Watching Paul Muldoon’s sentences course across the forms he has set for himself is like watching an elite athlete being put through his paces.
Paul Muldoon has said his aim is to write poems “that are crystal-clear and whose surfaces are pellucid and immediately tangible.” The opening lines of his most recent book, Maggot, can be used to test that aim:
On my own head be it if, after the years of elocution and pianoforte,
the idea that I may have veered
away from the straight
and narrow of Brooklyn or Baltimore for a Baltic state
is one at which, all things being equal, I would demur.
A bit like Edward VII cocking his ear
at the mention of Cork.
Determining whether he’s hit the mark depends, I suppose, on your skill at untangling complex clauses and the allusions they embed. But you might be tempted to think, Poor guy. He can’t help himself: Here is a man at the mercy of his own erudition and linguistic facility.
What comprises Maggot is a series of poems that take the poet’s gift of associative thinking and syntactical ingenuity to (il)logical conclusions. In this way, he reminds me less of other learned contemporary poets, such as Geoffrey Hill, and more like the novelist Thomas Pynchon, particularly in his mixture of the high and the low, anachronistic terms the poems themselves wouldn’t even traffic in. In “Francois Boucher: Arion the Dolphin,” about a painting by the eighteenth century French Painter, Muldoon paints (ha ha) for us the following scene:
A rock god waiting in the wings
to set himself before the king,
this eye-linered and lip-glossed Arion fouters
with his lyre’s five strings
across the span
of twenty-five centuries. His big hair’s bigger than ever from the fan
of a wind machine. The sky’s pinks and pewters
resound in the brainpan
of a bloodied Triton still grasping his horn
through a briny flurry
while the doo-wop chorus
of Nereids or such sea-born
nymphs seem content to hold their hurry
till those twenty-five centuries have taken their course.
Those sentences are, one must admit, some kind of achievement. And that’s only Part I. Part II begins, “A course that was laid long before…”, taking us deeper down the rabbit hole of associative—which is to say, poetic—thinking. As in Pynchon, some of what comes out of that hole feels tied to another, particular-to-the-author era (doo-wop?), but whereas the novelist shows how the system of language gestures toward possible conspiratorial and/or spiritual realities outside the work, Muldoon’s poems seem to regard our brain’s ability to conceptualize as a prison of arbitrary meaning-making (and thus meaninglessness).
That’s not to say prison can’t be fun. It all depends on how you spend the time you’re doing. The poem “@,” for example, begins like this:
Like the whorl of an out-of-this-world ear that had been lent
to an oak gall wasp by a tenth-century Irish monk
who would hold out oak gall ink against the predicament
in which he found himself…
And ends like this:
Like the tapeworm swallowed by a hippie who once was fat
but is now kind of bummed out you’ve lost track of where she’s at.
The middle two stanzas are as elaborately playful as these, making for a poem that embodies what Walker Percy calls the mind’s favorite project: “a casting about for analogies and connections.” That project, as is often the case in Maggot, results in a pun-sprung joke, the punch-line an expression of a fertile mind mulling the prevalence of an until recently obscure symbol of abbreviation.
Muldoon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Moy Sand and Gravel had a lot of play in it as well—all Muldoon’s books do—but there the longer poems were interspersed with short, clear lyrics of the sort Muldoon claims to want to make. This book is animated by a different energy, playing on the meanings of words and ideas by recasting those words and ideas into different contexts, riding them across fixed stanza forms and numbered sequences to see how far they can be taken. The lines are in free verse, with end-rhymes acting like erratically measured poles propping up a sprawling tent. The elaborate, dazzling pattern stitched into the canvas, the star of these poems, is the sentence: “Forty years of Jumbo doing a one-handed handstand while some geek / simultaneously bites the head off a Wyandotte cock / and the band plays a Hungarian dance by Brahms / doesn’t mean we’re all on the same page.” What goes on outside the tent is largely concealed because, like the baby embedded in the skull on the book’s cover, it’s occurring outside of the poet’s head. Whatever gets through that shield and into his brain is assimilatable, becoming material for the circus inside.
The result is a poetry that gives the lie to the idea that open forms, more than closed forms, somehow hew closer to the way things really are. Muldoon illustrates how the limitation of knowledge and information—the former a product of patience, the latter a commodity of convenience—limits self-transcendence. (Poems like “The Fling” and “Extraordinary Rendition” articulate the effect of this on our romantic lives.) If what we know is, like the expanding universe, both comprised of and bound by the space that makes thought possible, then one way to convey that situation, that existential trap, is in language both expansive and airtight.
But it’s not airless. Watching Muldoon’s sentences course across the forms he has set for himself is like watching an elite athlete being put through his paces. Still, for this reviewer, Muldoon’s work is at its most powerful when driven by something extratextual, events in particular that sting of injustice. It’s in these poems (see earlier poems “Pineapples and Pomegranates” & “Meeting the British,” and, from the current volume, the devastating “Moryson’s Fancy”) where Muldoon’s formidable skill doesn’t simply sustain, as if on air, an idea as a kind of plaything. He pulls it down to earth and plants it. His translation of Charles Baudelaire’s “The Albatross” is preceded by an epigraph reporting the recent, ugly news of the death-by-plastic-pollution of albatrosses on Midway Island. Muldoon performs a delicate sleight-of-hand, turning Baudelaire’s celebration of the poet—“not unlike this Prince of Clouds / who rode out the storm and suffered the slings / and arrows”—into a stark reminder that it’s not poets out there choking on discarded plastic bags, though they might just as easily be duped into mistaking trash for sustenance.
If the squirmy maggot does essentially this—i.e., turns crap into nourishment—it’s because it’s a necessary step toward a life on the wing. What this book demonstrates is how smarts (and skills) of the sort that can off- and sure-handedly weave any number of historical, philosophical, pop cultural, and literary tidbits into an elegant (and eloquent) tapestry might still regard that project as a waste of time:
Dedicated as I was to getting the jump
on the big rig, the fact that a stump might still bleed
through a plaid shirt didn’t chime
with just how little any of this counts
when not even the grain in the grain silo amounts
to chicken feed.
That’s human nature, but Maggot itself challenges the conclusion. Nobody invests this much energy and attention into poetry without thinking there’s something in it that’s nourishing for people, too.