Out of the blue

Mark Ford

  • Meeting the British by Paul Muldoon
    Faber, 53 pp, £9.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 571 14858 1
  • Partingtime Hall by James Fenton and John Fuller
    Salamander, 69 pp, £7.50, April 1987, ISBN 0 948681 05 5
  • Private Parts by Fiona Pitt-Kethley
    Chatto, 72 pp, £4.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 7011 3206 X
  • Bright River Yonder by John Hartley Williams
    Bloodaxe, 87 pp, £4.95, April 1987, ISBN 1 85224 028 8

So characteristic of Paul Muldoon’s poetry as to be almost a hallmark is the moment, unnerving and exciting in about equal measures, when his speaker is suddenly revealed to himself as someone else. The whole world expands and changes in ‘Cass and Me’ when, as a boy, he climbs on the older Cass’s shoulders, and they lean out

               across the yard
As a giant would across the world ...

The sow fled West with her farrow,
The hound made a rainbow under the barrow.
The cock crowed out of time.

So large we loomed.
Which of us, I wonder, had grown,
Whose were those wide eyes at my groin?

Here the perceptions spring from a physical convergence, and it is typical of the studiedly neutral Muldoon persona that he finds himself both appropriating and subtly distinguishing himself from ‘those wide eyes’ at his groin. More often, though, the confusion and discriminations that emerge are linguistic, and less easy to disentangle, as for the even younger boy (’threeish’) in ‘The Right Arm’ who plunders the last bit of clove-rock from the shop he and his parents keep in Eglish.

I would give my right arm to have known then
How Eglish was itself wedged between
ecclesia and église,

he muses perplexingly – not exactly the Wordsworthian insight into hidden justice and unknown modes of being that one was expecting. Violence and exhilaration are located somewhere behind the poem, but are suppressed by Muldoon’s diffidence, insulated, like his right arm, by the sleeve of glass that both protects and inhibits, and ‘has yet to shatter’.

A more overtly intense confluence and self-alienation occurs in the superb title-poem of Muldoon’s new collection, in which he imagines an encounter between the chief of a Red Indian tribe and some British military colonists:

We met the British in the dead of winter.
The sky was lavender

and the snow lavender-blue.
I could hear, far below,

the sound of two streams coming together
(both were frozen over)

and, no less strange,
myself calling out in French

across that forest-
clearing ...

Yet this kind of Romantic self-release can only be suicidal to a wised-up, historical awareness like Muldoon’s. Neither General Jeffrey Amherst nor Colonel Henry Bouquet can stomach the willow-tobacco the Indians offer. And in return

They gave us six fishhooks
and two blankets embroidered with smallpox.

The disorientations Muldoon stores up here, and unleashes in the poem’s final word, resonate throughout Meeting the British, which continues to exploit the extraordinary blend of finicky gentleness and precise violence he originated in Quoof.

Quoof tended to push its metaphors, trancelike, to the point of no return, its mushroom hallucinations not deviations from but a visionary heightening of reality: the poems in Meeting the British seem more self-aware. The book is not held together with quite the obsessive thematic coherence with which Muldoon previously structured his effects, but operates through more casual continuities and allusions. A few of the poems – ‘The Toe-Tag’, ‘Crossing the line’, ‘My Grandfather’s Wake’ – collapse his usual methods of oblique narration, and seem to function like musical variations. In this kind of poem the different parts, often further separated by asterisks, relate metaphorically to each other: they display similar symptoms, as it were, but don’t immediately connect. ‘The Toe-Tag’ seems to conjugate the perverse relationship between violence and luxury in a sequence of analogues, though behind it may lurk a more old-fashioned poem of sexual disgust. Rolls-Royces idle, ‘their seats upholstered with the hides of stillborn calves’; there’s a ‘jigger of blood on your swish organza’; even a tagged cactus causes ‘ecstasy’ by reminding ‘you’ of the labelled big toe of a corpse.

