Little Do We Know

Mark Ford

  • The Annals of Chile by Paul Muldoon
    Faber, 191 pp, £14.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 571 17205 9

‘What are we going to write about now?’ one of Ulster’s more engagé poets half-jokingly inquired soon after the IRA’s ceasefire was announced. One would imagine that Paul Muldoon will be among the Northern Irish poets least directly affected by whatever happens – or doesn’t – in the Province. His poetry has always reflected political events in the most delicate of styles, avoiding overt judgments, sentimental ideals, commitments or solutions, instead teasing out angles of irony and embodying states of impasse – ‘that eternal interim’, as he calls it in ‘Lull’ – with a sophistication that must be its own reward.

The upbeat-sounding title of Paul Muldoon’s precocious first volume, New Weather (published in 1973 when he was 21, and at long last reissued[*]), was drawn from a poem called ‘Wind and Tree’ that broods bleakly on the dangers of involvement of any kind – sexual, political, familial. Muldoon here figures all relationships as an inescapable series of mutual destructions, but interestingly connects his poetry – or the fact of his poetry – to his own willingness to be ‘broken’:

Often where the wind has gathered
The trees together and together,

One tree will take
Another in her arms and hold.

Their branches that are grinding
Madly together and together,

It is no real fire
They are breaking each other.

Often I think I should be like
The single tree, going nowhere.

Since my own arm could not and would not
Break the other. Yet by my broken bones

I tell new weather.

How neatly and unobtrusively the verb ‘tell’ is poised between passive and active meanings: does the poet merely register the ‘new weather’, or does he announce it? Muldoon’s entire ars poetica seems to depend on preserving that doubt, expanding the hinterland between reality and fantasy, engagement and awareness, history and myth, until they come to implicate each other without the poet’s ever having to situate himself explicitly on either side of the equation.

His longest poem to date, Madoc: A Mystery (1990), developed this theme gruesomely and exhaustively. Madoc braids together an extraordinary number of narratives – Lewis and Clark’s 1805 journey West, a hypothetical account of Coleridge and Southey’s attempts to found a Utopian community in Pennsylvania, the political career of Thomas Jefferson’s Vice-President Aaron Burr, Southey’s own epic Madoc, the entire history of Western philosophy – but the poem’s bewildering imaginative scope and range of reference are continually focused by Muldoon’s insistence on the multiple connections between violence and idealism. In dreams begin not only responsibilities, but tyranny and genocide.

Muldoon’s new volume, The Annals of Chile, consists, like Madoc, of a smattering of short poems followed by one very long one, called ‘Yarrow’, but despite their similar formats and concerns the books could not be more different in terms of tone and effect. While Madoc was wry, elliptical, often harsh to the point of brutality, The Annals of Chile is Muldoon’s most open and lyrical collection yet. It is tempting to see this polarity in terms of gender. Although the Fricker sisters Sara and Edith (married to Coleridge and Southey respectively) feature periodically in the Pantisocratic episodes of Madoc, most of the book’s trajectory seems determined by male imperatives of the era, such as conquest and subjection. In contrast, men figure only fleetingly in ‘Yarrow’ – which is, among other things, an elegy for the poet’s mother – while the book’s most memorable shorter poems deal with the birth of his daughter and the death of a close friend, the artist Mary Farl Powers.

The Annals of Chile articulates a much more organic understanding of origins and terminations than other Muldoon volumes. His previous long poems in particular tend to be sealed off within the self-reflexive confines of their own ludic patterning, a maze of mirrors one enters arbitrarily and inexplicably: the action of ‘Immram’ (Why Brownlee Left, 1980), for instance, is initiated by ‘a sixteen-ounce billiard cue’ with which the narrator is suddenly threatened ‘out of the blue’ in Foster’s pool hall, to which he returns at the end of the poem; Madoc opens and closes in some futuristic domed city called Unitel inhabited by Geckoes who decipher the rest of the poem by harnessing a retinagraph to the right eyeball of a certain South; and ‘7, Middagh Street’ – the poem in Meeting the British (1987) about Auden, Dali, MacNeice and Co – both begins and ends with the first words of John Masefield’s ‘Cargoes’ (‘Quinquereme of Nineveh’), like a serpent with its tail in its mouth.

