Adam Newey, review of Maggot by Paul Muldoon, in The Guardian (30 Sept. 2010), Review Sect., p.14.

[Source: Also available online at The Guardian, online; accessed 02.02.2011.]

What’s this - a second collection from Paul Muldoon , a mere 18 months after Enitharmon published the excellent Plan B? Well, not exactly. Faber’s jacket blurb describes that book - a beautifully produced volume from its smaller rival, on which Muldoon collaborated with the photographer Norman McBeath - with faint disdain as “an interim volume which included several of the poems in Maggot”. Perhaps a plainer way of putting this would be to say that all of the poems from Plan B appear in Maggot, too, only here you don’t get McBeath’s close-grained black-and-white photographs - 28 of them, one on each verso page - which rub up against Muldoon’s words in interesting and unexpected ways.

What you do get, to be fair, is a great deal of new work (the poems from Plan B seem unaltered apart from some minor changes of punctuation), and, at 120 pages, this is a substantial collection. In terms of style, the continuity with the earlier book is clear: there’s the same glancing, seemingly accidental association of ideas, the hammeringly insistent rhymes, the rapid shifts of diction, from high intellectual arcana to low demotic, and the sense of a teemingly fertile natural world that comes freighted with mythic significance.

Muldoon is never shy of making some hefty withdrawals from the myth-kitty, but these transactions are frequently underwritten by some decidedly spivvy turns of phrase. “Geese”, for instance, combines memories of seeing birds being driven to market, their feet dipped in tar and sawdust “to save some wear and tear on the long road”, with the story of Penelope’s dream about her suitors from the Odyssey ; while the following poem, “More Geese”, finds historical continuities between a skein of migrating birds and ancient Rome: “They must still be sacred to some deity, these geese in a holding pattern // ... must ache still as their ancestors ached / for the chance to fend off a night attack by the Gauls.”

This perhaps becomes clearer if you happen to know that, after the Gaulish attack on Rome circa 390BC, the defenders of the Capitoline Hill were warned of impending attack by the besieging troops by the squawking of geese in the temple of Juno . Well, perhaps Muldoon’s ideal reader is as culturally well-resourced as he is; for the rest of us, there’s always Google.

He performs similar tricks here with several dolphins, a couple of hares, horses, elephants, pigs and porcupines. But the technique is most effective in the book’s many poems about sex and death. Indeed you could say the whole collection is about sex and death. A nine-part sequence, “The Humors of Hakone”, is a Japan-set pathologist-procedural, in which the victim is not merely the maggot-ridden corpse of the “girl I’d seen in the purikura near the tearoom back in Kyoto” but also the poem itself, which threatens to decompose even as it proceeds: “Too late to insist that the body of a poem is no less sacred / than a temple with its banner gash // though both stink to high heaven.” The mix of lovingly described pathological detail, Japanese popular culture and meditation on the writing of poetry is rich and intense.

Elsewhere, a five-part poem, “Balls”, is a portrait of illness and decay that discourses breezily on all aspects of “these love nuts, these eggs, these pills”. It reminds us, for example, that the Latin testis is the root of the English word testify and that, “while both are inclined to be standoffish, / the left ball hangs lower than the right as a general rule”. “When the Pie Was Opened” regales us with swords “fleshed” nightly, with characters “steeling ourselves for the belly spear”, with images of the speaker “on my hands and knees / to nuzzle your butt. / Your hair à la garçonne. Your urchin cut / softened by a garland of heartsease”.

There’s a loose-limbed, gangling quality to these poems, where one idea sparks another seemingly by accident of pun or homophone, or rhyme. It’s no accident, of course, because this is a poet who is always firmly in control of where he’s going. The effect is of listening to an engagingly bantering companion, even as you’re being taken down some rarely trodden cultural tracks. “Moryson’s Fancy”, which recounts a 17th-century tale of Irish children devouring the corpse of their mother, has, Muldoon says, an “iffy inevitability” to it. That’s exactly the right phrase for the experience of reading Maggot - it’s like an intellectual fairground ride, with daring swoops and hairpin turns of thought. But, though you cling on for dear life, the car never actually flies off the tracks. It’s an exhilarating experience.

[ close ] [ top ]