Robert Macfarlane, review of Moy Sand and Gravel, in Times Literary Supplement (11 Oct. 2002)

Details: Robert Macfarlane, ‘High and Dry in the Flood’, review of Moy Sand and Gravel, in Times Literary Supplement (11 Oct. 2002), p.24.

Paul Muldoon once explained that in his poems he aims first to reassure his readers, and then to leave them “high and dry in some corner at a terrible party” from which he has “nipped out, leaving by the bathroom window”. It is an image which, on the face of it, fits his reputation as a prankster-poet. Here we have Muldoon the escapologist, forever wriggling out of the grasp of the reader who wants to read the poem for the man.

But that phrase ‘terrible party” also hints that it might not only be cocktail smiles and small talk which one encounters in a Muldoon poem. It suggests (and this suggestion is borne out in the poetry) that Muldoon’s initial “remsurance” his jokes, his madcap rhyming, the constant dilation of his poems between ‘ pattern and chaos might be part of a grander plan to discomfort his readers: to bring them into confrontation with what he calls the “dark matter” of existence.

Certainly, Muldoon has not shied away in his poetry from squaring up to “darkmatter”. The great elegies which followed the death of his mother (“Yarrow”) and an ex-lover (“Incantata”), both of which appeared in The Annals of Chile (1994), marked him out as an elegist of the first rank, possibly the finest writing in English today. He has also engaged with more public griefs: the Troubles, of course; the genocide of the Native Americans; and now, in the final long poem of his new book, the Holocaust.

Moy Sand and Gravel is Muldoon’s ninth volume of poetry and his first since Hay (1998). In Hay , Muldoon wrote more openly about himself than ever before. He emerged as a married man at home in America: poems described him walking his dog, gardening, or grockling around in his Volvo. Beneath this modest, moderate surface, however. the book also conducted an autopsy of Muldoon to itemise the emotional and physical bric-a-brac, the haberdashery of middle age, which had accumulated in his life and which had come to define him.

Moy Sand and Gravel has left the self-scrutiny of Hay behind, but it has extended that volume’s tendency to openness - to decryption - in other directions. Above all, it is the state and practice of fatherhood which is celebrated here. Images of nests recur, and an attractive sense emerges of Muldoon the home-maker and the nappy-changer - a man who is unashamedly, indeed delightedly, parental. Muldoon swipes twice at Cyril Connolly’s observation that the pram in the hallway means the end of art (though he attributes the comment to “one of the Waughs”) and, in a direct rebuttal of Connolly, the final poem begins with Muldoon wheeling “an old Biltrite pram” containing his son Asher to the “brim” of a flooded canal.

“Decryption” is a word which catches the prevailing mood of Moy Sand and Gravel, suggesting as it does both a decoding and a concern for the dead. For of all Muldoon’s much-haunted collections, this is the most thronged with ghosts: of dead babies, dead navvies, dead animals, dead writers, dead film stars, dead relatives and dead queens. Throughout the book we are brought to feel what a voice in the final long poem calls “the urgency of commemoration”. At the volume’s heart is “The Stoic”, a superb twenty-four-line elegy for Muldoon’s nameless, miscarried child. It is a shifty, unsettled poem, which fails to engage directly with “the thought of our child already lost from view 1 before it had quite come into range”. In this failure lies the poem’s strength and its interest, for Muldoon is fully aware of his own discomfort. The colloquialism which occurs twice is “let’s face it”, a phrase which glances uneasily at Muldoon’s failure to face “it”: the baby which didn’t grow old enough to acquire a sex. “The Stoic” is pressurised by a sense that writing an elegy might not only be a way of coming to terms with loss, but also of distracting oneself from it.

While a note of sombreness sounds through the whole book, Muldoon’s characteristic verbal exuberance - what his critics might call his glibness - is also amply in evidence. Poems are tinselled with neologisms, with spatchcocked and portmanteau words , and with the spoils of Muldoon’s dictionary-hunting: “zarf”, “berm”, “quantong”, and the like. In “Winter Wheat” Muldoon deliberately misses out words, thus inviting the reader to fill in the blanks, such that the poem comes to resemble an interactive pastoral porno: “The plowboy was something his something as / I nibbled the lobe of her right ear and something her blouse / for the Empire-blotchy globe / of her left breast on which there something a something louse.”

Then there are the rhymes. Rhyme has always been for Muldoon a source of energy: a structure which generates meaning rather than simply framing it. It has been both cause and effect of his haphazardness; a way of leaping intellectual chasms at a single sound. And it has also been - as it was for Byron - an excuse for jokes. He is now well-known for his proposed rhyming of “‘cat’/ with ‘dog’” in The Prince of the Quotidian (1994). More interesting, perhaps, is his rhyming in this book of “draw” with “draw”. “One Last Draw of the Pipe” is a fourteen-line poem in which all but two of the rhyme-words are, at least visually, identical: “Even though it happened as long ago as the late fifties, I could still draw / you a picture of the place. A little draw // through which we were helping a neighbor draw / green hay when we would suddenly draw level with a freshly dug hole ...”

And so on. It is a funny, virtuoso performance, if a meaningless one: reading it feels like watching a top-quality work-out video for a flabby word. Muldoon’s books, indeed, can often seem like rehab centres for language, so often is he to be found rejuvenating clichés, healing saws, and pepping up tired phrasings.

