Long Goodbye

Derek Mahon

  • Why Brownlee left by Paul Muldoon
    Faber, 48 pp, £3.00, September 1980, ISBN 0 571 11592 6
  • Poems 1956-1973 by Thomas Kinsella
    Dolmen, 192 pp, £7.50, September 1980, ISBN 0 85105 365 3
  • Constantly Singing by James Simmons
    Blackstaff, 90 pp, £3.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 85640 217 6
  • A Part of Speech by Joseph Brodsky
    Oxford, 151 pp, £4.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 19 211939 7
  • Collected poems 1931-1974 by Lawrence Durrell
    Faber, 350 pp, £9.00, September 1980, ISBN 0 571 18009 4

Why Brownlee left is Paul Muldoon’s third book of poems, and his most interesting so far. Whereas, in the earlier books, he didn’t do a great deal more than exercise the quirky, oblique lyricism which has become his personal signature, he puts it here to the service of an idea, or complex of ideas, which constitutes a private poetry of departure. An ‘inner émigré’, in Seamus Heaney’s phrase, he proposes for himself, for his father, for a childhood neighbour, real or imagined disappearing acts. This is, from one point of view, another example of the time-honoured Irish instinct to get out (generally accompanied by an obsession with the abandoned isle); and, indeed, there is the merest hint of political exasperation in one or two poems. Or perhaps ‘exasperation’ is too positive, too recognisable an emotion to ascribe to Muldoon, whose characteristic posture is one of child-like wonder in the face of multiple possibility. There is no ‘plague on both your houses’ here, but a reticence born of an inability to take sides, as in ‘The Boundary Commission’, which I quote in full:

You remember that village where the border ran
Down the middle of the street,
With the butcher and baker in different states?
Today he remarked how a shower of rain
Had stopped so cleanly across Golightly’s lane
It might have been a wall of glass
That had toppled over. He stood there for ages
To wonder which side, if any, he should be on.

The point of the poem seems to reside in the last line: but anyone familiar with Muldoon’s work will take a closet look at ‘Golightly’s lane’, and perhaps read significance into a name one associates less with Irish rural life than with the heroine of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Whether or not there is a Golightly to be found in South Armagh is beside the point. The point is that Golightly ties the poem to the theme of the book.

The title poem, another gem, relates a not uncommon rural event – the sudden and unexplained departure of a man from his land. Often a bachelor farmer, in Ireland at least, this figure simply walks out of his house, leaving the dishes unwashed, and takes ship to America, without a word to a soul; he goes lightly, unencumbered by regret or personal possessions, and is never heard of again. Nobody knows where Brownlee went when he left his horses.

                         like man and wife,
Shifting their weight from foot to foot
And gazing into the future.

But Muldoon, who now begins to identify with Brownlee, imagines cognate figures leading the sort of lives one would expect – drinking rum on a verandah in Brazil, for example. No great train-robbers are mentioned by name, but Howard Hughes: The Hidden Years is a key text. Whimsy? Not at all. Again, we must read between the lines, where the real poems are taking place. Brazil suggests Hy-Brasil, the Celtic Hesperides, Atlantis and Eldorado. Muldoon is preparing the reader for the long narrative poem with which the volume ends. This is ‘Immram’, a 20th-century version of the Old Irish Immram Mael Duin, or Voyage of Muldoon, which chronicles the strange adventures of its protagonist in oceanic places. We have already watched the Brownlee in Muldoon as he

Stirs within my own skeleton
And stands on tiptoe to look out
over the horizon,
Through the zones, across the ocean.

and now we accompany him, not to Brazil, but to Los Angeles, where he is reincarnated as Raymond Chandler’s fast-talking private eye, philip Marlowe, apparently in search of his father. ‘Immram’ is not easy to follow, but then neither is Chandler, who once admitted that he, the author, could not himself make out exactly what was happening in The Big Sleep. His other masterpiece, The Long Goodbye, might have provided Muldoon with an alternative title for this book: in it, an Englishman suspected of murder fakes his own death south of the border and reincarnates himself as a Mexican.

‘Immram’, like the rest, must be read between the lines. While Marlowe-Muldoon plays pool, drinks gin and sits in hotel lobbies, other, more mysterious things are happening, which I can indicate only by posing some questions. What is the significance of the ‘nervous couple’ who register in the park Hotel under the names of Mr and Mrs Alfred Tennyson? Who is the old man in shorts with waist-length beard and hair who forgives the narrator and tells him to bring a dish of banana-nut icecream? Is O’Leary of the Police Department on the level? (An Irish-American, he is, like John F. Kennedy, ‘not much better than ourselves’.) Who is the dame on the phone who tells the narrator to come to the Atlantic Club between six and seven: ‘And when you come, to come alone’? Why the allusions to The Tempest?

As you can see, Muldoon is very clever indeed: the conception itself is ingenious, the pastiche little short of brilliant. I may be underestimating ‘Immram’ by praising it in these terms; and if that is so, let me hasten to say that brilliance, a surface attribute, is not the most remarkable feature of this poet’s work. In its generally elusive, yet sometimes fearsomely direct way, it can be very moving – especially, here, the love poems, or rather the poems of separation, and the occasional self-contained play of imagination, like ‘Truce’, a recreation of the Christmas fraternisation between British and German troops in 1914.

