In the Gasworks

David Wheatley

  • To Ireland, I by Paul Muldoon
    Oxford, 150 pp, £19.99, March 2000, ISBN 0 19 818475 1
  • Bandanna by Paul Muldoon
    Faber, 64 pp, £7.99, February 1999, ISBN 0 571 19762 0
  • The Birds translated by Paul Muldoon, with Richard Martin
    Gallery Press, 80 pp, £13.95, July 1999, ISBN 1 85235 245 0
  • Reading Paul Muldoon by Clair Wills
    Bloodaxe, 222 pp, £10.95, October 1998, ISBN 1 85224 348 1

Marcel Aymé’s novel Le Passemuraille, about a man who can walk through walls, would have interested Thomas Caulfield Irwin (1823-92). Irwin is cited in Paul Muldoon’s To Ireland, I for a neighbourly dispute he was having with one John O’Donovan. ‘He says I am his enemy,’ Irwin wrote, ‘and watch him through the thickness of the wall which divides our houses. One of us must leave. I have a houseful of books; he has an umbrella and a revolver.’ Seasoned readers of Muldoon know all about trying to see through inscrutable partitions: for most of his career he has resisted the temptation to come out from behind his poems and explain himself in prose. Before To Ireland, I, Muldoon’s critical pronouncements had always been a scarce commodity, not least in The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry with its notorious editorial no-show.

His Clarendon Lectures are unlikely to mean that Muldoon will be knocking down the wall between poetry and prose, but at least they represent a courtesy visit to the genre next door. In Macbeth Malcolm and Donalbain flee Scotland after Duncan’s murder, Malcolm to England; ‘To Ireland, I,’ says Donalbain, never to be heard of again. Macbeth is short enough, but noting the inordinate length of many of Shakespeare’s other plays Samuel Ferguson offered the public a volume of Shakespearian Breviates in 1882, cutting each play down to two hours. ‘Perhaps nothing the man has done reveals quite so much of his egotism and his self-assurance,’ Arthur Deering wrote in Sir Samuel Ferguson, Poet and Antiquarian (1931). Perhaps nothing Muldoon has done reveals quite so much of his egotism and his self-assurance as his attempt to present in A-Z form the entirety of Irish literature in these four lectures. Two of Muldoon’s children’s books, The Noctuary of Narcissus Batt and The O-O’s Party, New Year’s Eve follow an alphabetic pattern, and To Ireland, I begins with the oldest Irish abecedary poet of all, the conveniently initialled Amergin. This ur-bard’s ‘Alphabet Calendar’ receives an ingenious reading in The White Goddess, Muldoon reminds us, where its Protean swagger (‘I am a stag: of seven tines/I am a flood: across a plain’) is shown to conceal an alphabet of druidic tree-lore. Amergin probably wouldn’t have recognised the Roman alphabet; Ogham would have been more his style. Organising To Ireland, I around the Ogham alphabet, found in ancient Celtic and Pictish inscriptions, is probably beyond even Muldoon’s ingenuity, but its immersion in all things Gaelic is one of the book’s most striking characteristics. Some of Muldoon’s earliest poems were in Irish, though he didn’t feel confident enough to publish in that language until Kerry Slides in 1996. In the meantime he had reworked the voyage tale Imram Curaig Maíle Dúin in Why Brownlee Left, translated prolifically from Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and made Irish one of the central elements in The Annals of Chile, where it is spoken by the mysterious S—.

It is from Gaelic literature that Muldoon takes the organising metaphor for what is a Joycean ‘collideorscope’ of ‘conglomewriting’. If you’re sceptical about Beckett or Elizabeth Bowen’s familiarity with the Pairlement Chloinne Tomáis or Gerard Murphy’s Early Irish Lyrics, Muldoon argues that there’s no distinction between one text and the next when the féth fíada or ‘magic mist’ comes down. This gives him a free hand ‘to think’, in the words of his poem ‘Something Else’, ‘of something else, then something else again’ in the course of his alphabet-surfing. The fairy realm of the féth fíada may not only be contiguous to ours but ‘contaygious’ too (the book’s fourth section takes its title from a ballad beginning ‘In Egypt’s land, contaygious to the Nile’). Where Auden has given us the Lords of Limit, Muldoon gives us Lords of Liminality, stalking the long, shifting thresholds between one tradition and another.

