Muldoon – A Mystery

Michael Hofmann

  • Madoc – A Mystery by Paul Muldoon
    Faber, 261 pp, £14.99, October 1990, ISBN 0 571 14489 6

Looked at in one way, Madoc – A Mystery is an extraordinary and unpredictable departure, a book of poems the size of many novels, with a title poem nigh on two hundred and fifty pages long, doubling Muldoon’s output at a stroke. But in another way, it does remarkably little to change the sense one has of Paul Muldoon. It is a book for initiates, more of the same. Each of his previous five volumes has ended with something a little longer, a relaxing gallop after the dressage – even ‘The Year of the Sloes, for Ishi’ in New Weather (1973) was four pages long. Further, the structure of Madoc is actually identical with that of Muldoon’s last book, Meeting the British (1987) – in fact, it seems like a monstrously curtailed and distended parody of it: the prose poem at the start, a section of short poems (no more than six), and then the pièce de résistance, which, for all its length, occupies just one line on the contents page, as though the poet were telling us it’s no big deal.

Madoc is a bigger canvas rather than a bigger splash. Perhaps it is Muldoon’s fault, perhaps he has pre-empted himself. Already the most characterful and most imitated of contemporary poets, he offered more trademarks than perhaps was good for us: the pluperfect tense; the hoary Rip Van Winkle idioms stretching and disbelieving; the outrageously resourceful rhyming that came to preoccupy him more and more; the factual, ironical provincial-newspaper beginnings; the little seahorse emblems breaking up the poems and jointing them; the plain definite-article-plus-substantive titles; the erotic memoirs; the druggy meltdowns; the recurring totemic props that made each successive book more like a new religion than a book of poems. He has seemed for some time like a man in need of a challenge, the eponymous man in a previous long poem of his, ‘The more a man has the more a man wants’. In ‘Madoc’, Bucephalus the talking horse lectures us

that Madoc himself is, above all, emblematic
of our desire to go beyond ourselves.

The impulse for ‘Madoc’ came from a selection of Byron that Muldoon made for his American publishers. (One finds oneself adopting this rather unlikely preterite and literary-historical tone, partly because the poem is a conundrum and cries out for a methodical approach; and partly for want of a strong or reliable personal response to it.) There, Muldoon re-acquainted himself with the literary politics of the Romantics, Byron’s poetics, his digs at Southey and Coleridge. He read up on ‘the Pantisocratic society of Aspheterists’ (Coleridge), and even perused Southey’s poem Madoc, about ‘the Welsh prince, long believed by his countrymen to have discovered America in 1170’ (Chambers Biographical Dictionary). Muldoon’s ‘Madoc’ is thus a ‘remake’ – a notion that crops up in the opening prose poem in the collection. The title is from Southey, the principal character is Coleridge, and the prevailing spirit is not unlike that of Byron in Don Juan:

Prose-poets like blank-verse, I’m fond of rhyme,
Good workmen never quarrel with their tools;
I’ve got new mythological machinery,
And very handsome supernatural scenery.

‘Madoc’ is predicated upon two non-events, 625 years apart: the ‘arrivals’ in America of Madoc, and then of Southey and Coleridge. That is Muldoon’s ‘new mythological machinery’, providing him, on the one hand, with Welsh Indians, variously known as Madocs, Modocs, Mandans and Minnetarees, and, on the other, with a quarrelsome, unprepared, disreputable and idealistic bunch of poet-philosophers and their hangers-on. Coleridge’s imaginary move is one that Muldoon himself really made, going from Cambridge to America in 1987. ‘Madoc’ is also by way of being a brief and selective history of the early years of the United States, as Muldoon works in (I’m not always sure how) some of the pioneers, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the (Celtic) Indian Wars, eventually returning home in the person of the 19th-century (Irish?) artist and painter of ‘native Americans’, George Catlin, whose Rushes through the Middle graces the cover of Madoc. Oh, and one other thing. The narrative is sectioned-off into short, mostly self-contained poems, each given the name of a philosopher or quasi-philosopher (such as Frederick the Great or Schiller) to whose life or thought the poem makes some reference.

To sum up, then, ‘Madoc’ consists of two unequal chronological sequences: the philosophers in the titles go from Thales to Stephen Hawking, while the poems below cover the ground from 1795 to 1834, Pantisocracy, Madoc and the Welsh Indians, early pioneers, Lewis and Clark, stray Irishmen, the Satanic School of Byron and Moore. The two disciplines are pretty arbitrarily related – principally, I suppose, by the idea that Southey and Coleridge are poet-philosophers, and thereafter by some typical Muldoon punning and legerdemain, such things as the cryptogram ‘C(oleridge) RO(bert Southey The S)ATAN(ic School)’, and later ‘Not “CROATAN”, not “CROATOAN”, but “CROTONA” ’, this last a reference to Pythagoras’s western place of exile. Occasionally, too, the philosophers have names similar or identical to the names of actors in the drama: Putnam, Lewis, Newman, Clarke and Hartley. The whole spooky procedure recalls the celebrated episode when Coleridge and Wordsworth were eavesdropped-on in the West Country, and were heard to speak of the sinister ‘Spy Nozy’ (the philosopher Spinoza): there is the same mad triangle of poetry, philosophy and subversiveness in Muldoon’s poem as there was in that incident.