Muldoon has described himself in the past as “the person through whom” his poems are written. This sense of the poet as conduit or canal, rather than originator, rhymes with the poststructuralist conceit that language, not the poet, writes a poem. What it explains or legitimises in practice is the associationism, which is so charismatically Muldoon’s: the pinballing of thought which goes on in his poems; the ricochets across time and space; the intellectual zigzaggery.

At one level, Muldoon’s associationism approximates to the kind of “found poetry” which André Breton and company extolled: it supplies a way of seeing and linking objects and phenomena without preconceived interferences, save those of language itself In Moy Sand and Gravel , this sort of intellectual free-trading can be seen at work in poems such as “Affairs of State”, or the superb “As”. “As bass gives way to baritone”, begins the second stanza of this poem, “and hammock gives way to hummock / and Hoboken gives way to Hackensack / and bread gives way to reed bed / and bald eagle gives way to Theobald Wolfe Tone / and the Undertones give way to Siouxsie Sioux / and DeLorean, John, gives way to Deloria, Vine, / and Pierced Nose to Big Stomach / I give way to you.

“As” can be re ad as an elegant poetic Debrett’s, a list of who should defer to whom. It’s also a love song, of course, to an unnamed you (playing somewhere in the background is Stevie Wonder’s song “As”). Above all, however, it is a celebration of the comparative - a eulogy to analogy - and as such it is exemplary Muldoon.

Muldoon’s fixation with not being fixated - his fascination for ligature, transit, conjunction - therefore furnishes him with an aesthetic logic, or illogic. But it is also the poetic emblem of his deep mistrust of dogma. For Muldoon has made both an ethics and a poetics out of incertitude. He observed in the foreword to The Faber Book of Beasts (1997) that “it is only out of humility, out of uncertainty, out of ignorance, that the greatest art may be made”. His writing suggests that he also believes in an inverse of this observation: that it is out of arrogance, assurance and the belief in total knowledge that the darkest matter of this century has been spawned. One reason why Muldoon refuses to play anything straight - why every cliché is spun, every received idea tweaked - is his profound antipathy to the doctrinaire. Indeed, his linguistic playfulness can be read as a sustained effort to privatise language: to forge a way of speaking which is not compromised by what he has called “the kennings of the hourly news bulletins”. In his suspicion of slogans and codified public language, he can be compared with that great vigilante of speech, Karl Kraus.

Clichés, signs and slogans play an important role in the long poem which closes Moy Sand and Gravel , “At the Sign of the Black Horse, September 1999”. The poem begins the mornffig after Hurricane Floyd has passed over Muldoon’s house. The nearby canal has flooded, and Muldoon wheels his son in a pram down to the water’s edge to watch the debris float by. We have encountered floods before in Muldoon, and they are usually metaphors for washes of memories: the “flood” of “the tears of things” which sluiced “The Mud Room”. the opening poem of Hay ; and “the stream that fanned across the land” at the start of “Yarrow”. Here, again, the inundation prompts an access of recollection. Ghosts float past muidoon on the water: among them are literary figures, and the dead relatives of his Jewish wife. Like the procession of spectres which appear to Seamus Heaney in “Station Island”, these characters are at once interlocutors and interrogators. The fantasia which their appearance prompts in Muldoon is punctuated by capitalised slogans (“Place Mask Over Mouth and Nose”, “Open This End” &c.), which take on a sinister power of command over the poem as it progresses.

Of the many narrative strands to this complex poem, the least opaque concerns the corpse of a young peccary, which it seems Muldoon himself has trapped and killed the previous day. The dead peccary becomes a youthful counterpoint to Muldoon’s own son, Asher, who is himself shadowed by a nameless Jewish baby which we are led to suppose perished in Auschwitz. Astrakhan - the wool taken fatally from ambs between three and ten days old - also crops up, and the poem becomes overtly preoccupied with infanticide. Its veiled subject appears to be the nature of proxy grief. More precisely, it attempts an examination of the emotional mechanisms by which we come to undertand tragedies in which we had no part.

Here is a section from near the poem’s end, which starts with a reference to the dead peccary: “The red stain on the lint / that covered whatever it was in the autoclave / brought back an afternoon in Poland / when the smoke would flail and fling itself, / Maximum Headroom / from a crematorium at Auschwitz. It was not without some / trepidation, so, that I trained my camcorder / on this group of creel carters / bearing clay, hay, hair (at shoulder height, or above) / through the awesome // morning after Hurricane Floyd ...”

A poem which begins as a peri-pastoral response to the power of nature, therefore, ends up as a disturbing meditation on propriety and the Holocaust. Muldoon leaves us, in other words, properly “high and dry - the phrase occurs in the second stanza of the poem - at the twentieth century’s most terrible party”.

Moy Sand and Gravel is, as a disc-jockey might put it (and Muldoon is clearly a man with a sizeable record collection), a grower. It takes time to implant itself, and to unfurl. These are all poems which enunciate a stubborn refusal to be solved, and almost all work to unsteady the reader in some way - often achieving their unbalancing act through a mixture of jocularity and gravity. Those who think of Paul Muldoon as the benign, pudgy Puck of contemporary poetry, imping around with a mischievous grin on his type-face, miss the vital dimension of ethical seriousness in which his work exists.

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