Central to Muldoon’s ‘contaygiously’ intertextual approach is his reading of ‘The Dead’ from Dubliners, which dominates not just the entry for Joyce but for several other writers, too. When Gabriel Conroy arrives at the Morkans’ party, their West of Ireland maid pronounces his name in three syllables, reminding us of its Irish original ‘Conaire’. For Muldoon, this is only one of many signs of the story’s origins in the saga Togail Bruidne Da Derga, ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’, via Samuel Ferguson’s ‘Conary’. In the original, Conaire breaks a number of taboos or geasa and suffers a series of attacks by marauders on his hostel, situated somewhere in the environs of modern Dublin. Joyce’s Gabriel, too, is guilty of transgressions. His sniffiness about Irish nationalism does not go unnoticed: Miss Ivors taunts him for writing for the Daily Express and not taking his holidays in the Aran Islands, calling him a West Briton. For Muldoon, even his footwear is not above suspicion: Gall-oshes, as opposed to Western Gael-oshes. Miss Ivors’s opening challenge, ‘I have a crow to pluck with you,’ is more than an avian revision of the usual cliché: it is a manifestation of the Old Irish bird of battle, the Morrigan, which also lurks behind a ‘murky morning sky’ and the name ‘Morkan’ (though Muldoon resists the temptation to clinch the metaphor by calling the old women ‘battle-axes’). Gretta Conroy’s youthful lover, her feelings for whom she has kept under taboo, was in the ‘gasworks’, which in Muldoon’s guesswork quickly becomes ‘geas-works’. The geas works to keep Gabriel from finding out more than he needs to, until he breaks down his wife’s resistance at the end of the story, with disillusioning results.

The bird theme recurs in the goose (another near homonym for geas) that Gabriel carves, and which, via the barnacle-goose, serves to remind us of Nora Joyce’s maiden name, Barnacle. When the party is over Gabriel instructs the cab driver to ‘make like a bird’, or as the crow flies, for Trinity College, the site of his earlier joke about the horse that goes round and round the statue of King Billy on College Green. Apart from its obvious use as an image of political paralysis, the obsessive circular motion refers us back to Ferguson again, who wrote an essay ‘On the Ceremonial Turn, Called Desiul’. This is the Irish word deiseal, ‘clockwise’, which Joyce uses in the opening of ‘The Oxen of the Sun’ (‘Deshil Holies Eamus’) and which features in Muldoon’s ‘Yarrow’, where it is contrasted with sinister movement in the tuathal or ‘anticlockwise’ direction.

Another guest at the party is Bergin, whom Muldoon takes to be the antiquarian Osborn Bergin. In his Stories from Keating’s History of Ireland (1909), Bergin includes the story of Cú Rói’s betrayal by his wife Blathnaid, who signals to her lover Cuchulainn by whitening a stream with a churn of milk. Cú Rói’s rivalry with Cuchulainn is central to another tale which, like ‘The Dead’, revolves around a party, Fled Bricrenn: The Feast of Bricriu. Gabriel has elements of both the betrayed husband Cú Rói and Cuchulainn: his wife’s confession belatedly brings out the warrior in him, and he travels westward in the story’s visionary conclusion to do battle with the shade of Michael Furey. Snow is ‘general over Ireland’ while he does so; not only here, but in Muldoon’s last collection Hay, the colour white functions as a motif of death.

One of Louis MacNeice’s best-known poems is about snow and turns up in Muldoon’s poem ‘History’, from Why Brownlee Left. MacNeice’s first undergraduate publication in the Cherwell gave his name as MacPiece, suggestive of William Makepeace Thackeray, an author not without Irish connections of his own. The entry on MacNeice here is another tour de force of Muldoonian free association, again revolving around ‘The Dead’. The character Malins suggests Malin Head in Donegal, from which Tory Island is visible, home of the hermit in Imram Curaig Maíle Dúin, whose way with money reminds Muldoon of Sir Thomas Gresham, the 16th-century banker who shares his name with the Gresham Hotel, where Gabriel watches the falling snow. This becomes the prompt for MacNeice’s ‘Snow’, whose window recalls the fearful taxi partition in Bowen’s story ‘The Demon Lover’ (and MacNeice’s ‘The Taxis’), a nexus confirmed by the fact that MacNeice considered sending his son to Bowen’s Court during the war and later bought a house in London that belonged to Bowen. The line about ‘no extras on the clock’ in ‘The Taxis’ and the suggestion that ‘someone had bummed a ride’ lead us back to the taboos on supernumeracy in the Imram, whose influence Muldoon detects on MacNeice’s 1961 play The Mad Islands, which features a character called Muldoon. And on it goes in the same vein.