Codes and allusions proliferate in ‘Yarrow’ too, but are not allowed to structure its meanings or progression to the same extent; underlying – or parallel to – its display of verbal pyrotechnics and narrative layerings is an organic development on which words and fantasies make no impression. This is the recognition with which the poem opens:

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.

Even were his mother

to make one of her increasingly rare

appeals to some higher power, some Deo
this or that, all would be swept away by the stream
that fanned across the land.

The insidiously swamping yarrow is obliquely linked in the poem to his mother’s death from cancer, and it is a sprig of yarrow which he plucks from a ‘funerary vase’ while ‘in a den in St John’s, Newfoundland’ that stimulates the various reminiscences which make up the poem.

Within this quite conventional framework ‘Yarrow’ is as eclectic and multifaceted as any of Muldoon’s other long poems, a patchwork of literary and historical references likely to be comprehensively tracked down by only the ablest of Muldoon scholars. Much of ‘Yarrow’ reverts to 1963 – the ‘year MacNeice and Frost and Plath all kicked the bucket’ – when Muldoon was 12 and immersed in boys’ adventure fiction: his favourite books are remembered thick and fast: the Westerns of Jack Schaefer, King Solomon’s Mines, The Lost World, Kidnapped, The Sign of Four, Rob Roy, The Day the Cowboys Quit and so on. Popeye, Charlemagne, road movies, the Knights of the Round Table, the Trojan Wars, pirate tales, the Bible, Montezuma, American World War Two bomber raids, ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’, furnish other roles and stories for Muldoon and his childhood friends.

Counterpointing their games of make-believe are details from the life of a female friend called S–, a heroin addict whose experiences are evoked by Muldoon with the hard urban wit he first developed in ‘Immram’:

That was the year Mike Fink was a bouncer at ‘The Bitter End’
on Bleecker Street: ‘The times are out of kilter,’
he remarked to S–, eyeing the needle-tracks

on her arms.

S– seems perpetually in and out of hospitals and rehab clinics, in one of which she slits her wrists and like a self-punishing Manson groupie writes ‘Helter-skelter/in her own blood on the wall’. S–’s extreme life and eventual suicide connect her to Sylvia Plath, another woman whose untimely death is frequently mourned in the poem, and over whose ‘Edge’ Muldoon frankly puzzles as if in an Eng. Lit. seminar:

                ‘Her blacks crackle and drag.’
Whose ‘blacks’? Is it the woman on the funeral urn
or the moon? Are they both ‘masturbating a glitter’?

‘Surely not’ must be the answer to this last question, since the act is ascribed by Plath to one of the sinister male twins of ‘Death – Co’.

The overall impact of ‘Yarrow’ depends less, however, on the patterns and coherences it posits between its various characters, than on the rich particularity with which each episode is invested. At his most schematic – in Madoc, say, or ‘The More a Man Has, the More a Man Wants’ (Quoof, 1983), which is based on the Trickster cycle of the Winnebago Indians – Muldoon can be a rather forbidding writer: one approaches these poems as one would a vast, impossibly tangled crossword puzzle or treasure-hunt. ‘Yarrow’’s structure and methods of linkage are far more straightforward: many of its sections (all arranged in three-line stanzas) begin with one of a series of formulaic phrases that are repeated so often they develop an aura of ritual – ‘Little did I know’, ‘Would that I might’, ‘Again and again’, ‘That was the year’, ‘Even now’, ‘All I remember’, ‘All would be swept away’. In addition, the poem’s present is clearly established: it is 1:43 by the clock on the VCR in his Newfoundland den which contains a plaster of Paris cow’s skull, a stuffed bird, and a wall-mounted prize carp or bream – though this last, rather more characteristically, is initially presented as the arm of the boxer-poet Arthur Cravan who mysteriously disappeared in Mexico in 1918 soon after his marriage to Mina Loy. (Why, though, does he confound her with the actress Myrna Loy? Some impish joke I must be missing ...) The images of Muldoon’s parents inspired by the yarrow sprig are similarly fixed:

For the moment, though, she thumbs through a
                              seed-catalogue
she’s borrowed from Tohill’s of the Moy
while, quiet, almost craven,

he studies the grain in the shaft of a rake;
there are two palm-prints in blue stone
on the bib of his overalls

This tableau is referred to a number of times subsequently in the poem, and develops into a poignant contradiction of the endless metamorphoses and imaginary voyaging of the young Muldoon and his gang, or the druggy transgressions of S–. The yarrow plant’s flower is likened to ‘something keeping a secret/from itself, something on the tip of its own tongue’, and to an extent the whole poem is suffused with emotions that never quite find their way into words, an involuntary reticence indicating dimensions of experience that can be gestured towards but not controlled or aesthetically shaped. In the poem’s final section Muldoon explicitly compares his own sense of being at a loss with the satisfactions and ideals of a ‘conventional’ art able to recover and preserve the events it commemorates. The deepest meanings for which the poem has searched refuse to surface, and their continued suppression seems connected with the total and irreversible nature of the poet’s loss:

though it slips, the great cog [of memory],
there’s something about the quail’s ‘Wet-my-foot’
and the sink full of hart’s-tongue, borage and
                            common kedlock

that I’ve either forgotten or disavowed;
it has to do with a trireme, laden with ravensara,
that was lost with all hands between Ireland and Montevideo.

Why Montevideo? South American countries and cities are barely mentioned in ‘Yarrow’, but the short poem ‘Brazil’ – of which a line supplies the book’s enigmatic title – makes another allusion to Ireland with a reference to O’Higgins: perhaps Ambrosio, the adventurer from Sligo who became governor of Chile in 1789, but more likely his radical son, Bernardo, who proclaimed the independence of Chile nearly twenty years later. In a less coded way, the cities and countries of Latin America seem to symbolise some exotic realm to which both the poet and his mother guiltily aspire:

When my mother snapped open her flimsy parasol
it was Brazil: if not Brazil,

then Uruguay.
One nipple darkening her smock.

This poem should perhaps be read with Muldoon’s earlier ‘Immram’ in mind, which imagines a whole alternative life for Muldoon’s father as an émigré settled in Brazil. In Why Brownlee Left such fantasies of escape are set strictly against the lives which the characters end up with – or abandon. In The Annals of Chile, on the other hand, Muldoon seems more concerned to discover ways of interrelating the imaginative and the actual.

This is exactly what ‘Lefty’ Clery achieves in ‘Twice’ – a simultaneous double life as himself. He stands

grinning from both ends of the school photograph
having jooked behind the three-deep rest of us to meet the Kodak’s
leisurely pan; ‘Two places at once, was it, or one place twice?’

Muldoon’s daughter, however, in the book’s only other sonnet, appears unwilling to present herself at all:

though she’s been in training all spring and summer
and swathed herself in fat
and Saran-

Wrap like an old-time Channel swimmer,
she’s now got cold feet
and turned in on herself, the phantom ‘a’ in Cesarian.

Eventually the medics must ‘gralloch-grub’ (‘gralloch’ = a deer’s entrails) for the uneager babe and ‘haul’ her from the womb. Her birth is unobtrusively contrasted with the many women’s deaths lamented in the book, which seems dominated by narratives of coming into and leaving the world. These themes offer less scope for the kinds of all-synthesising wit characteristic of Muldoon. In ‘Incantata’ he tells how Mary Farl Powers once dubbed him ‘ “Polyester” or “Polyurethane” ’ on account of his ‘tendency to put/on too much artificiality, both as man and poet’. The Annals of Chile reveals more clearly than any previous Muldoon collection his awareness of the limitations of that ‘artificiality’.

[*] Faber, 47pp., £6.99, 5 September 1994, 0 571 10233 6.