In his long poems, Muldoon has been drawn to and drawn from literary history and genre fiction, sometimes the one (‘7, Middagh Street’ is about the Auden-Britten ménage in Brooklyn), sometimes the other (the Chandleresque ‘Immram’), but mostly a blend of both. This gives the poems their approachability and readability, a content, and a style both ripe for subversion. In ‘Madoc’, the genres are Science Fiction, Western, whodunit, and perhaps even children’s writing – in nonsense words like ‘signifump’ or the delightful ‘de dum’ used for comic rhyming, dither, mock-epic, iambic filler or half-coconuts on the radio. The Science Fiction provides the frame, because the poem begins and ends in the future, where a character called South (descended from Southey), a ‘wet-set’, leads some kind of insurrection against the ‘Geckoes’, perhaps themselves descended from Cayuga Indians. It seems as though the boot is on the other foot, that the high have been made low, and that Kubla Khan’s ‘pleasure-dome’ has become some top-security hush-hush installation. The narrative of ‘Madoc’ proceeds from the interrogation of South, in best Sci-Fi manner: ‘And, though one of his eyes/ was totally written-off,/ he was harnessed to a retinagraph’, ‘So that, though it may seem somewhat improbable,/ all that follows/ flickers and flows/ from the back of his right eyeball.’

What takes the reader through the poem is pleasure and puzzlement in roughly equal measure. Whatever Muldoon is, he isn’t the maths master type of poet, setting problems of the correct level of difficulty: he seems rather unaware that there is any problem. Essentially, he is taking his style for a walk, and the style is mesmerising. Muldoon is a star exhibit for Gottfried Benn’s view that a ‘fascinating way with words’ is an innate quality, unteachable and unlearnable. One either has it or one doesn’t, and Muldoon has it. It is hard to imagine him using a dull word or phrase – he certainly wouldn’t use them in a dull way. And yet this hard, glittering, interesting surface seems to be at variance with the very idea of a long poem – of a middle way, not high, not low, Wordsworth walking up and down a gravel path. Muldoon’s road is like one paved with cat’s eyes. It is an extraordinary idea, really, to have a narrative advanced in this way, by Muldoon’s slight little poems, very exact, very fussy, never saying anything, but proceeding by ambiguity and innuendo. And yet somehow they aren’t overpowered by what they have to convey: they pick up mass, but – against the laws of physics – without decelerating, still at the speed of thought. The reader is exasperated by his own dull-wittedness, but struggles on.

One often feels tempted to throw the whole thing at a computer and say: ‘Here, you do it.’ But that is the price one pays for Muldoon’s speed. Part of one’s exasperation comes from doubting whether the whole poem, the ‘Mystery’, resolves itself. I am pretty sure it doesn’t. If ‘Madoc’ were a novel, I wouldn’t persevere with it. But, as I have said, Muldoon doesn’t set problems. It is more that the poem is too full of solutions: no body, no motive, but stacks of clues – what to do with all the recurring figures, the CRO-riddle, Bucephalus the (s)talking horse, the white (shaggy?) dog, the valise that survives into the SF future, the polygraph. Any one of them might lead to the heart of the matter. Take the last. It comes up three times, first in ‘Pascal’:

Jefferson is so beside himself with glee
that he finishes off a carafe

of his best Médoc;
his newly-modified polygraph

will automatically
follow hand-in-glove

his copper-plate ‘whippoorwill’
or ‘praise’ or ‘love’:

will run parallel to the parallel
realm to which it is itself the only clue.

Why ‘Pascal’ I don’t know. One notes the playful, not unexpected ‘Médoc’ and files it with an earlier rhyme, ‘metic-/ulously across a mattock’s/ blade-end’. Then one looks for the rhymes, in order of ease: carafe/ polygraph, hand-in-glove/ love, whippoorwill/-parallel, Médoc/ automatically and glee/clue. This last pairing summarises the argument of my last paragraph. There are many references to codes and ciphers and ‘sympathetic ink’ in the poem – possibly self-references. The ‘Médoc’/ ‘automatically’ rhyme is also an apposite one, when one takes ‘Médoc’ as ‘Madoc’. The suggestion is of ‘automatic’ writing, reinforced by the ‘polygraph’: literally ‘writing much’, but also ‘an apparatus for producing two or more identical drawings or writings simultaneously’ and, figuratively, ‘a person who imitates, or is a copy of, another; an imitator, or imitation’ (Shorter OED).

The idea of a line or word parallel to an unseen word or line is highly suggestive: perhaps of the process of history first of all; of duplicity (tracking the Indians); of the idea of the ‘remake’ noted earlier; of something both forged and real; of an unlocatable original, since, famously, parallel lines never meet. A ‘polygrapher’ is the enigmatic, clue-dropping, rewriting Muldoon; is also ‘multo-scribbling Southey’, as Byron describes him. These meanings came into use around the turn of the 18th century; in its new, stupidly conferred meaning of ‘lie detector’, it has connotations of the White House and Nixon and Reagan, of the malpractice of ‘hand-in-glove’.

