To read good poetry is to pull a Band-Aid off a wound. I heard someone say that once.
Not a big wound, maybe just a paper-cut, where the skin puffs pink and new. When we remove the covering we return to our trauma, and the act is pleasurable, despite the shock. Paul Muldoon’s Horse Latitudes hurts in exactly this way.
The Professor has a sense of humor, too. Take the title; no immediate hilarity, I know. But a glance at the jacket defines this area between the Tropics as one of ‘stagnation,’ and the book is far from stagnant – hot damn does it move, from China to the States to North Ireland, Dylan to Dillon to Zevon. It possesses a shiftless energy like the DTs, intellectualized and rhymed. It must be read aloud. And since I wouldn’t presume to interpret the work (much less review it), I might just follow along. An excerpt from “At Least They Weren’t Speaking French”:
[. . . ] Not the East Tyrone Brigade, not Baader-Meinhof
fol-de-rol fol-de-rol fol-de-rol-di-do
bringing the suggestion of a frown
to those two mummer stones still trying to lie low, trying to keep their
to a bare minimum, two stones that, were they to speak, might blench
as much at their own giving out as our taking in that at least they weren’t
We examine rocks – two on a country lane. The narrator sees them, channels 1976, channels the Red Army Faction and its supposed funding of the IRA, only to cut to a lyrical punning of the word folderol only to echo this kind of useless nonsense in the stones’ very non-speech. And, of course, if they were to talk, those showy metamorphic things, they would consider holding forth in a Continental tongue. Then they’d think better of it.
In all this we are grasping for meaning (and air). Without Wikipedia, the verse turns cryptically, but that ignorance is unimportant. Sounds coils beneath each syllable, waiting, and the roll of the line breaks is the roll of the Gallic ‘R.’ Go ahead, sing the refrain in thirds – the speaker begs you. Carry it from the ‘mouth music’ of the poem’s first section to a chest rattle to a little pitter-patter. It’s fun.
Rhyme, the coincidental, and the familiar collide similarly in “Hedge School,” a delight. Read:
Not only those rainy mornings our great-great-grandmother was posted at
with a rush mat
over her shoulders, a mat that flashed
Papish like a heliograph, but those rainy mornings when my daughter and
of her all-American Latin class may yet be forced to conjugate
Guantánamo, amas, amat
and learn with Luciana how “headstrong liberty is lash’d
with woe”—all past and future mornings were impressed
on me just now, dear Sis,
as I sheltered in a doorway on Church Street in St. Andrews
(where, in 673, another Maelduin was bishop),
and tried to come up with a ruse
for unsealing the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary back in that corner
and tracing the root of metastasis.
The second stanza consumes the first – ‘gate’ and ‘conjugate,’ ‘flashed’ and ‘lash’d – and forges a shadow effect. We have visited these rainy mornings before, in antiquity, when our Catholic ancestors measured the light of the hidden sun. How vain it is, then, to learn the Classics in the modern age, when we are subject to the subsuming forces of government, the ‘I love’ in Gitmo, forced conjugation. Rhyme here is familiar, yet the repetition rings false. We have been duped, the speaker cries. Compare this to the simple evocation of the departed in stanza three, the presenting of the family’s roots. They have grown and spread, the Muldoons, and have left the cathedral. Most have died. So is it any surprise that metastasis, derived from a notion of change-by-removal, finds in etymology a cure?
These words, like rudimentary supply-and-demand theory, permit no accident. There is only a master’s (literal) rationality – a controlling, a parsing, a handing-out of ideas – all internally consistent and self-similar. They are fractals of the political, the economic, the technological. From “90 Instant Messages to Tom Moore”:
is eating a small nurse shark.
Each smiles like Buddha.
A slap on the ass
from Hurricane Fabian
as he made a pass.
Pulsars, Tom. Spin-spin.
Even the moon’s novelty
has worn a bit thin.
Each with the smirk of the Zen koan – the keyboard blips develop a stunning cumulative effect. If the real purpose is to see past or through the poem, more readings are necessary. But if we stick to the surface so much emerges: blasé stargazing in an age of digital projection, the notion of sexual exploitation as it relates to natural disaster. Gold to be sifted and gold to be found.
An epilogue: I spotted Tracy K. Smith today by Edwards. She was wearing a black leather jacket and talking on the cell phone. I became nervous for her, wondering if she felt pressured. When Paul Muldoon plays guitar he is having a go at it. It is not a day job. On the phone, however, they are in a verbal domain – still poets. Do they prepare a metaphor or two?
In this way Horse Latitudes is a long-distance call. Words are garbled. Meaning is dropped or contorted. Occasionally we hear our own voice reversed in the ether. Most of the time, however, the story is an old one we rehash with a pal from high school. How we laughed back then, or yelled, or cried. How today it makes very little difference.