Paul Muldoon enjoys leading his reader astray. On that the critics agree. I have been looking back at reviews of his work over the years. It is remarkable how often people quote from an early interview in which Muldoon describes his poems gently ‘leading people on’ and then leaving them ‘high and dry’ at some terrible party, while he has nipped out the bathroom window. (When I checked for the date of that remark I was surprised to discover that it came from an interview conducted by Nicholas Jenkins, John Lanchester and me, in 1986, when we were graduate students. All I remember about the interview is that we were winging it.) Critics also agree that Muldoon’s poetry is playful, tricksy, erudite, given to complex rhyming structures, full of references to seemingly unconnected objects and events, that it proceeds by means of etymological threads and weaves, mucks around with cliché and is often frustratingly obscure.
Somewhere along the line, the ability to read Muldoon has got lost. Yes, the poems are playful, tricksy, erudite etc – and by calling his most recent volume Frolic and Detour (Faber, £14.99), Muldoon plays up to that reputation. But they are also terrifying. The emphasis in ‘terrible party’ should be on ‘terrible’. When Muldoon abandons the reader, he doesn’t leave them high and dry but swamped.
Frolic and Detour is nearly twice the length of a standard poetry collection. It includes elegies for Leonard Cohen, C.K. Williams, John Ashbery and Richard Wilbur; poems that take aim at Trump and the language of Trumpism; contemporary lyrics set in New Jersey and upstate New York, where the Muldoons have a second home (the title poem is partly about doing it up). There are also a few fillers: ‘Belfast Hymn’, a poem commissioned by the Grand Central Hotel in Belfast, is Muldoon on autopilot.
Nearly half of the book is devoted to a series of poems set in and around the First World War. There are two identical poems (or one poem published twice): ‘Pablo Picasso: Bottle of Bass and Glass (1914)’ and ‘Georges Braque: Still Life with Bottle of Bass (1914)’. Sequences are set in the trenches on the Somme, in Dublin during Easter 1916 and, in ‘Wilfred Owen: November 4, 1918’, inside Owen’s consciousness at the moment of his death:
A krater is merely a cup filled with watered-down wine.
Now the Germans have mastered
the deployment of chlorine gas and mustard,
I expect the chances are slender
this is not, in fact, the whistle from a gas cylinder
that bruits and noises itself abroad
but the warble, my dearies, the warble of a bird.
These are public poems – many of them were commissions – in which Muldoon reflects on the relationship between violence and art. Throughout his career, he has insisted on art’s parasitic relationship with damage and destruction (think of the heaped skeletons of horses that gave a spring to the dance floor in an early poem, ‘Dancers at the Moy’). He described Quoof (1983) as an attempt to ‘purge’ himself of the language of violence in Northern Ireland. In Frolic and Detour the lacquer on the cello that is used to play Elgar’s 1919 Cello Concerto in E minor, a lament for the catastrophe of the war, is ‘smooth as glass//albeit derived from a coarse resin/itself derived from a tree-bug’. The joss stick Muldoon burns in ‘Superior Aloeswood’, his poem for Leonard Cohen, is produced only when a tree is wounded – ‘an immune response/to an all-out attack’ – like the myrrh used to embalm the dead.
We are, at this point, perilously close to disappearing down a tunnel of abstruse references and allusions. Muldoon stands by the entrance, or rabbit hole, and seems to invite us inside. The poems are linked by images of birds, the trees they nest in and the nests themselves, and proliferate into a series of twiggy and wooden sanctuaries: resined violins, lyres, clinker-built boats, embalming tree-mould, wooden houses. In the title poem Muldoon worries about getting the right kind of sander for his floorboards. He is in effect building an ark, and in doing so he takes lessons from the birds that protect their nests against infestations of lice.
The house wren, like the house sparrow
and the common spink,
is known to punch above his weight. Troglodyte, tinsmith in his burrow,|
his tink tink, tink tink
bespeaking a familiarity with the science of iron-carbon alloys
the Chinese developed alongside the Dao,
he’s believed to anticipate the lice
that will infest his nest by stitching into
its brush-pile the egg sacs of lice-eating spiders.
