As Reviewed By: Maria Johnston
Horse Latitudes by Paul Muldoon. Faber, £14.95, 107 pp.
Paul Muldoon’s tenth poetry collection Horse Latitudes arrived at the close of 2006 together with hisThe End of the Poem: Oxford Lectures on Poetry, a collection of lectures delivered during his time as Professor of Poetry at Oxford. The latter is a rip-roaring work of inspired poetic scholarship and a stimulating, provocative, and unfailingly interesting read. Throughout, he shows himself to be a wonderfully imaginative close-reader of poetry, as he begins each lecture by considering a single poem which is then opened up in many directions, through a deep engagement with language and meaning, a profound awareness of the possibilities of poetic form and technique and by locating a wide array of influences and inter-textual relations. Thus, the reader is hauled back and forth across literature, the breadth of Muldoon’s reading and research making for an extensive literary terrain, as he forges connections, with OED always in hand, “trying to make sense” or “untangle” as he puts it, to illuminate these poems as Robert Frost said, by considering them “in the light of all the other poems ever written”-even if his suggestions in one or two instances seem a little far-fetched or even “outlandish” as he recognises at one point.An insightful and open-minded reader, Muldoon is astutely appreciative of the way in which all writings resonate through and are worked into others, firmly holding to an enriching sense of poetry as an unending, interactive art. As he has put it, “I believe it to be a fact, that all poems (to use a phrase Robert Frost used) are in dialogue, in conversation with all other poems ever written.”[private]
His own poetry, well-known for being deeply inter-textual, erudite, and always ludic, calls up a vast range of references to all branches of learning and fields of knowledge, as frequently perplexed critics point often to his “allusive genius.”Anthony Cronin’s description of any poem by Samuel Beckett as “an almost indecipherable tangle of recondite references and allusions” is often true of Muldoon’s too. Muldoon is frequently granted such epithets as, “the prince of ellipsis, obliquity, and surprise, of the pun and the trouvaille” while Michael Hofmann, reviewing Muldoon’s Hay (1998), conceded in obvious exasperation that he’d felt like throwing the book at a computer and saying, “Here you do it.”
In response to the charges of unintelligibility often brought against his poetry Muldoon has explained, quite rightly, how the difficulty of his poems is “meant to be equal to the difficulties that surround us” in, what he calls, “this era of extraordinary complexity.” As Muldoon has professed elsewhere: “one has to learn to read these poems, just as one has to learn to read a three-line, little imagist poem, just as the writer had to learn to write it.” It’s clear that these Oxford lectures employ the same mode of close, creative reading that Muldoon expects from readers of his own poetry and so one must read his Horse Latitudes in this way. Charles Bernstein once remarked that “there is no end to what you might need to know to read a poem,” and no contemporary poet seems more aware of this than Muldoon himself as both reader and poet. His work continues to delight in the unending possibilities of language, the multiplicity of available realities and perspectives, and the boundlessness of human knowledge and invention.
