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.

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