With his entry for James Ussher, the 17th-century philologist (and Archbishop of Armagh), Muldoon is nearing the end of the alphabet and confesses to anxiety over that tricky third-last letter still to come. But the ‘The “X” Factor’ misses its chance to retell Myles na gCopaleen/Flann O’Brien’s joke that the innate Irish resistance to sex and jazz has to do with the fact that three of the seven letters it takes to spell them don’t occur in the Irish alphabet (Z is for ‘Zozimus’, by the way, the pseudonym of Michael Moran, ‘the blind Dublin ballad-maker’ who died in 1846).

All this attention to Gaelic arcana means we can’t help feeling the smoke of the féth fíada in our eyes from time to time, as in the entry for ‘Incantata”s ‘Thane of Calder’, Samuel Beckett. By concentrating on the Irish background to Gabriel’s surname in ‘The Dead’, Muldoon passes over Monsieur Conaire, who pursues Mercier and Camier to a hotel in Beckett’s first French novel. The cognates Muldoon finds for Beckett’s name are Old Irish and English, becc and boc, which sound like characters from one of the late plays. He neglects Beckett’s French Huguenot background, which the author himself used as a source of onomastics in the matter of his name. At one point in Eleutheria a disgusted spectator clambers on stage and, reading the author’s name in the programme, remarks: ‘Bécquet, ça doit être un juif groenlandais mâtiné d’Auvergnat.’ Such an outlandish hybrid suggests an ethnic equivalent of Muldoon’s verbal cut and paste, so perhaps the spectator in Eleutheria is thinking of the archaism bécquet, meaning an authorial addition or revision pasted into a margin (Proust was as fond of bécquets as Beckett was of Proust). All of which would further link Muldoon to the world of the Old Irish sagas, so rich in scribbled marginalia. But even as it is, To Ireland, I may be the most provocative and eccentric contribution to Irish marginalia since Shem and Shaun slugged it out in Part II, chapter II of Finnegans Wake.

Bécquet/Beckett couldn’t abide opera, calling it ‘a hideous corruption of the most immaterial of all the arts’. Muldoon has been more receptive: Bandanna is his second published libretto, following Shining Brow in 1993. In the meantime there has also been the excellent Vera of Las Vegas, which he seems resolved not to let into print. Bandanna resembles nothing so much as Othello meets Touch of Evil. Morales, the police chief of a village on the US-Mexican border, has appointed the Irish-American Cassidy his captain, much to the annoyance of his lieutenant, Jake. Jake purloins a bandanna belonging to Morales’s wife and uses it to plant suspicions in Morales’s mind that Cassidy is having an affair with his wife. Othello isn’t the only precedent for the close alliance of kerchiefs and falls from grace: Joyce’s HCE is seen sporting a ‘sweatful bandanna loose from his pocketcoat’ shortly before his sexual indiscretion in Phoenix Park. Mona Morales goes into hiding to escape her husband’s fury; he finds her in a motel, where he uses the offending bandanna to strangle her before shooting Jake and himself. ‘To live is to sleep,/to die is to awaken./Dona nobis pacem,’ the chorus comments, calling down forgiveness on all the living and the dead, though Muldoon’s Texas is one place at least over which snow is not general.

