No 1 - Winter 1994-5
Indicting the Exquisite
Paul Muldoon: The Annals of Chile
Paul Muldoon’s The Annals of Chile, Faber £7.99 pb
When Paul Muldoon, in the course of a poem about his dog Oscar MacOscair, pictures “a pair of high heels/ abandoned on the road to Amherst”, one might be reminded of Oscar Wilde whose rarefied visions were those of the true exquisite. Certainly there is something of the precious and epicene about any poet who, like Muldoon, can describe a sunset as “cinnamon” or “aubergine” or who can describe darkness as “part-jasper or -jade”. And when one thinks of the stock photograph of Muldoon gazing out of so many dust-jackets, where his mouth is the mouth of a cherub, his eyes the eyes of an ephebe (as Harold Bloom so beguilingly calls a budding poet), one could easily conclude that he had been invented by Oscar Wilde. Nor would Muldoon’s career spoil the conceit. If there is an aesthete among contemporary poets then it is he. His only justification for his art has been his art - and how fascinatingly ‘pure’ that art has been: ludic, ironic and technically skilled. There seems never to have been a cloud in his china-blue poetic world. Wilde’s career might have ended with the cruelty of public trial but Muldoon’s career has never smelt the sulphur of controversy - he has never been tried. That is what is so unusual about this book - Muldoon uses it to try himself.
There are two long poems in The Annals of Chile, ‘Incantata’ and ‘Yarrow’. Although they are dominated by Muldoon’s poetic personality, they are not dominated by his personality. That is because the elegy ‘Incantata’ is given over to the memory of Muldoon’s lover Mary Farl Powers while ‘Yarrow’ (much the longer poem) remembers Muldoon’s mother Brigid Regan and a lover identified only as ‘S--’. The lives and attitudes of these women explicitly question the value of Muldoon’s actions. In effect they put him on trial. As Muldoon, in ‘Incantata’, says to Mary Farl Powers:
you detected in me a tendency to put
on too much artificiality, both as man and poet,
which is why you called me ‘Polyester’ or ‘Polyurethane’.
Muldoon’s convoluted, self-concealing poetry is contrasted, in ‘Incantata’, with the more candid art of his lover, and in ‘Yarrow’ with the unforgiving, uncomplicated morality which his mother tries to pass on:
With what conviction did she hold
that a single lapse - from lapsus, a slip
or stumble - would have a body cast
into the outer dark...
Whether Muldoon likes it or not, her relatively simple moral formulae, “Stay well away from those louts and layabouts at the loanin’ end” and “Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands”, form part of a bright idealistic touchstone to which he often turns. His baroque sexual adventures with “S--”, decked out with whips and ski-hoods, are the antithesis of his mother’s philosophy. But even with S-- he does not escape from criticism:
...her bitter ‘What have you done for the cause?
You’re just another Sir Pertinax
brown-nosing some Brit who’s sitting on your face
and thinking it’s, like, really cool.’
She brandished a bottle of Evian;
‘Thing is, a Phoil, your head’s so far up your own fat butt
you’ve pretty much disappeared.
These criticisms of Muldoon (and his own frequently-voiced self-rebukes) revolve in particular around the value of artifice. Nevertheless they are conveyed in very artificial poems. This is especially true of the stunning and ostentatious ‘Yarrow’, an autobiographical fantasy peopled in the main with the heroes and villains of boys’ adventure-stories.
‘Yarrow’ is artifice itself. It has an extremely complex rhyme-scheme, which adapts and extends the conventions of one of the most artificial of the French “cast-iron” forms: the sestina. Muldoon complicates the form with a kind of manic doubling - he doubles, for instance, the usual number of end-words required in a sestina stanza from six to twelve. In fact, twelve is the book’s significant number. There are twelve poems in The Annals of Chile and twelve different sequences of end-words in ‘Yarrow’ and there are twelve times the usual number of lines (three) in its tornada or envoy. Also, according to my calculations, ‘Yarrow’ is 1212 lines long. This numerical trope in the long poem is prefigured (as often happens in Muldoon’s books) by one of the short poems - in this case, a poem called ‘Twice’. There Muldoon invokes the “leisurely pan” of a Kodak camera where a boy, moving quickly, is able to appear at either end of a picture: “‘Two places at once, was it, or one place twice?’” The relationship between one and two (1-2 and the book is divided into parts 1 and 2) to which this draws attention is made more important by the emphasis on replication and reproduction which the references in ‘Yarrow’ to seed, sperm and cancer create.
‘Yarrow’ has a very simple theme, the simplest of all poetic themes: the human struggle with time. The yarrow which overtakes Muldoon’s farm is the outward sign of time’s ultimate victory. We are made aware of this from the very beginning of the poem:
Little by little it dawned on us that the row
of kale would shortly be overwhelmed by these pink
and cream blooms, that all of us
would be overwhelmed...
But if time in the poem is partly represented by the encroaching yarrow, it is also represented by a flying arrow. Repeatedly the poem makes reference to an arrow seeking its target and it is this concept of direction which gives the poem its sense of direction. The image of the arrow is paralleled by numerous references, for instance, to knights seeking out the Holy Grail, to a bird of ill-omen seeking out a church-spire, to sperm seeking out an egg, to RAF bombers seeking out a German dam, to pirates seeking out treasure - and so on. In Muldoon’s brief history, time is a kaleidoscope of objects and ideas, each in search of, or seeking in, a particular direction - one, if you like, in search of two. The moral question, asked by the book, is which direction is best?