Thomas Kinsella is the kind of poet you either can or can’t take. He is very strong meat. After an auspicious start, those with a weakness for lyric grace and purity of diction will be reaching for the sick-bag. His career has described a conscientious downward graph from the ordered magnificence of ‘Downstream’ to the dispersal of resources which began at the end of ‘Phoenix Park’. His relentless desolation, beggaring hope and reassurance, permits itself no flicker of humour, much less the frequent black laughter with which Beckett, for one, confronts ‘the hostile terriers of the universe’. For Kinsella, the terriers are no laughing matter. A relatively recent poem is entitled ‘All Is Emptiness and I Must Spin’, which puts him fairly explicitly in the ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’ position of the Unnameable; and he speaks of ‘the struggle in store for you all your life’. This struggle, apparently unmitigated by any possibility of remission, has, if anything, intensified of late; the mental landscapes are darker, the ghostly presences which inhabit them more schematic and attenuated; ‘voice and footstep die away.’ He is like a painter who, impatient with conventional signs, strips all away until there remains only a howling abstraction; then, disgusted with the vestigial plausibility of this image, hacks at it with a knife in cold fury. Kinsella knows quite well what he is about: he himself has invoked the principle of ‘kinetic impurity’, and only by reference to it can we explain the hideous, and sometimes startlingly tender, convulsions of his thought and practice. Whether or not we ‘enjoy’ his procedures – and it is perfectly possible to do so – one can hardly question their integrity.

The title of James Simmons’s new collection is taken from Juno and the paycock, where Juno, giving off about her husband’s waywardness, remarks: ‘And constantly singing, no less, when he ought to be always on his knees offering up a novena for a job.’ Waywardness, chiefly of a sexual nature, is part of Simmons’s stock-in-trade. So is the singing – the poet as errant troubador. But, the title implies, the poet is constant to his Muse, the Muse of domestic trouble and strife: these poems concern themselves in great measure with divorce and the finding of new directions. As with most Simmons collections, it contains a handful of hits, a number of near-misses, and a lot of disorganised garrulity. Having successfully suppressed the self-critical faculty at some earlier stage, Simmons publishes, I think, more than he should: but this is also an aspect of his almost programmatic anti-perfectionism, his determination to employ a minimum of artifice. Still, ‘no art without the resistance of the medium,’ as Chandler said; and Simmons, whose poems aspire to the condition of Tin pan Alley, treats language like an out-of-tune piano. Deliberately so: for him, as for Kinsella, though they have nothing else in common, ‘kinetic impurity’ is an end in itself: to hell with the well-tempered clavier. He makes a terrible din, but the zest is undeniable; and he can surprise you occasionally with a perfectly-modulated few lines, forceful without stridency, totally assured.

Joseph Brodsky is the latest Russian poet to be taken up in the United States and given the multiple-translation treatment first accorded to Voznesensky fifteen years ago. Among his translators are such supremely craftsmanlike American poets as Hecht and Wilbur: but Brodsky has also been closely involved himself. The translation of the title poem is his own, and there is even one poem, ‘Elegy for Robert Lowell’, originally written in English. It works too, if only as a fluent assemblage of Lowell properties:

planes at Logan thunder
off from the brown mass
of industrial tundra
with its bureaucratic moss.

Huge autoherds graze
on grey, convoluted, flat
stripes shining with grease
like an updated flag.

Brodsky is a master of complex form, if these versions are faithful reflections of their originals. He works in large, symphonic patterns, often pursuing extended metaphors in the manner Of Donne, to whom he has paid homage elsewhere. His theme is nothing less than the individual pursuit and assertion of value in time and space. The poetry represents a series of historical and geographical excursions – to America, England, Germany, Italy – undertaken in the foreknowledge of spiritual estrangement:

                        Having sampled two
oceans as well as continents, I feel that I know
what the globe itself must feel: there’s nowhere togo.

Nowhere, that is, except into language itself, his native country. Whilst admiring the baroque virtuosity of this collection, I can’t help feeling that the truest poem here is ‘Autumn in Norenskaya’, which dates from 1965 and seems to refer to his internment for ‘parasitism’:

The sky lowers, the shouldered rake
sees the damp roofs first, staked
out against the ridge of a dark
hill that’s just a mound far off.
Three versts still to cover. Rain
lords it over this beaten plain,
and to the crusted boots cling brown
stubborn clods of the native earth.

Durrell’s new Collected poems adds fifty-odd pages to the 1968 edition and rearranges everything in chronological order by date of first publication. The new poems mark no departure from the familiar intelligent lyricism, the general impression being one of a poet who can do it with his eyes shut doing it with his eyes shut. Two pieces stand out – ‘Seferis’, an elegy for the Greek poet, and ‘A patch of Dust’, a meditation on Van Gogh: but there is nothing to match the best work of the middle period. This is still underestimated, perhaps because its conscious exoticism puts the average reader off: something meretricious about all that music and colour, that heliotropic fluency. Nonsense, Durrell is a fine poet at his best, full of wit and intellectual curiosity; also he is fun to read. At a time when rancorous puritanism enjoys the status of a received critical stance, he is an example to us all.