Paul Muldoon is a fascinating and elusive poet whose poems over a thirty-year span have been collected here. They show his development from a fairly traditional Irish poet to a postmodernist language poet who undermines any attempt by his reader to construe meaning. He is also a humorous poet whose mocking and often joking poems poke fun at a number of established positions. He is, in addition, a skilled poet who can construct a strong poetic line and create some dazzling images and metaphors.
The first book in the collection, New Weather (1973), shows Muldoon as a conventional poet in the mode of Seamus Heaney. “Wind and Tree,” for example, metaphorically traces the connection between humans and trees. The relationship of the trees to each other is described in sexual terms as they “are grinding/ Madly together and together.” The Muldoon speaker then adds a realistic note: they are actually “breaking” each other in the connectedness. He is like them, although he would not break the tree. He is, however, already broken and through that “I tell new weather.” There is a good deal of irony in the poem, but it is still a lyric and not a language poem.
There are a number of poems about his father in the collection, and “The Waking Father” is one of the best. It begins with father and son catching fish and throwing them back. The imagery describing the place becomes strange and exotic. The fish are “piranhas” and the “river a red carpet.” The son asks if the father is dead or alive. If dead, he would turn the course of the river so the father might have a proper burial “bed.” There, none could doubt that he was a “king” and could discover in that river bed “the real fish farther down.” It is an effective poem that uses some fanciful metaphors, but the images of river and fishing enable Muldoon to pay tribute to and create feeling for the lost father.
Muldoon’s next book of poems, Mules (1977), rapidly moves away from traditional poetry. “Lunch with Pancho Villa” is an imaginary conversation between the poet and the famous Mexican revolutionary. Muldoon makes a number of references in his poems to Mexico, the American Indians, and the American Southwest. Perhaps these function as exotic place names in contrast to the drabness of Ireland. The poem starts with the poet asking Villa, “Is it really a revolution, though?” He then describes the accomplishments of Villa as coauthor of a number of pamphlets, such as Blood on the Rose. Villa takes a more serious tone as he chastises Muldoon for writing “rondeaux.” Villa challenges him to “get down to something true.” The Muldoon speaker, however, reveals it is all a game: “Nobody’s taken in, I’m sure,/ By such a mild invention.” He reveals that the fabrication was given away by the creation of the “preposterous titles” of Villa’s books. The last stanza comes back to“When are you going to tell the truth?’” However, there is no truth about Villa or the Mexican revolution in the poem. What matters is the play between the exotic and ordinary names and characters, and the privileging of imagination over fact.
There are a number of historical poems and some translations from the Irish in this collection, and “Keen” is one of the better ones. The original eighteenth century poem, “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoighire” (known in English as “The Lament for Art O’Leary,”) was composed by Eibhlín Dubh Uí Chonaill after her husband, a Catholic, was killed for refusing to sell a prized horse to a Protestant landowner. It begins with the speaker recalling the moment she discovers her husband’s death: “I never dreamt you would die/ Till your horse came back to me. . . .” She rides out to find him near a bush, “Without priest or monk/ To preside or pray over you. . . .” He is bleeding and, since “I knew of no way to staunch it./ I cupped my hands and drank it.” The “keen” as a mourning ritual in Irish Gaelic culture is more than a vocal lament; it is also a sacrificial drinking of blood in the absence of the rites of the church.
“History” is a poem that focuses not on political events but on sexuality, It begins by asking “Where and when exactly did we first have sex?” He wonders if it was in a city and supplies names that start in Ireland, move on to London, and end up in “Marseilles or Aix?” The final speculation is of time and place. Was it when “you and I climbed into the bay window/ On the ground floor of Aquinas Hall/ And into the room where MacNeice wrote Snow,’/ Or the room where they say he wrote Snow.’” The difference between fact and a tale is impossible to determine in Muldoon. He continually undercuts any claim to authority or certainty while all is in play.
By the time of Quoof (1983), the poems are becoming longer and harder to understand, but they...
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