in a discerning discussion of Muldoon’s poetry, accuses him in poems like these of “showing off as usual” and of being “enamored of the absolutely arbitrary.” While Vendler, in her detailed study, finds many positive attributes in Muldoon’s poems, her critique epitomizes the complaint of critics who would prefer more restraint. Muldoon, on the other hand, told a British Broadcasting Corporation interviewer in 2004 that one of his goals was “to go to the point where one will really be knocked off one’s feet,” and this ambition necessitates the kind of wordplay (or wordwork) that gives Muldoon’s poems their individual signature.

Throughout Horse Latitudes, suggested by the title and evident in many poems, is a preoccupation with water, arguably the fundamental element in Muldoon’s cosmos. In earlier volumes, the titles themselves have indicated something of Muldoon’s interest. New Weather (1973) arrives or departs with rain; Why Brownlee Left (1980) depends on Ireland as island; Meeting the British (1987) requires passage; The Annals of Chile (1994) a voyage; Moy Sand and Gravel (2002) pivots from the shoreline of a home county.

From the start, there is an inclination to move out from Ireland while maintaining and exploring a basic Irish heritage, somewhat akin to Joyce’s establishment of an unavoidable archetype. The island nation, surrounded by water, green with liquid life (“like the river goddesses Banna and Boann” whom Muldoon cites in section VIII of “The Old Country”) is there at the origin, and the pervasive appearance of water as a multiple metaphor in the poems of Horse Latitudes gives the volume a kind of consistency or focus that the range of form and voice resists.

In the opening sequence “Horse Latitudes,” Carlotta appears in a “close-knit wet suit” (the section “Baginbun”) of which the poet “needs must again make mention” (“Berwick-upon-Tweed”) since “Carlotta would climb/ from the hotel pool in Nashville” (“Blaye”). Nautical items abound, as their physical interaction is likened to “a pack mule kicking from a yardarm” (“Boyne”) and the demands of a ship under sail: “The way to relieve the tension/ on a line to a windjammer/ is to lubricate the bollard” (“Basra”) parallel the couple’s actions.

Recollections of a darkened past are often presented with respect to their watery associations. Carlotta is recalled in “Alba” where a local pool is compared to “the Sargasso,” and the poet’s mother is remembered “Shipping out for good” in “It Is What It Is.” In a canal in Belfast, during sectarian strife, the poet speculates that turtles might have “been enlisted by some police forces/ to help them recover corpses” (“Turtles”), and in “Riddle” the poet contemplates identities, declaring that it is “by the buccaneers from whom I still take my cue.”

The idea of a journey of discovery toward identity is continued by “The Mountain Is Holding Out,” as that opening line becomes a query answered by “for news from the sea,” that has not arrived, nor does “the lake confess” and the river is “not coming clean,” leading to an instance of waiting where an ambiguous “you and I” have “faced off across a ditch” that is not as wide as the sea but is still a watery course of separation.

The carefully placed last poem in Horse Latitudes, “Sillyhow Stride,” a heart-felt elegy/tribute to Muldoon’s friend, singer Warren Zevon, a sharer of many attributes, deftly inserts subtle references that carry the poet’s near-obsessive water consciousness through a bitter lament for loss. The image of Zevon’s “little black Corvette (part barge/ part-hermaphrodite brig)” is typical, as is the vision of Rolling Stones member Brian Jones’s drowned, possibly drugged ghost, the Everly Brothers (Don and Phil, but known here as Frank and Jesse in reference to Zevon’s song “Frank and Jesse James”) “crying in the rain,” and in a very poignant expression of personal loss, the poet’s sister Maureenpreviously mourned in “Turkey Buzzards”joined with Zevon as “her oxygen mask, its vinyl caul/ unlikely now to save Maureen from drowning in her own spit.”

The close interlinkage of meaning that is prominent in Muldoon’s work is shown by the way that “sillyhow”an archaic word meaning “caul”is picked up, but while that provides additional pleasure for the reader who knows this, or is curious enough to look it up, the poem does not depend on that knowledge.

Muldoon’s interest in song, apparent from his earliest poems, was exemplified by the “Sleeve Notes” section of Hay and has emerged full-blown in his work with the rock band Rackett, for whom he is a lyricist and guitar player. Whatever effect they have on the page, it is obvious that their appeal to the ear, their full sensory structure is paramount. Appropriately, his “Bob Dylan at Princeton, November 2000” combines the daunting erudition that Muldoon wears lightly with a sort of folk-blues rendition that evokes Dylan’s modes: “We cluster at one end, one end of Dillon Gym./ ’You know what, honey? We call that a homonym.’” Muldoon sings, the couplets portraying and commenting on Dylan’s postures and performance: “His last time in Princeton, he wouldn’t wear a hood./ Now he’s dressed up as some sort of cowboy dude.” There are perhaps a few too many syllables in the second line, but bent to music this is probably permissible.

The blend of immediate experience and a wild mind replete with learning, bursting with energy, and ready to proclaim a poetics of almost incalculable inclusion makes Muldoon’s poetry fascinating and fulfilling way beyond any quibbles about obscure content. Horse Latitudes is not about a poet becalmed, but one at mid-passage, taking stock, ready to sail on toward whatever the ocean may offer.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 31

Library Journal 131, no. 14 (September 1, 2006): 151.

The New Republic 235, no. 19 (November 6, 2006): 26-33.

The New York Review of Books 53, no. 20 (December 21, 2006): 78-80.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 30 (July 31, 2006): 53-54.

The Times Literary Supplement, November 24, 2006, pp. 6-8.

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