“Scintillate” is a word Paul Muldoon uses in the third line of his fourteenth collection, and though he’s talking about light oscillating and flickering off of corrugated metal, the verb is an apt one for his poetry—a signal, a scintillating signal. The signal this time is a collection called Howdie-Skelp, named for the slap a midwife gives a dangerously stupefied baby just after birth: a wake-up slap, a life-giving smackeroo. I can’t say we don’t all need one—a jumpstart to begin ourselves, or to begin to return to ourselves. The poet returns us to ourselves, in these pages, by way of a poetry of returns that are never quite. Muldoon, I mean to say, is a poet of recurrences. A poet of the ceaseless waves. Maybe all poets are. But for Muldoon recurrence is métier. His talent is for rendering the way no repetition is possible, the way only almost-repetition happens, and how the variations, sometimes only slight, are often where the meaning is, or at least where its measure can be taken. In Muldoon’s work lines recur, stanzas recur, names, ideas, images, statements, words all come ghostly back across his verse, again and yet again, a phenomenon underscoring the idea that a book itself is always also a kind of poem.
And if there are gorgeous recurrences at the broadest level, they are prefigured by recurrences at a much smaller scale, at poetry’s basic instigation, which is to say its music. Muldoon is an animal of sound. Sounds—particular syllables, really—return by way of his rhymes, internal and at the ends of lines, end-rhymes which are anything but direct, great in the off-kilter style of Emily Dickinson or Austin Clarke. Truly, is there a living poet with as skilled and rambunctious an ear as Paul Muldoon? Can an ear be rambunctious? The question is germane in another way, because absurdity and humor are Muldoon’s poetry’s midwives. Life provides absurdity and humor in droves, of course, because, as Muldoon’s poetry argues, or at least implies, anything can give rise to a poem, from the dismal daily headlines that drive one of the book’s long and dazzling numbers, “American Standard,” named for the toilet company—America the loo—to the obscenities of old paintings, as in his ekphrasis on Tintoretto’s “Susanna and the Elders,” a poem that calls out “Two old wankers” with no chance “of having her tap / into the sap now rising in their rods.”
Absurdity doesn’t mean surreal. Rather, one of the pleasures of Muldoon’s poems is the way they make reality seem to go right to the verge of surrealism, the very shaky lip of it. How does he do it? He hides his trick in plain sight. That is, this poet’s voices present—sometimes in obscene detail, sometimes plainly, colloquially, and sometimes with a bewildered but rapacious intelligence—simply what happens, as the poet or the voices he renders see it. And by “simply” I only mean “no more than,” which it turns out is a lot. With statement of fact after statement of weird fact, Muldoon links together his lines, leaping and weaving, and from the tessellations of these lines come poems you would be hard-pressed to describe in terms of subject matter. They are about their subjects, in Allen Grossman’s words, the way a cat is about a house. Which is not to say they don’t have subjects, for every cat needs a home.
Put another way, “description is revelation!”—as Seamus Heaney has Michael MacLaverty saying somewhere. Description in the hands of anyone, let alone a writer of Muldoon’s powers, is bound to reveal plenty of signal, plenty of meaning without resort to gloss or interpretation, for the description is the interpretation—and Muldoon’s mind makes it at once pregnant and delivered, as strange as it is precise, and in its precision a weird and exquisite symphony. Sympathy? In his music, you feel again—as if anew—how bizarre reality is, how full of inexplicable returns, how painfully beautiful. Let me give you, for a poignant closing example, the ending of the opening poem—which turns out to be a sonnet with a tenuous hold on its rhyme scheme, a sonnet of wildly varying line-lengths—beginning Howdie-Skelp. These lines come just after that scintillating corrugation flashing in the sunlight of an ancient precinct of Ireland, where the poet was born and raised, and where his imagination returns, and starts, and sails:
Primarily a thatcher, my grandfather knew mange
was a complaint to which his Clydesdales
were all too prone, yet may not have recognized dementia
as a trait of the Muldoons. Sometimes a phrase
such as ‘Hugh had begun to dote’
will weigh as a Clydesdale’s withers would weigh with withies
while the pied wagtail crossing freshly turned furrows
is a tiny rowboat
glimpsed now and again in the trough between storm-waves.
JESSE NATHAN: How do you tend to work? I’m curious how you know where one book ends and another begins, how you sense that you’ve got a collection of poems. And—maybe this is adjacent; it feels connected to the “how do you work” question, I can’t say exactly how: what’s your feeling about “subject matter”? Do you care—or know or dwell upon—very much what your poems are “about”?
PAUL MULDOON: Like Wallace Stevens, I’m persuaded by the idea that all one’s poems come together as a single poem. It’s inevitable, given that they derive from a single consciousness. Or, more accurately, a single unconsciousness.
That said, the poems do come into being as discrete units. Each has a separate time zone, with its own microclimate. I have almost no interest in subject matter per se. For example, I have never, ever set out to write on a “theme.” The idea of a “theme” is for high school English teachers who haven’t read a poem in years. My reasoning is that since a poem may be “about" anything—a chipmunk, COVID-19, a toilet bowl, a dead woman—it doesn’t matter what the subject matter is. The poem is “about” making its own place in the world.
This is not to suggest that the poem is separate from, or unengaged with, reality. Wallace Stevens would insist that it meets reality head on. Perhaps even defines it. The poem “about” a chipmunk is no more or less important—maybe no less sociopolitically astute—than the poem “about" COVID-19. One knows what the poem is “about” only as one emerges from it.
The mystery of where a poem ends is mirrored in the mystery of where a book ends. The average length of time a book takes seems to be around three to five years. That seems to correspond to some sort of natural cycle, a version of the body remaking itself at the cellular level. And, like the poem, it usually signals that it is somewhat discrete, somewhat finished, even if we know it is no more discrete, and no more finished, than a wave reaching a shore.