One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, by Paul Muldoon, Faber, 128 pp, £11.99, ISBN: 978-0571316045
Paul Muldoon is our most Wildean writer in the twenty-first century. In many ways Wildier than Wilde, but the comparison still appears just to me. His verse exhibits wit and skill, informed by a steady, serious gaze. He is an international poet with a reach as far as the transatlantic English into which the world’s culture empties itself, but also a grounded one; when the Irish reader encounters in the hologram-maze of his references the word gliomach, she wonders how many of her foreign counterparts know they can consult the online Dinneen.
His work of course reflects his life: as transatlantic professor at Princeton, the jet engine ferrying him home but not allowing him to forget the millions of less fortunate exiles who laboured without a chance of return, commemorated in his earlier poem “The Loaf”; as father in a world of globalised youth, as possessor of a sensibility that enjoys the rootless and changeable mash of contemporary culture without becoming deracinated himself. Enjoyment is bubbling up everywhere, the hilarity of a bookish child loose in a library, of the writer in a university not tethered to a period, of the person free to come and go, who saw classifying him as an “exile” as belittling “the likes of Brodsky or Padilla” in The Prince of the Quotidian.
It is located even more in the nature and the possibilities of poetic language. Wilde’s dictum “A truth in art is that of which the opposite is also true” is balanced by the opposite and equal truth, that language does bear a relationship to truth, and the poet’s job is to find a provisional balance between these two realities. The oppositions are frequently binary, fictions of poetry presenting themselves as both true and false. The invocations, the conjurings and the clues can cluster in a brace of lines that have the blatant form of a statement. In the opening poem of One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, “Cuthbert and the Otters”, “This style of nasal helmet was developed by the Phrygians // while they were stationed at Castledawson” has a seismological sense both of the actual shifts of history (it was the Celts who overran the Phrygians, in Asia Minor, it seems; conquerors and conquered have changed places – and they change places in the other sense too) and the steadiness of fact (the places haven’t changed at all). It is also absurd if deft, the absurdity recalling us with a bump to the world of what we know, or know we can’t know.
At other points it’s a dizzier ride, as the book’s title turns up in a poem written for the National Gallery’s exhibition, Lines of Vision, “Charles Emile Jacque: Poultry Among Trees”, where he slithers gracefully from a hen to an LA motorcycle cop; while one can only fall in with his assessment of the fantasy otters who turn up out of the tale of St Cuthbert to join Seamus Heaney’s funeral cortege:
Like the Oracle
at Delphi, whose three-legged stool
straddles a fiery trough
amid the still-fuming heaps of slag,
they’re almost certainly on drugs.
The slagheap, the reference to Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, whose remains were transported to Durham in the tenth century to be safe from Viking raids, are in Heaney’s memorial poem because it is also a work commissioned by the Durham Book Festival last year. Grief, jetlag, archaeological erudition and a palimpsest of maps where the post-industrial wasteland of the North of England is superimposed on (or possibly subterraneanly introduced into) the village of Bellaghy, produce a kaleidoscope of perspectives. An occasional poem makes the most of the misfit between the occasion and the continuities of the poet’s life.
The great resource of language is the negative, and that rampant fertility in copious ways of saying, variously, “not” is often the fragile wisp that yokes his airy mismatches. In “Pip and Magwitch” a cigar compared to an Egyptian mummy is ‘”of the chance / it will ever come into its inheritance”. “Almost certainly” appears repeatedly in “Cuthbert and the Otters” as a challenge to the reader’s disbelief. The negative can also take the form of the well-known effect of grief: “I’m at once full of dread / and in complete denial.” Again, an actual historical fact (sixth to seventh century this time) is slammed under our noses: “It’s no time since Antrim and Argyll / were under Áedán mac Gabráin’s rule.”
In the English-speaking world there is, we know, no agreement, as to the importance of history: the joyful Irish infatuation, the British imperial revision, the shallowness of the recorded past in North America, clash and distort themselves here. So history becomes a transparent pool in which facts swim, nobody can know at what depth or in what true dimensions. But they do point to truths, they have weight and bodies and have their impact in the present. In the poet’s funeral, the line about Aedán MacGabráin is followed by “We come together again in the hope of staving off // our pangs of grief”, and further down ‘I want to step in to play my part’, and again “I want that coffin to cut a notch // in my clavicle.’ That notch is perhaps related to another declivity, in “A Dent”, a poem in memory of his friend and teacher Michael Allen:
The depth of a dent in the flank of your grandfather’s cow
from his having leaned his brow
against it morning and night
for twenty years of milking by hand
gave but little sense of how distant is the land
on which you had us set our sights.
