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.

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