One must begin then with the title, the “horse latitudes” referring, as the jacket copy helpfully informs the reader, to the area north and south of the equator where ships tend to become becalmed, compelling sailors to cast horses overboard in order to save on food and water and where “stasis if not stagnation is the order of the day.” One should bear in mind too the other meaning of “latitude” that is, most appropriately, “scope for freedom or action of thought.” The scope here, as in Muldoon’s previous collections, is immense. Born in 1951 in Armagh, Northern Ireland, Muldoon is now in middle-age and the collection concerns itself with the kaleidoscope of various worlds, lives, and selves that is the poet’s long-view into a continuous past and changing present, constructed out of words and patterns, the whole mental life: “The game. The plaything spread on the rug. / The fifty years I’ve spent trying to put it together” (“It Is What It Is”). Signalling from the outset one of the dominant tropes of the collection, the book-jacket is dominated by George Stubbs’Mares and Foals without a Background, a frieze-like painting by the British eighteenth-century artist. Stubbs, a trained anatomist as well as a painter, dissected horses in order to study their anatomy and so render them with more naturalism in his paintings and here the horses are flesh and blood, realistically captured in their sinuous forms and vital dynamism. Unlike the many other more traditional paintings by Stubbs of horses in rural, forest or river landscapes, here the horses appear against no background at all, free of the specifics of context and place, which is just as the freewheeling Muldoon would want it. Horses, as any dedicated reader of Muldoon’s poetry will know, have been a constant presence in his poetry, from the collection Mules (1977) to the talking horse of “Gathering Mushrooms” from Quoof(1983) and of the title poem of Madoc-A Mystery (1990) and in “Glanders” fromQuoof where glanders (also known as farcy) is tellingly found to rhyme with “Flanders.” In “Horses” from Hay the speaker is found “trying to remember, as best I can, / if I’m a man dreaming I’m a plowhorse / or a great plowhorse dreaming I’m a man” after of course the Chinese sage Chuang Tzu.
There is also the long poem “At the Sign of the Black Horse” from Muldoon’s previous collection Moy Sand and Gravel, which weaves together in an expansive formal tapestry the poet’s dominant preoccupations with the dualities of language, history and familial history, the present and past, real and imagined. In “The Loaf” in the same collection, the horse hair used for stiffening the plaster in the walls of the poet’s centuries-old house in Princeton, New Jersey reminds the Northern Irish poet who is now an American citizen of how the land is the mass grave of the “thousands of Irish who have lain” there, specifically immigrant navvies who died in the construction of the area in the nineteenth century. This redolent horsehair becomes transposed across collections into the horsehair of the Mongolian morin khur inHorse Latitudes‘ “Medley for Morin Khur.” The morin khur is, as the poem etches with deceptively simple clarity, a horse-headed violin and the national instrument of Mongolia:
The sound box is made of a horse’s head.
The resonator is horse skin.
The strings and bow are of horsehair.
The complex truth of the relation between art and atrocity, between barbarity and civilisation or culture-here very much a nation’s art, a national instrument-has long been a troubling question for poets, not excepting those writing across the years of the Troubles in Muldoon’s native Northern Ireland. Heaney, to give one example, recognised what critics regarded as the “aestheticization of violence,” in his controversial 1975 collection North for which he was denounced, by Ciaran Carson most memorably, as the “laureate of violence.” Here, in this well-wrought medley, the subject is articulated with grace and detachment as the instrument is first described unassumingly in precise detail. The closeness and empathy between animal and human as blood-kin-the hybrid being a familiar figure across Muldoon’s oeuvre-is brought into focus, as the call between “jinn and jinn” is connected through rhyme with the echoic call of “kin and kin.” The kin, as we then learn, are in fact calling to their own kin across a scene of slaughter, a “body-strewn central square”, and a terrifying contrast to the sensually pleasing “jasmine-weighted air” which the rhyme harks impossibly back to. The specific location of the square is not given; it could, of course, be anywhere. We are left with a concluding image that is one of mass violence, of systematic mutilation and dismemberment, and which is all the more discomfiting for its matter-of-fact style of delivery:
A square in which they’ll heap the horses’ heads
by the heaps of horse skin
and the heaps of horsehair.