Like the direction taken in his other very long poem, ‘Madoc’, the direction which the arrow takes in ‘Yarrow’ is primarily a negative one, or one might say a ‘tragic’ one. Near the very end of the poem he points this up with a reference to the tragedy of King Lear:
again and again Lear enters with a rare
and radiant maiden in his arms
who might at any moment fret and fream,
‘I am the arrow that flieth by day. I am the arrow.’
The death of the natural, unaffected Cordelia is an echo of the deaths of Plath and Mary Farl Powers, while Lear’s helplessness, perhaps even his culpability, is an echo of Muldoon’s. Her death is also an indication of the vulnerability of the human body and it shows that certain actions (or directions) can lead to negative ends. Throughout the book, the negative and positive effects of time are focused on the body. This is especially true in ‘Yarrow’ - from the poet’s mother who sees the body as a “temple of the Holy Ghost” to the poet’s lover who mottles her arm with needle-marks and who suffers a heroin overdose.
One of the recurrent motifs in ‘Yarrow’ is that of the disembodied hand or arm. This is emphasised when Muldoon invokes the “poet-pugilist, Arthur Cravan” whose arm appears enshrined on a wall. Together with other frequent references to arms and hands, this raises a number of considerations. Firstly, it makes us think about the function of metonymical devices. Secondly, it leads us to examine divisions within the self, particularly those which lead people, like Plath, to commit suicide (“I’m thinking of those who have died by their own hands”). Thirdly, the idea of the arm of the “poet-pugilist” leads us to examine a popular contrast between the hand which forms a clenched fist and the hand which forms around a pen, that is, crudely speaking, the division between art and politics. A further effect of this motif is to deepen the meaning of the plangent mysterious lines which, after an extraordinary sequence of cadences, conclude ‘Yarrow’: “it has to do with a trireme, laden with ravensara,/ that was lost with all hands between Ireland and Montevideo” (my emphasis).
The reference to Plath is not casual. Given that she, like Mary Farl Powers, was an artist who died in her prime, it is understandable that Muldoon would want to brood on her life. Much of ‘Yarrow’ is set in 1963, the year that Plath committed suicide. At one point he even considers her last poem ‘Edge’:
To appease a moon-goddess, no? How to read that last line
in that last poem? Does it describe
the moon or the woman? I mean at the very end
of ‘Edge’; ‘Her blacks crackle and drag.’
Whose ‘blacks’? Is it the woman on the funeral urn
or the moon? Are they both ‘masturbating a glitter’?
The point is that every substance is impure and that such impurities are, to some extent, shared among substances. The funeral urn woman and the moon are linked by the ambiguous reference to “blacks”. Of course the figure of the woman is also a substitution for Plath - the “blacks” must refer to her “blacks” as well. What seems to trouble Muldoon is how he reacts to his own impurities.
Such deep considerations might make the poem sound very philosophical, and on one level it certainly is. But on a more superficial level it could easily be described as “zany”. Take the following ersatz example:
All I remember is that my da drew himself up like Popeye
as he gave a tight-lipped ‘C’mon’
and by sheer might and main
stuffed Utependragun into a spinach-jar:
‘I’ll have you know, you clouricane,
that I force
my own kale every Spring’;
all I remember was the sudden rush
of blood from his nose, a rush of blood and snatters.
Here the action is presented primarily in terms of the visual style of a cartoon. But it is obvious that we are presented with something rather more than a glimpse of some crazed cartoon world. For one thing Utependragun and Popeye do not easily co-exist within the same imaginary space. For another, the use of the Hiberno-English term “clouricane” conjures up an entirely different, and mainly Irish, secondary world, intensified as this particular word is by the rhyming triangle of “C’mon”, “main” and “clouricane”. Not only that, but the lines force further ingenuities upon us. The end-words have to conform to the complicated super-sestina pattern of ‘Yarrow’, so “da” will later become “tornada”, which is the word for the conventional end of a sestina, while the reference to a bloodied nose is also cunning. “Nose-bleed” is another term for yarrow.
Drawing these heterogeneous associations together is the simple imagination of a boy. After Utependragun calls into question the agricultural credentials of Muldoon’s father, suggesting that he should “Buy stalwart plants from a stalwart Prod...”, the problem, the essentially sectarian problem, is resolved with cheerful brutality. For an adult, however, such brutality is a little bit too cheerful. Still, it is the manner in which Muldoon’s “da” (again a word with primarily Irish associations) reproduces the decisive force of a comic-strip hero that makes Muldoon admire him.
Throughout ‘Yarrow’ there are constant references to “the bridge” and “the barn” and constant references to their being constant references (“The bridge. The barn. The all-too-familiar terrain”). But such references are more than just a measure of the poem’s self-referentiality and bewildering self-consciousness. They foreground the extent to which various images and locations are repeatedly used in story-telling of all kinds. There is a constant war, in ‘Yarrow’, between form and appearance. “The bridge” and “the barn” are outward manifestations of many narratives, which because of their (almost numbing) conventionality are also good ways of seeing what the underlying form of a given story is. So the bridge, for instance, is a standard point of defence (or a crucial vantage point) in many tales while the barn is a standard point of concealment or refuge. Not only that, but the bridge and the barn can obviously be read in a Freudian way which links them to the basic figure of ‘Yarrow’ of one becoming two.
The conflict which runs through ‘Yarrow’ between the artificiality of Muldoon’s style and the naturalness of certain women who have shaped his life is never resolved, and one feels that Muldoon makes no attempt to resolve it. The poet indicts himself but he does not convict himself. It is probably better to see ‘Yarrow’ and the other poems in The Annals of Chile as an attempt to contain the contradictory, competing elements of his world and to present them in fair relation to each other. In the process, he has written a book which deserves many awards, not least an Oscar for ingenuity.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The