– “gave but little sense of” – there it is again, the fragile slender link between the incommensurables among whom we live.
The truth of history is not only private. “Barrage Balloon, Buck Alec, Bird Flu and You” is addressed to a friend of Protestant background, the painter Dermot Seymour, genially recalling the days when they would, in the atrocious 1970s in Belfast, in their twenties, “devoutly skive / off for the afternoon to the Washington or the Crown Liquor Saloon”, naming too another couple of drinkers, Boston and Lowther, murdered and dumped in a burning car, just around that same era, because their friendship crossed the religious divide. “We treated the wicker fence/ that ran between us with such reverence …” and if the poem celebrates the Irish beasts Seymour has accommodated in his faithful landscapes, it also includes the toothless lion paraded on the small streets of North Belfast by the notorious Fenian-basher and B-Special “Buck Alec” Robinson.
Paul Muldoon is not, I think, setting out to be just even-handed about the factions in the North when he adds a poem on Rita Duffy’s Watchtower II. The painting, which is on the book’s cover, shows the horrible army watchtower with in the background the green fields of South Ulster. In which some post-Troubles rings have turned to smuggling steroids and green diesel; “green” takes on a new meaning which is suspiciously close to its old meaning:
By far the biggest hassle
is trying to get rid of the green sludge
left over from the process. It infiltrates our clothes. It’s impossible to budge.
Viewed simultaneously from outside and inside the culture, the incommensurables hang there, held in the poet’s gaze. Other poems show his wanderings taking him farther away, and he encounters more remote connections; in “At the Lab”, the pollen from a bog in Ireland washes up in North America; in “Some Pitfalls and How to Avoid them”, “native scouts/ will still be able to follow our route across America / by the traces of mercury / in our scats.”
Two large poems, “Cuba 2” and “Dirty Data” are epic attempts to hold the whole of complex systems suspended and presented. In “Dirty Data” the renaming of Ben Hur as “Ben Hourihane”, the juxtaposition of multiple imperialisms, Roman and British and American, the half-heard phrases distorted and decoded, are like motes dancing in a sunbeam seen through half-closed drowsy eyes – one has the impression that between these revolving veils an avenue to a true perception might suddenly reveal itself, but I can’t say that I have been alert enough, so far, to spot the moment. As with the water splashing in the Hawk’s Well in Yeats’s play one might be distracted and miss it, but I will keep watching. “Cuba 2” has a Yeatsian streak, the poet recalling some of his own greatest hits while flabbergasted by the timewarp of the suspended island. I find it more satisfactory in that the poet’s own presence and the reality of place provide a resonance that seems lacking in “Dirty Data”.
There are other simple and graceful poems in the collection too. “Camille Pissaro: Apple-Picking at Eragny-sur-Epte” starts from the resemblance of the apple-picker with his long basket-rake to the centurion who pierces Christ’s side on the cross; a whole evolution of art swarms and settles in the gap. Translations from Old Irish do their bit to ground the book in the scholarly inheritance as well as the disturbed Irish present.
Critics often focus on Muldoon’s talent for weirdness and his technical games; the first, like the weirdness of Flann O’Brien’s version of Mad Sweeney, seems to me to correspond to the weird predicament of humanity. It is hardly the main business of poetry to be normal, though this poetry turns out to be fit to take on the weight of normal life when called on. If he is allowably skittish in responding to Heaney’s funeral (because he is writing about another poet, and indeed one who had given him licence to write in his own way), he can more collectedly focus on the human condition, and its limits and infinities, in the poem for Michael Allen. And while there are hoops and laces of rhymes that signal to each other and hold poems in place, even as the language spills out of their restraints, they appear to me to be somewhat beside the point in the pleasure his poetry gives. It is language itself, its multiplicity and its straining after meaning, that is illuminated by his work. Over his career, even the poems I would regard as failures – the triviality of the rhymes in “The Loaf” irritates me (and many other readers I think) to the point of spoiling the experience of reading, in spite of the poem’s gimlet-eyed focus on work and suffering – are strenuous in their working towards true meaning. What he always achieves is, though, the communicating to the roused reader just how many difficulties, preoccupations, assumptions buried in language itself, get in the way of the work. In “Cuba 2” he opines that “the best poems meanwhile give the answers / to questions only they have raised”. Circular as it appears, that statement appears to me both elegant and true, and it surely applies to the poems in this collection.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is professor emeritus in the department of English at Trinity College Dublin. Her new collection of poetry, The Boys of Bluehill, is published by Gallery Press.