In his jealousy, Morales complains about his wife’s ‘fouling our nest’. If Bandanna had been an adaptation of Ovid, it might have ended with her doing just that, after sprouting wings to let her escape. Ovid has had a good run in recent years (cf contemporary Northern Irish poetry passim); Heaney, Paulin and Mahon have translated from the Greek tragedians; but the comic side of the classics has been strangely neglected. On the face of it, Muldoon and Aristophanes looks like a marriage made, if not in heaven at least in cloud-cuckooland. The Birds feathers its nest with representatives of such exotic species as the Super-grouse, the Ombridsman and the frigg-it-bird as well as those Muldoon familiars, the widgeon and ‘the famous capercaillie’. Peisetairos and Euelpides, two fugitives from Athens, are looking for somewhere to live. They meet Tereus, who has been transformed into a hoopoe after a recent spot of rape and cannibalism. Peisetairos suggests to him that the Birds establish a new city in the sky, allowing them to rule over both gods and men. The attractions of Nebulbulfast, as Muldoon calls cloud-cuckooland, are chiefly sex and feasting, with menus that even run to birds on occasion. If Muldoon works in jokes about decommissioning and a ceasefire, he is continuing the tradition of parabasis, in which the dramatist interrupts the action to make personal comments through the chorus, though in fact Aristophanes uses this device much less in The Birds than in earlier plays. The climax of the play is Peisetairos’ confrontation with the gods, whom the birds have been holding to ransom by intercepting their sacrifices and cutting off their food supply. Even Prometheus, that champion of mankind, is outraged. But Peisetairos outwits them all and ends up marrying Queen Maybe, a version (maybe) of Queen Maeve from the Cuchulainn cycle.

In his 1987 review of Meeting the British John Carey complained about the knowingness of Muldoon’s poetry, ‘packed to the gunwales with higher education’ and smugly convinced of its irresistibility as an object of academic consumption. Despite the fact that Muldoon is probably second only to Heaney among contemporary Irish poets as scholarly canon-fodder, Clair Wills’s Reading Paul Muldoon is only the second full-length study to be devoted to his work. Wills covers much the same ground as Tim Kendall’s 1996 study Paul Muldoon, though in less detail (she passes over the plays, librettos and children books) but with a chapter on the 1998 collection Hay. She has also had the benefit of revealing interviews with Muldoon, quotations from which are scattered through the text. The critical short-circuit this sometimes produces is as revealing (thanks for pointing out that echo of T.S. Eliot, Paul!) as it is disconcerting (shouldn’t we have seen that for ourselves?). How much of Muldoon does depend on picking up what are essentially in-jokes? Never mind the content, the very form of a Muldoon poem is likely to constitute a coded message: ‘Is this a New Yorker poem or what?’ Muldoon wrote acrostically down the left-hand margin of ‘Capercaillies’, a poem submitted to the New Yorker, though it didn’t stop them turning it down. Elsewhere, in the charming ‘Long Finish’ from Hay, Muldoon’s reference to his wife as the ‘Princess of Accutane’ (a prescription drug for eczema) suggests the Princess of Aquitaine to Wills, allowing her to identify the poem as a ballade, a form much practised by that good friend of the Princess of Aquitaine’s, Charles d’Orléans.

Much of Muldoon’s recent writing has been elaborately, even obsessively codified in this way, as in the rhyme schemes of ‘Yarrow’ and the sonnet sequence ‘The Bangle (Slight Return)’ that concludes Hay. In his combination of extreme secrecy and strategic revelation to favoured critics and in interviews, Muldoon is not unlike that other cryptographer, Raymond Roussel, who, fearing that his grand schemes would go unappreciated by posterity, told all in Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes livres. If the puzzles in Muldoon’s work were exhaustible simply by noticing puns like Accutane/Aquitaine, reading him would indeed be as unrewarding as his detractors claim. But they run much deeper than that. In her 1993 study, Improprieties: Politics and Sexuality in Northern Irish Poetry, Wills argues that Muldoon’s secretive style, far from embracing the private as a refuge from a damaged polity, exploits the political uses (or uselessness) of incommunicability, abetting what she calls ‘the progressive aspects of the destruction of the public space of politics’. This may sound a little too much like the Personal as the Political (Slight Return), but in Reading Paul Muldoon Wills has noticeably damped down the theoretical zeal of her earlier volume. With all that incommunicability in Muldoon to attend to, she has kept her own style lucidly straight-forward and informative, though not without the odd blunder: Patrick Kavanagh may have been the ‘leading poet of the Irish Republic after Yeats’, but the honour loses some of its lustre when we remember that Ireland did not become a republic until 1949, ten years after Yeats’s death. Yeats, incidentally, gets nothing like the attention in To Ireland, I that one might have expected. A passing reference to his pomposity, coming on top of the cutting sarcasm directed at him in ‘7, Middagh Street’, prompts the question: does Muldoon actually like Yeats all that much? It’s a subject to which he promises to return, before taking leave of us with Zozimus and his ballads of ‘Egypt’s land, contaygious to the Nile’. It’s been a long but rewarding wait for Muldoon to catch the prose bug: To Ireland, I is a contagion well worth waiting for.