Fragmentations like these are probably best understood as new techniques Muldoon has discovered for maintaining the tight-wire neutrality on which much of the success of his poetry depends. The faux-naif voice he developed so brilliantly in Mules and Why Brownlee left was a perfect vehicle for the uncommitted counter-punching of his cautious, rather passive-aggressive poetic persona, and is excellently deployed again in such poems as ‘The Coney’ and ‘Brock’, but the experimental nature of many of the others suggests he is in active pursuit of new ways of projecting himself without seeming to do so. There are all kinds of new types of poem in Meeting the British. ‘Ontario’ is in prose. ‘Bechbretha’ seems to be a political satire. There is an extended, untypically straightforward elegy for a friend, ‘The Soap-Pig’. The book’s final, long poem is a sequence of dramatic monologues spoken by the famous residents of 7, Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights and sounds more like something from Lowell’s Notebook phase than like any of Muldoon’s earlier work.

These are all, in their different ways, new acts of the ‘ventriloquism’ which, Muldoon once commented, he finds the best means of overcoming the self-parody implicit in over-self-consciousness. Most of his poems seem designed to implode in the act of being read. In a gleeful, spirited way he likes to seal each one within its particular metaphorical capsule; it can ‘engage for thirty seconds in a little fiction; it has moved me, it will hopefully move you, disturb you, excite you; and having said and done that, we go our separate ways back into the welter.’ Emotionally discontinuous with each other, there is no danger that they will ever locate or identify their author: the continuing resourcefulness of his voice depends on our building up no relationship with it, on its seeming to come each time ‘out of the blue’, like the 16-ounce billiard cue that initiates the business of ‘Immram’.

A self-effacing art such as this must perpetually refine itself, and Meeting the British adds some wonderful new tricks to Muldoon’s repertoire. Two of the book’s most effective pieces, ‘Sushi’ and ‘Christo’s’, succeed by feigning a winning helplessness in the face of the brilliance of their own metaphorical processes. ‘Christo’s’ describes a day’s drive from Dingle to Belfast, during which everything the protagonists observe –

    mounds of sugar-beet,
hay-stacks, silage-pits, building-sites,
a thatched cottage even

– seems to be draped in black polythene and weighted against the wind, like a Christo sculpture. This is prime Muldoon territory – things insulated and concealed inside themselves, the purely random and over-artistic somehow marrying, seeming revelations that lead nowhere-but the poem’s dénouement unfolds like a sly disavowal of the extravagance of the conceit:

      By the time we got to Belfast
the whole of Ireland would be under wraps
like, as I said, ‘one of your man’s landscapes’.
‘Your man’s? You don’t mean Christo’s?’

In ‘Sushi’, the most brilliant of Muldoon’s many restaurant poems, he detaches himself in an equally effective way from his fancy, by inching it higher and higher until it finally topples. While his exasperated dining companion complains to him about his self-absorption, he has eyes only for the way an apprentice

had scrimshandered a rose’s
exquisite petals
not from some precious metal
or wood or stone
(‘I might just as well be eating alone’)
but the tail-end of a carrot.

The excessiveness of the poem’s final line both clinches the performance and dismantles the artifice. The carrot is submitted to the chef, and

it might have been alabaster
or jade
the Master so gravely weighed
from hand to hand
with the look of a man unlikely to confound
Duns Scotus, say, with Scotus Eriugena.

