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:

When I put my nose to the hole I smell the flood-plain
of the canal after a hurricane
and the spots of green grass where

thousands of Irish have lain

with a stink and a stink and a stinky-stick.

When I put my eye to the hole I see one holding horse dung to the rain
in the hope, indeed, indeed,
of washing out a few whole ears of grain

with a wink and a wink and a winkie-wick.

And when I do at last succeed
in putting my mouth to the horsehair-fringed niche
I can taste the small loaf of bread he baked
from that whole seed

with a link and a link and a linky-lick.

The image of the poet kissing the hole is obscene, like the refrain (stink, wink, linky-lick), a leering perversion of a nursery rhyme. These indecorous features have a decisive effect on the poem’s voice: they stand between the reader and the speaker, curtailing the sense of intimacy and shared sentiment which most first-person lyrics of the past two centuries have aimed to create. The rabid refrain, with its inappropriate affect, baffles identification with the speaker. We cannot cosy up to this elusive ‘I’. Muldoon thus avoids the pitfall of sensibility: that is, he avoids seeming to congratulate himself on his compassion, or to require any sympathy for himself. Integrity is the virtue of this weird urbanity.

But tension – between the style and the content – has to be kept up for the merry manner to remain affecting despite itself. Muldoon may sometimes slacken this tension too much. When the manner takes over, and the speaking voice loses all identity, Muldoon’s poems fall to the level of exercises. Here is ‘The Braggart’:

He sucked, he’ll have you know,
the tell-tale sixth toe
of a woman who looked like a young Marilyn Monroe,

her hubby getting a little stroppy
when he found them there in the back of that old jalopy.

Other papers please copy.

With its satirical edge and unusual rhyme scheme, this poem has mainly its panache to recommend it. I prefer those of Muldoon’s poems in which the speaking voice is put into play, dissociated from the expertise, and shown to be contending with larger powers. This occurs when the implied emotions of the speaker depart from the confidence of the style itself. The last and best poem in the book is of this kind: ‘At the Sign of the Black Horse, September 1999’.

The poem that comes before it ought to be quoted, too, since it offers a preface to ‘Black Horse’. It is one of Muldoon’s rare lyrical poems, the beautiful ‘Cradle Song for Asher’:

When they cut your birth cord yesterday
it was I who drifted away.

Now I hear your name (in Hebrew, ‘blest’)
as yet another release of ballast

and see, beyond your wicker
gondola, camp-fires, cities, whole continents flicker.

The title, style and sentiment all suggest Blake, especially ‘A Cradle Song’, from Songs of Innocence. We expect the poem to work like a lullaby, a soothing song. But we are surprised, as the father himself has been surprised, for he is the one in need of reassurance. ‘When they cut your birth cord yesterday/it was I who drifted away.’ He has been caught off guard by the force of his emotions, both wondering and fearful. Then hope wins out, and he returns, temporarily, to innocence. He sees his baby, floating in its ‘gondola’, as another Moses, free from history, launching the world on a new beginning. Yet the last line is ambiguous: ‘camp-fires, cities, whole continents flicker’ – is the old order, the dubious phenomenon of civilisation, fading out, or is it fading back in?

‘At the Sign of the Black Horse’ also invokes the dream of recovered innocence, but now the presence of history and historical catastrophe return in full force. The poem is so dense, surreal and complex that it is difficult to describe. It consists of 45 eight-line stanzas in which an array of heterogeneous materials are strangely collected and then recirculated. The poem takes off from a conceit entangled with a thought: the conceit is that, on the day after Hurricane Floyd, Muldoon and his family (his wife Jean, daughter Dorothy and new-born son Asher) have gone out to their driveway to watch the detritus of the storm pass by on the flooded canal. The thought is that Asher, whose mother is Jewish, shares in a heritage that the poet does not. Down the stream, in punts and a 1920 Studebaker, come Asher’s Jewish ancestors: great-grandfather Sam Korelitz (a hardware store owner) and great-grandfather Jim Zabin (an ad-man), Helene Hanff, uncle Arnold Rothstein (who fixed the 1919 World Series) and Arnold’s friend Fanny Brice. Contrasted with these somewhat comical figures are the anonymous victims of persecution: the ‘child-kin’ from Poland in the 1930s, interrogated by a ‘peaked cap’, and the Holocaust dead, recalled in the image of ‘smoke . . . fling[ing] and flail[ing] itself . . . from a crematorium/at Auschwitz’ and in the ‘ton/of clay, hay, hair, shoes, [and] spectacles’ coursing down the stream. Also recollected, from Muldoon’s side of the family, are the ‘Irish navvies’ of ‘The Loaf’. The violence of centuries is crossed in the poet’s mind by a misfortune of his own: between Dorothy and Asher, a child was lost in utero. Gruesome thoughts of the dead foetus keep assaulting the poet’s mind. (A parody of the paterfamilias, Muldoon this whole while has been barbecuing ‘medallions of young rat and white-lipped peccary’; the sight of the ‘young peccary’ with its ‘little rib-cage’ reminds him of the child, whom he later calls ‘our kebab-babby’.) The poem speaks longingly of the hope that ‘the soul might recover radical/innocence,’ but apparently concludes that nature and history together foreclose the possibility. Remembering Blake again, Muldoon says even of little Asher that ‘his soul’ is ‘less likely than ever to recover radical innocence and learn at last/that it is self-delighting’.

