In the Studebaker

Laura Quinney

  • Moy Sand and Gravel by Paul Muldoon
    Faber, 90 pp, £14.99, October 2003, ISBN 0 571 21535 1

Everyone who reads Paul Muldoon will be dazzled by his linguistic exuberance. He follows the lead of Pope and Byron, engaging in many of the displays of wit that they engage in, particularly an exotic vocabulary and inventive rhyme. He loves terms of art, slang, botanical names, the names of foodstuffs and fabrics, rare words, proper names and place names. His poems send one joyfully to the dictionary: here are ‘zarf’ (a cup-shaped holder) and ‘griffawn’ (a grubbing-axe); there ‘gusset’ (a triangular piece of land) and ‘quantong’ (an Australian fruit); ‘mosk’ (to pawn an object for more than it’s worth) and ‘hame’ (the bar on a horse’s collar). His startling rhymes include rhymes against content (‘reverie’ with ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’), rhymes across languages (‘mar bheadh’ with ‘orchestra’) and rhymes of proper names (‘bone’ with ‘Assiniboine’). This is not to say that he is incapable of spareness, but he tends towards far-fetching variety. He favours challenging rhyme schemes and difficult forms, such as the sestina and terza rima. He improvises strange, lively forms of his own: ‘One Last Draw of the Pipe’ uses ‘draw’, in its many different meanings, as an end-word in ten of its 15 lines. All his poems engage in some form of verbal play.

Yet Muldoon’s verse is not comic. He models himself after Byron – specifically, the Byron of Don Juan – by addressing grim topics in a hard, high-spirited vein. A notorious example of Byron’s jaunty style is the cannibalism scene from Don Juan.

Of poor Pedrillo something still remained,
But was used sparingly – some were afraid,
And others still their appetites constrained,
Or but at times a little supper made;
All except Juan, who throughout abstained,
Chewing a piece of bamboo, and some lead:
At length they caught two boobies and a noddy
And then they left off eating the dead body.

Though the blithe tone may reflect the narrator’s idiocy, it doesn’t stem from heartlessness on Byron’s part. He wants revulsion to come through unsoftened by sentiment. Muldoon’s strategy is similar. The poems in Moy Sand and Gravel don’t differ in kind from his previous work. He has no new schemes afoot. Rather, he is striving to perfect what has been his project all along: to banish sentiment and achieve a subtler, harder-won poetic power. ‘When Aifric and I Put in at That Little Creek’ cheerfully narrates an awful story. The two characters, the speaker and Aifric, went boating and got lost, but were fortunately provided with an unusual map:

For though our sonar was pretty much state of the art,
the truth is that we had found our way back
along this coast
largely by means of the chart
her father had drawn and redrawn on Aifric’s back

with nothing more than a bronze pin
and lamp-soot and red ochre, the constant twinge and tweak
of detail with which he had been so engrossed
when he suddenly caught the swing of the boom and took that fatal spin
only the previous week.

A poet striving for a sombre effect, and for manifest high-mindedness, would not close the poem on this anticlimactic note (‘only the previous week’). But Muldoon is after shock and unease. To his credit, he would rather be provocative than ingratiating. Fleeing the banal pathos of much contemporary verse, he uses effervescence to highlight unexpressed horror.

In ‘The Loaf’, he is restoring his ‘two-hundred-year-old house’ by the Delaware and Raritan canal in New Jersey, when through a hole in the wall the sufferings of the Irish navvies who built the canal reach his senses:

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