Who are you, Paul Muldoon, and what is it you want to tell us?
To be fair, I was forewarned; we all were. “Anyone already wary of opaque contemporary poetry may want to tread carefully here,” a fellow reviewer said about your new book. And why would One Thousand Things Worth Knowing be any different from your other recent poetry collections, anyway? None of us expected you to compromise your prolix style.
Paul Muldoon, I have spent days and weeks with your book, trying to understand. I have, at times, torn out my hair. I have resented your accomplishments, called you the male oppressor—for writing about the masculinities of war and power, women hardly at all.
But I think I know you better now. And I find myself beginning to empathize. To start, one thing you’d like for us to know: that, as a child, your favorite book was the encyclopedia. I can relate; it was the dictionary that kept me company. Intellectual childhoods are lonely; and reading is bread, as Cynthia Ozick says. Yes, yes, I’m with you.
Another thing you’d like for us to know, this one more guttural: the loss of Seamus Heaney has been treacherous for you. Thank you, Paul Muldoon, for placing your dedication to Heaney, your dear friend, your mentor, at the start of Cuthbert and the Otters. Without your dedication placed here, I could not have been sure that Cuthbert and the Otters was about your poet laureate. Remember how deceptively far afield from Seamus Heaney your opening poem begins?
Notwithstanding the fact that one of them has gnawed a strip of flesh
from the shoulder of the salmon,
relieving it of a little darne,
the fish these six otters would fain
carry over the sandstone limen
and into Cuthbert’s cell, a fish garlanded with bay leaves
and laid out on a linden-flitch
It will be nine pages into the piece before you mention Heaney’s name again. Then, you help us to understand what Heaney’s death has felt like. A pallbearer at his funeral, the yearning is for Heaney’s “coffin to cut a notch” in your clavicle.” You are physically transformed by this loss: neither your voice, which Heaney nurtured, nor any amount of scholarship has an answer for your visceral sorrow. Yes, yes, I’m with you.
The untranslatable inscription on a sword that has been buried with an ancient warrior offers a parallel to the experience of this loss:
I don’t suppose we’ll ever get to grips with the bane
of so many scholars–––the word SINIMIAINIAIS
inscribed on a Viking sword. As for actually learning to grieve,
it seems to be a nonstarter…
In your mind, Heaney has become a saint. Like Cuthbert, Heaney is buried on blessed Irish turf, moved from the place he died to the town where he was from. And although neither Cuthbert nor Heaney nor you have been advocates of bloodshed, your trinity has clearly advocated for the right to home rule on the Emerald Isle. For his part, Saint Cuthbert spent a frigid night of prayer partially submerged in water. Prayer was Cuthbert’s resistance to tyranny: God’s power had been misappropriated by the queen. It is said that on this particular night of prayer, otters followed Cuthbert to the shore and warmed his legs. It is no wonder you imagine an otter at Heaney’s funeral:
…Halfway through what’s dissolved into
of Bellaghy, this otter steps out from under the bier
and offers me his spot. It seems even an otter may subordinate
himself whilst being the first in line to revolt.
He may be at once complete insider and odd man out.
Paul Muldoon, your heartbeat is strong in this poem that eulogizes your late mentor. As for meaning, have you become the otter to Seamus Heaney’s saint? Did your departure from Ireland anoint you “first in line to revolt” and “at once complete insider and odd man out”? Are the myriad obscure references to Irish history your way of claiming citizenship? Are you declaring your credentials as a precocious, loyal son of Ireland—as one who knows Celtic and the mysterious nuances of the land?
In these poems, we are destined not to know for sure.
We do know that Seamus Heaney was your homeland’s most beloved poet since William Butler Yeats. We know that Heaney chose you as his own successor. And in One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, we know that you are loyal to your mentor—despite having left Ireland to live—and flourish—for more than half your life in the United States. Although your poems leave most readers in obscurity, your Irish pride is palpable, even here, in America.
In your poem for Seamus Heaney, you admit there is a void between scholarship and understanding. In the last poem of the book, “Dirty Data,” are you doing the same? While it coheres in the soft lilt of language and its interspersed rhyme, its title suggests corruption in the data you transmit. Just as with the title of the book, I’m intrigued by the double entendre of “knowing” as in having sexual intercourse, and “knowing” as in possessing information. Can the compulsion to collect information—at the expense of communication—be interpreted as a sin? You’re onto something here! There is a difference between knowledge and understanding, between data and meaning. Yes, yes, I’m with you.
In all of the poems in this book, you play with us and with our knowledge. You play with epigenetics: references to Ireland are parsed with things and people you have seen in the United States and texts you’ve read. In every phrase of yours we see a thousand synapses firing.
If I look at these enigmas as etymology, one thing leads to another. Your connections yield synthesis, then parturition that wears the vernix of your progenitors.
In other words, Northern Ireland comes through with the labor of your poems in this collection.
Paul Muldoon, I wish that you would tell me even more, that you would share more of yourself as Irish storyteller, tell me how you feel—as you did in the early days. Meanwhile, I will continue to research your arcane references so that I may say of every Muldoon line, “Yes, yes, I am with you.”