‘Sushi’ and ‘Christo’s’ are also typical of Meeting the British in the way they deliberately blend images of the exotic and the banal. Indeed, almost all the poems here seem to relate in some way to the outlandish. From early in his career, Muldoon has been given to organising his collections around single principles and a corresponding group of related images: in Mules it was the concept of hybrids, sterile lives ‘caught between heaven and earth’; in Why Brownlee left the clash between random, inexplicable behaviour and an obsessive idealism; Quoof revolved around a vision of some magic realm beyond the reach of life’s contradictions. Such bald abstractions can give Muldoon’s progress an ominous consistency that is at odds with the variety and distinctiveness of his achievement, but it is also true that he plots the thematic interrelationships of his poems with utmost care. The delicacies and exotica with which Meeting the British abounds – a flute carved from a missionary’s tibia, a spider-crab, medallions of young peccary, a nine-banded armadillo found wandering in Meath in the 1860s, an albino rabbit, a fish with three gold teeth, the sandvein like a ‘seam of beryl’ in an uncircumsized penis, triremes, quinqueremes, caymans, peacocks – are the book’s currency, as shamans and mushroom metamorphoses were Quoof’s. Literary and artistic allusions thicken the texture still further: Wyeth, Soutine, the Mabinogion, O. Henry, Spinoza, Giraldus Cambrensis, Louis Aragon, Gerard de Nerval, Terence Malick, lots of Yeats, lots and lots of Masefield’s ‘Cargoes’, Scott Fitzgerald, Delmore Schwartz, Marilyn Monroe, Un Chien Andalou, Hart Crane, Ben Hur... An index to proper names in the book would be several pages long.

This all-pervasive cosmopolitan glamorousness, often treated ironically, is most vivid in ‘7, Middagh Street’. 7, Middagh Street was the three-storey brownstone rented by George Davis – literary editor of Harper’s Bazaar at the time – and tenanted by Auden, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten and Gypsy Rose Lee; shorter-term residents included Louis MacNeice, Auden’s lover Chester Kallman and Salvador Dali. The poem consists of a monologue by each of these. Like ‘Immram’ and ‘The more a man has the more a man wants’, ‘7, Middagh Street’ is a beguiling mixture of the serious and the silly. Muldoon skittishly connects the seven poems to each other by an outrageous network of literary allusions; they are also involved in an elaborate sort of tag, the last line of one poem being picked up by the first line of the next. What is new is the poem’s tone, which is rapt, even devotional, each carefully amassed fact dispensed as from an oracle.

In many ways Muldoon is one of the least suited of poets to pay direct homage to previous writers, and his desire to experiment with the form deserves respect. In Station Island Heaney confronts his shades from the fixed point of his own absolutely solid poetic personality: strangely, our almost physical impression of him can seem to be enhanced by the artifice and decorum of the convention the poem exploits. Muldoon’s disembodied persona, mostly identifiable as the merest insinuation in a habit of speech, can establish no equal terms with literary heroes from the past; charismatic figures like Auden or Dali fit uneasily into an arbitrary medium like his, which tends to create itself as it goes along, reducing everything it touches to its own peculiar weightlessness. Muldoon is acutely aware of the problem, and might be said to make it the poem’s principal theme. His Auden, Dali and MacNeice confront the relations of art, history and politics specifically, and often with wonderful eloquence:

For history’s a twisted root
with art its small, translucent fruit

and never the other way round.

That’s Auden, with a vengeance perhaps. All three yearn for a firm sense of their own rootedness, though Auden again denies one can do more than strain ‘for the ghostly axe/of a huge, blonde-haired lumberjack’. Dali, pictured in the act of rejecting the autonomy of Surrealism, discovers a more general resilience to the abrasions of human history:

Our civil wars, the crumbling of empires,
the starry nights without number

safely under our belts,
have only slightly modified the tilt

of the acanthus leaf,
its spiky puce-and-alabaster an end in itself.

Much of the poem’s impact depends upon the range and intensity with which Muldoon develops these grand themes, and the sections not energised by them – on McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee, Chester Kallman – tend to be what they call in Scoop mere ‘colour’. In the end, it is Muldoon’s countryman MacNeice, about to return to do his bit in war-torn Britain, who emerges most creditably, rebuking Auden for his apoliticism and insisting on the power of individual responsibility:

For poetry can make things happen –
not only can, but must ...

Although the poem’s self-reflexive ending seems to negate the possibility of this kind of commitment, it is still intriguing, and moving, to hear such things said not wholly ironically in a Muldoon poem.

Muldoon gets a mention – along with just about everyone else they can think of – in Fenton and Fuller’s collaborative book of light verse, Partingtime Hall. I especially enjoyed the public-school master Mountgrace-church MacDiarmid’s taste in literature:

Selected John Ashbery, Schuyler, O’Hara,
Gravity’s Rainbow, and End as a Man,
Young Torless, Cavafy and others bizarrer,
Lord Weary, Das Schloss, Lady Windermere’s Fan ...