Anxiety and dread mount as the poem progresses. It adds to this effect that almost every stanza cites an official formula, an order or instruction of some kind: ‘Stop Ahead’; ‘Out of Order’; ‘Please Examine Your Change’; ‘Please Use the Hammer to Break the Glass’; ‘Place Mask over Mouth and Nose’ etc. These are the ‘sign-posts’ and ‘sign-boards’ uprooted and floating down the flood. But in a context infused with recollection of the Holocaust, these directives are intimidating: a reminder of timidity, conformism and social control. (Two of them are ‘Verboten’ and ‘Achtung’.) The paterfamilias is unsettled, though he characterises his emotions with restraint: he says that he is ‘awestruck’ and feels ‘trepidation’. He has been tainted with collective, if involuntary crime, and he is pursued by another, more obscure feeling of guilt, when he confuses grilling the peccary with killing a child. Civilisation is seen to be intertwined with violence, from the small scale (trapping pests, eating meat) to the overwhelming (the Holocaust), and life is punctuated by subtler violence, the tragic failures of the body (miscarriage and stillbirth). This is a perturbing birthright for Asher, who, in spite of his ‘glabrous face’, is already marked, in his father’s eyes, by his ominous inheritance:

The fact that the slew of interlocutors
in Asher’s glabrous face now included, of all
things, the peccary runt, Do Not Litter,
left me no less awestruck

than if the Studebaker were to be suddenly
yanked back to the factory in South Bend
from which it had been packed off, Open This End,
than if the soul of one of the dozen stillborn
lambs sewn into Fanny’s astrakhan were to
recover radical innocence and learn,
than if scouring the trap by which I had taken
that peccary, so lank and lean,
by its dinky hind leg,
Don’t Walk, than if, Don’t Walk, than if, Don’t Walk,
than if scouring might make it clean.

‘Don’t Walk’ is repeated in imitation of a blinking sign: but paired with the repetition of ‘than if’, the iteration turns into a stutter or a choking, as the speaker trips over his own distress. The tumbling flood encroaches on the island of suburban security: the speaker feels the panic of parenthood, and of participation in history – the panic of assuming responsibilities one cannot, by any means, fulfil. He has lost control: he cannot surmount the flow of time and event, he cannot master the overabundance of stimuli.

Disconcerting form accentuates anxiety. The perpetual revolution of the same elements calls to mind the sestina (in which the same six end-words are repeated seven times), yet the poem never settles down into the sestina pattern. Following Yeats, Muldoon uses a stanza form which mutates ottava rima, Byron’s form in Don Juan. He throws us an extra curve with his many highly oblique rhymes (‘gawk’/‘kayak’, ‘brim’/‘pram’). The rhythm of the poem, too, is vertiginous: the lines are of wildly varying lengths. Yet ‘Black Horse’ has a remarkably strong momentum. This comes in part from the catalogue structure: people and things are enumerated as they tumble by, giving rise to rays of association so disorganised that the stanzas seem barely able to contain them. The syntax also contributes: Muldoon favours long sentences spanning ten to 20 lines, breathlessly spilling from one stanza to another. Forty of the 45 stanzas are not endstopped. He must have learned some of these techniques for creating momentum from Shelley’s last poem, The Triumph of Life: Shelley’s frequent enjambment and breathless syntax enact the theme of individual agency crushed by the devilish speed of time. Muldoon echoes Shelley near the end of ‘Black Horse’, in an image of subjection to an oblivious force. A jumble of things ends by being ‘all borne along’, as in The Triumph of Life: ‘all fell into the track at last and were borne onwards.’

In both poems, the power of the form comes to seem impersonal: the speaker’s sense of helplessness is separated out from the linguistic exuberance, and that exuberance stands in for what has overwhelmed him. In ‘Black Horse’, the sportiveness of the style runs by itself, often bitterly contradicting the speaker’s emotion: I ‘watched the kebab-babby we had lost a year or two back put on its best bib/and tucker’. Language is monstrous in its opportunism. In the elegy ‘Incantata’ (The Annals of Chile), memories of the dead woman pour out with such mad vivacity that it becomes heartbreaking. Muldoon is not often so poignant, but his work is seldom impassive. In his best poems, the technical flair and buoyant voice go manic, outlining the shape of other emotions, and hollowing out a place for another consciousness, which does not share in the pride and prerogative of the style. He rides the wave of his swank virtuosity, but chaos and sorrow underlie it.