The two further references to the polygraph, which occur in ‘Kierkegaard’ and ‘Adorno’, both continue the association with Jefferson (his retirement and his death); both suggest a kind of comic incompetence that may be Muldoon speaking about the production of his poem: ‘In Monticello, the snaggle-toothed gopher/tries his paw at the polygraph’ and ‘The polygraph at its usual rigmarole./ The gopher pining for a caramel’. (The gopher must be Jefferson; Washington himself had wooden teeth.) The rigmarole, the parallel lines and the idea of polygraphy all comment on Muldoon’s writing of history in ‘Madoc’.

‘Madoc’ may be enriched by reading it as or with a parallel text. Either a Dictionary of Philosophy (though not the Collins, which doesn’t mention half his ‘philosophers’, not all of them philosophers) or something about Coleridge and Pantisocracy. (It seems the days are gone when one could read Muldoon simply unaided.) With Madoc I read Richard Holmes’s Coleridge: Early Visions. Ironically, this wasn’t used by Muldoon: Madoc would have been finished by the autumn of 1989, when it came out. Some astonishing correspondences between the two books are therefore coincidental, the meeting of two great minds. First and perhaps greatest is this: ‘It is not impossible to imagine Coleridge, in some alternative life, flourishing among these original Susquehanna pioneers, and making his own distinctive contribution to the history of the Wild West.’ The ‘alternative life’ is not remarkable, but the ‘distinctive contribution to the history of the Wild West’ is, because it is precisely what Muldoon does with him, enrolling him, for instance, with Lewis and Clark. Coleridge himself stipulated that a poet must have ‘the eye of a North American Indian tracing the footsteps of an Enemy upon the Leaves that strew the forest’. Then there is a very personal judgment of Holmes’s, tucked away in a note: ‘Coleridge’s version of the emigration scheme has, at times, almost a Science Fiction quality.’

There are further suggestive phrases and details: about ‘Southey’s enthusiastic dog Rover (also a Pantisocrat)’, about pondering ‘his emigrant’s wardrobe – “what do common blue trousers cost?”’ and his ‘rapturous cartooning’, not a million miles from Muldoon’s approach (the gopher, say). But there are also things that Muldoon hasn’t got and doesn’t use, such as the fact that Southey’s ‘rooms were next to the college lavatories, by an alley that opened on to St Giles’, or the fact that Southey ‘left for Dublin to take up a post as Secretary to the Irish Chancellor, with a salary of £200 per annum, a characteristically efficient career move’. The point about these is not whether Muldoon knows them or not, but that his poem maintains the same intense and witty close focus upon its characters as Holmes’s outstanding biography does, and that from reading the poem alone, one might not necessarily have known it.

Every reading – and still more, every new bit of information – makes Madoc a cleverer and more imposing piece of work. Perhaps one of the last details (I am not claiming to know or to have done one-tenth of what needs to be known and done) to be seen to is the securing of the seven short poems of Part One to ‘Madoc’ itself, for they are clearly appendices or codicils (a word which Muldoon might care to derive from cauda, a tail). And truly each one contains some chromosomes from ‘Madoc’: no other poet has Muldoon’s expertise in forging such organic connections. In order, the poems contain: the idea of the ‘remake’: ‘Pythagoras in America’ and ‘some left-over/squid cooked in its own ink’; a duel, like those between Burr and Hamilton, and Jeffrey and Moore; ‘Asra’; an Irish immigrant to America; an amazing metastatic sestina patented by Muldoon; and this poem, ‘The Briefcase’:

I held the briefcase at arm’s length from me;
the oxblood or liver
eelskin with which it was covered
had suddenly grown supple.

I’d been waiting in line for the cross-town
bus when an almighty cloudburst
left the sidewalk a raging torrent.

And though it contained only the first
inkling of this poem, I knew I daren’t
set the briefcase down
to slap my pockets for an obol –
for fear it might slink into a culvert
and strike out along the East River
for the sea. By which I mean the ‘open’ sea.

The theme of this sonnet is the desperate – and comic – attempt to hold on to something, to prevent it from metamorphosing and accelerating away. In the context of Madoc, it is the wrestle with his own new poem about the new continent, in the new continent. Hence the force of the ‘“open” sea’: once escaped it could go anywhere, most obviously ‘East’ to Ireland. (The poem is dedicated to Seamus Heaney.) It is a kind of envoi, but one with the opposite wish, namely ‘stay, little book.’ I was reminded of John Berryman’s epigraphs for his Dream Songs, from Sir Francis Chichester and Gordon in Khartoum: ‘For my part I am always frightened, and very much so. I fear the future of all engagements.’ There is something oddly and deeply touching about this fear in one of the most metamorphic poets alive, in whom words and facts and things themselves are so comprehensively and gracefully destabilised.