The nymphomaniac pensioners in ‘The Sexy Old Ladies of Havergo Hall’ are less discriminating in their pursuit of pleasure:

If it breathes, and wears trousers, they move in
                                       for the kill.
They’ve invited Karl Miller, but he’s feeling ill.
No wonder: his hostess knew John Stuart Mill
And she’s broken the bathroom lock.

Most of the poems are donnishly based on literary jokes like these, and probably the best in the book is a Geoffrey Hill parody which pictures Hill playing tennis against his devoted admirer Martin Dodsworth:

Who crouches at the net, his mouth compressed
Severely to a little Gothic slit?

On the whole, though, the book falls well short of its pre-match billing. Most of the poems are too long, and too many of the jokes fall flat. Humour supposed to be risqué, as in ‘A Poem against Catholics’ and ‘The Red Light District Nurse’, ends up as merely offensive. This is a puzzle, since both poets have written extremely successful light verse in the past – indeed, are almost the only serious English poets since Auden to have done so. A couple of poems – ‘The Spectre’, ‘The Dream within the Dream’ – attempt to get back to the zany, Lewis Carrollish fantasy-land Fenton built up so compellingly in ‘The Kingfisher’s Boxing-Gloves’ and the like, but neither really comes off. ‘Partingtime Hall’ itself is a long narrative poem, full of atrocious rhymes, involving a love-affair that develops out of a suicide at a public school: parts of it are zesty enough, but it doesn’t compare well with Fuller’s own novel in verse, The Illusionists. One of the book’s best satires is a scabrous fantasy on Wendy Cope and Fiona Pitt-Kethley, who were each launched last year to huge popular acclaim. Pitt-Kethley has been the quicker to consolidate her success, and her new collection, Private Parts, shouldn’t disappoint the large following that Sky Ray Lolly won her. She gets fan-mail from a certain lusty Geoff, of Roath Park in Cardiff, who took to heart her bitter tales of sexual frustration and male inadequacy, and thinks he might do better. This time, although there are still plenty of stories of everyday gossipy rancour – an American drama student who dreams of ‘licking chocolate pudding, warm and sweet,/off women’s breasts’, someone in the Foreign Office whose ‘chief fantasy/was doing it with a wolf’, a Freudian milkman, who ‘got sterilised today’ – Pitt-Kethley also finds herself revisiting old school grievances for subject-matter. Even then, she is pleased to relate, she had a reputation for being pert and outspoken, and was consequently ostracised. While the ‘good kids’ brought catkins to school, she dragged along a seven-foot giant hogweed, ‘too tall, too poisonous’, and they

                    stood
it in the corner by itself.

There is a large element of self-caricature in many of the poems –

A dissident citizen of the world,
no country opens up its arms to me!-

which suggests her no-nonsense persona is in danger of becoming a straitjacket. Particularly irritating are the flat, moralistic endings she sometimes foists on poems, perhaps in an attempt to sound wise in a Larkinish way:

The truly impotent, I think, are those
who do not even try in case they fail.

The title-poem reveals her touch at its surest. She is watched by a US Marine as she sketches a naked Roman Mercury in the Fitzwilliam Museum:

           He stood until
I gravitated to the balls, then pounced.
An ugly human, he’d identified
with the smooth body of a god, the image
on the paper, seeing my pencil’s touch
as a caress.

Well worth its Poetry Book Society recommendation is John Hartley Williams’s Bright River Yonder, a bizarre, slangy, immensely energetic sequence of poems set in a rugged Wild West frontier town called Doomsburg. Included are an Ostler, a Rancher, a Girl with Green Eyes, a couple of movie producers, a Piano Player and a hoax medicine man, Ephraim Destiny; there is also a silver dollar with which everyone seems to have some connection. But what? Why? Who knows, or cares, when, as Muldoon and Frost both point out, ‘all the fun’s in how you say a thing.’