This ‘time-release packet’ is just one example of what Muldoon describes elsewhere in the collection as ‘future-proofing’ (‘Once we relied on a hoard//of seed that had been sacked/and saved’). We are being asked to think about poems as vessels that can carry us over the flood. And also not to think about them in that way: we all know poetry can’t save us. Muldoon addresses the problem directly (‘All I can do is sound the lyre/however feebly, against the drone’), but he won’t quite give up the fight. Behind many of the warbling, nest-building images lurks the shadow of W.B. Yeats, another poet of birds. Yeats actually appears in one poem, conjuring spirits ‘where they threshed/upon the threshold of this world’. And there is even a poem spoken in the voice of his rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem. If time moves in cycles, as Yeats’s wacky theory of gyres suggested, there can be no possibility of future-proofing anything. Civilisations rise and fall, just as ‘a skein of sand/winds as it’s unwound.’
In these public poems Muldoon measures himself against Yeats, as a 68-year-old public man accepting commissions from the Irish government to commemorate the 1916 Rising on the telly. But he also uses Yeats defensively. (‘You think this poetry is difficult?’ he says. ‘Remember “Byzantium”? That obscure golden bird, those furies of complexity, those images that yet fresh images beget?’) Muldoon allies himself with Yeats in claiming attention for a difficult poetry steeped in mire and blood:
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare,
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love
It is the performance of poetry’s inability to appease or withstand this brutality that compels. We can see this at work in ‘Plume’, one of the shorter poems in this volume, and one whose rhythms are perfectly fitted to Muldoon’s matter-of-fact yet confiding tone.
On the outskirts of Reykjavik I find myself slapping the ass
of a thick-piled Viking horse,
sending up a plume of dust and gas
that all but obscures the scrawl
on parchment of a jet plane, sending up a pall
the likes of which I don’t recall
since a ruse
I pulled on my mother.
The ‘ruse’ involved the eight-year-old Muldoon emptying a tub of Yardley’s talcum powder on his mother’s bedroom floor, ‘till it had vanished into thin air’:
Even then I was struck
by my vengefulness, by the sheer vindictiveness
of this conjuring trick,
a vindictiveness now matched by hers.
Today’s horse-dust brings to mind yesterday’s talcum-dust in a Muldoonian circle that takes us back to a familial scene of pain and damage, and forward again to its consequences in the present. It winds as it’s unwound. The dust plumes come together to produce the ‘heart’ of the poem:
. . . . . . . . . . Sending up a cloud of volcanic slag
that’s at once growing fainter
and more sleek.
Since it’s for the most part
composed of vitreous ash, silica,
ferrous oak gall,
resentment, griefs, squabbles and squalls
it may yet enthrall
the plane’s state-of-the-art
combustion chamber, clogging the engine with molten glass
the way a poem may yet stop the heart.
One vanishing plume, or pall of dust, leads to another dust scrawl, and then to another, as the mother and son’s vindictiveness is crystallised into something material, something you can see, and something with overwhelming destructive power. The rhythm of those lines, ‘ferrous oak gall,/resentment, griefs, squabbles and squalls’, is what I am calling terrifying. It’s a poem about inexpressible hate and grief and anger becoming expressible, or at least visible, and the power that this unleashes. It is as though Muldoon is saying: if you want poems to speak to the heart be careful what you wish for.
And one vengeful ‘conjuring trick’ played on his mother leads to another – played on the reader. The final cliché of the stopped heart takes a risk that might seem cheap. Everything rests on our understanding that Muldoon is writing against cliché. The stopped heart is not merely a flourish: he has explained the depth of the hurt, and if we missed it we weren’t listening. The reader is left holding an image of mass murder – a plane full of people with its engine sabotaged by annihilating feeling. We have been given something, certainly. But what? A poem in The Annals of Chile entitled ‘Twice’ teased us with another artist’s conjuring trick, the schoolboy who has ‘jooked’ behind the camera’s ‘leisurely pan’ to appear in the school photograph in ‘two places at once, was it, or one place twice?’ The reader also needs to be in two places at once, or to hold two contradictory things in mind. One is admiration for the cleverness with which the poem is constructed, each metaphor itself a metaphor for the unfolding action of the poem (plume = plume = plume). And there is also something we are not at all sure that we want to be left with: unappeasable rage. The reader not only absorbs the hurt but is made to witness a wizardly metamorphosis that never fully sublimates violence – nor does it wish to. By rights the overwhelming feeling should have sabotaged Muldoon’s poem, but he rescues it. That ‘yet’ in the last line is a Yeatsian ‘yet’, with its promise or threat that it will fresh images beget.