The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 526

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“Incantata,” written in memory of the artist Mary Farl Powers, is a nearly perfect synthesis of formal construction and emotional content. Spoken directly to the poet’s former lover, the poem is both elegy and celebration. Each of the forty-five eight-line stanzas has the rhyme scheme aabbcddc, called a “stadium stanza”—a form invented by Abraham Cowley for elegiac purposes and later adopted by William Butler Yeats. Because of its length (360 lines), “Incantata” can sustain some variation; the lines range from four to seventeen syllables, and there is no regular underlying rhythm.

The first twenty-two stanzas tell the story of the accidental fortunes of a friendship, the shared history, the ways one life enriches another and the ways in which they differ. The poet begins thinking of his dead friend when he is cutting into a potato to make an Incan glyph in the shape of a mouth, and this, in turn, reminds him of the first time he saw her works of art. The mouth itself is significant because the poet is attempting to speak across the boundary of death. The title suggests that this is a kind of incantation, as though he could call her back through verbal ritual. It also suggests a “non-song” (in-cantata), and this association, too, is appropriate, since he cannot seem to find the proper words to express his feelings.

As the poet rushes through specific memories of what appears to have been a stimulating and challenging relationship, he is forced to face again the fact that Mary Powers had refused an operation for her breast cancer, believing that everything in life is predetermined, including her own death. There are moments of humor and moments of poignant loss, the most moving of which is a metaphorical sense that something good must be built from such pain, as when a bird plucks a straw to build a nest in the aftermath of a battle.

The central stanza serves as a hinge; poet and poem alike balk at the visual artist’s fierce determination to die because her death is part of the natural “order.” It ends in a breakdown of speech itself: “with its ‘quaquaqua,’ with its ‘Quoiquoiquoiquoiquoiquoiquioq.’” The nonsensical quotations are direct references to the plays of Samuel Beckett, several of whose characters are mentioned throughout the poem.

The last half of the poem transforms grief into celebration—of life, art, history, and especially the power of friendship to transcend death. In Powers’s own theological terms, memory is all that is left of the friendship. The last twenty-two stanzas pick up the idea of memory itself, creating one long list of their shared experiences—all that is left. “That’s all that’s left of the voice of Enrico Caruso” and “of Sunday afternoons in the Botanic Gardens” and of the sight of a particular road between Leiden and The Hague, and of particular pieces of music and specific places and people, and so on. The incantatory list accelerates, extending for pages as the memories flood over the poet, culminating with, if not an acceptance of his friend’s “fate,” an imaginative union of the life and the art.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 596

Because “Incantata” employs a regular rhyme scheme, it demonstrates how what is sometimes called the “pressure of form” can help give shape to its subject matter. Muldoon is a master of “slant rhyme” or “half-rhyme,” so the sounds are often subtle, even clever. Muldoon’s poems are characteristically clever—playing on words, making puns, referring to the works of other writers and even to his own earlier poems. He often rhymes one language with another. This approach is somewhat true of “Incantata,” but the tendency to play with words (and with the facts) is somewhat muted because of the passionate and autobiographical nature of his material. The poem was written in a rush of emotion over a period of five days, Muldoon has said, and the feelings are all the more compressed and shaped by the use of the regular, rhymed stanzas.

In the first half of the poem, the rhymes are noticeable but do not dominate; the intimate voice of the writer is so urgent that the reader is more involved in the unfolding narrative of Mary Powers’s death. In the second half, however, the reader becomes more and more aware of rhyme and how Muldoon is orchestrating his material. The mixture of philosophy, theology, comedy, literary allusion, pop culture, history, and personal memory creates a collage of unrelated images, thereby making the reader doubly conscious of the way the poet is choosing his words. Sometimes the sounds are compressed:

of the early-ripening jardonelle, the tumorous jardon,   the jargonof jays, the jarsof tomato relish and the jarsof Victoria plums . . .

Sometimes they are deceptive:

Of the great big dishes of chicken lo mein and beef chow mein,of what’s mine is yours and what’s yours mine,of the oxlips and cowslipson the banks of the Liffey at Leixlipwhere the salmon breaks through the either/or neither/nor   netherreaches despite the temple-veilof itself being rent and the penny left out overnight on the railis a sheet of copper when the mail-train has passed over.

The slant rhymes (mein/mine, cowslips/Leixlip, nether/over, and veil/rail) are so surprising that the reader must pause to make sense of it all. Even the clichés are given new contexts: the transformation of the sharing of Chinese food into “what’s mine is yours” is comic; the salmon could be expected to break through anything but the “nether reaches”; the penny is returned to its original state by the train. The result is a melding of the literal and the figurative as well as of the private and the actively communal.

The use of private material is also characteristic of Muldoon. Some of his material is merely unfamiliar—foreign words, Irish history, references to specific works of art—but remains in the public domain. Some is intensely private, and Muldoon is willing to keep things secret, hardly minding if his audience does not understand many of his references. Because the poem has many of the “overheard” qualities of a lyric, the reader eavesdrops on a very personal grief—with all the specifics of individual loss. And because the poem consistently employs the device of direct address, referring to Mary as “you” throughout, the poet can be confidential without revealing the private references. One could argue that the poem’s stance toward the reader is one of profound indifference. Still, in Paul Muldoon (1996), the critic Tim Kendall has suggested that, through the use of this device, “even though the particular significance of these references is never explained, ‘Incantata’ does convey a shared intimacy which incorporates the reader.”