Thus, the title poem of Horse Latitudes introduces this organizing theme of violence and death, and is, as Muldoon has elucidated, a sonnet sequence, each sonnet connected to a historical battle beginning with the letter “B” in which horses played an important part in the military operations. Thus, Burma, Bannockburn, Blenheim, Bosworth Field, Benburb etc., the conspicuous absence of the “missing” Baghdad pointing up the poet’s concern with the Iraq War. As is the case so often in Muldoon’s work, what is left unsaid, the absent present, is always crucially important. Reading through these sonnets any reader of Irish poetry may well be put in mind of Michael Longley’s poem “The Horses,” a poignant elegy for these sensitive, resilient animals who have been massacred in warfare through the ages. Here, in an episode taken from Homer’s Iliad, the horses are paralysed with grief for their dead master Patroclus who has been slain in the ongoing battle:
For all of the horses butchered on the battlefield,
Shell-shocked, tripping up over their own intestines,
Drowning in the mud, the best war memorial
Is in Homer: two horses that refuse to budge
Despite threats and sweet-talk and the whistling whip,
Immovable as a tombstone, their heads drooping
In front of the streamlined motionless chariot,
Hot tears spilling from their eyelids onto the ground
Because they are still in mourning for Patroclus
Their charioteer, their shiny manes bedraggled
Under the yoke pads on either side of the yoke.
Longley-as well as poets such as Seamus Heaney or Robert Frost and John Donne, whom Muldoon often cites as influences-is an important antecedent for Muldoon, particularly in his attentiveness to the possibilities of form and technique. Longley’s image of the horses’ brutal ordeals, vividly depicted in the continuous present as “shell-shocked, tripping up over their own intestines, / Drowning in the mud” is a compelling one and similar images of violence and persecution pervade Muldoon’s collection, evocatively termed at one point, “the blood slick from the horse slaughter.” In “Benburb” the horses in battle become impaled on chevaux-de-frise:
Those impromptu chevaux-de-frise
into which they galloped full tilt
and impaled themselves have all but
thrown off their balance the banner-
bearing Scots determined to put manners
on the beech mast- and cress- and hazelnut-
eating Irish. However jerry-built,
those chevaux-de-frise have embogged
the horses whose manes they had hogged
so lovingly and decked with knots
of heather, horses rooted to the spots
on which they go down on their knees
as they unwind their shoulder plaids and kilts,
the checkered careers of their guts.
In both Longley’s “The Horses” and Muldoon’s poem the enjambment is the crucial technical device. Muldoon, like Longley, is a master of design, expertly using the line-break to create particular effects. In Longley’s poem, the incessant run-on lines-one sentence drawn out over eleven lines-points up the sharp contrast of the horses’ grief-stricken incapacity while creating an urgent, breathy quality of tone which asserts how the war-torn past of the Iliad continues right into the immediate present. Only the deliberate repetition of the word “yoke” in the last line allows finally the resolute stasis. There is a pointed absence of end-rhyme, which suggests disharmony just as the uneven number of lines speaks of disorder and imbalance. In Muldoon’s sonnet the swift pace of the run-on lines is mimetic of the horses’ tragic gallop “at full tilt” and unwittingly towards an agonizing and long drawn-out death. There is nothing “impromptu” or “jerry-built” about the design of this poem. The first three lines of the sonnet refuse to harmonize in end-rhyme owing to, it would seem, a sense of outrage over the brutality that has been engineered. There is a digression then away from the scene of death to the minutes before the atrocity that had the horses alive and attractively decorated, matched appropriately with two pairs of rhyming couplets. This is short-lived however. The last three lines that follow haul the action back to the immediate present, breaking with the end-rhyme to create a closing discord. Here too the faltering “knees” of the horses as they are “rooted”-a word that will reappear throughout the collection-links back through distant rhyme to the “chevaux-de-frise” of the opening that is the cause of their ruthless destruction.
Muldoon is also skilled in what Elizabeth Bishop termed “the art of losing,” and, as with her consummate handling of form in her poem “One Art” where the villanelle form contains and restrains the emotion that would otherwise spill out over the page, Muldoon puts the sonnet, sestina, and other traditional forms to masterful and always innovative use in this way. As in Bishop’s celebrated villanelle, rhyme and repetition is often crucial in making connections one can trust to in times of upheaval; Frost’s “momentary stay against confusion.” Holding the public and private, the inner and outer worlds, in precarious balance, there is throughout Horse Latitudes the battle of a lover named Carlotta with cancer (her name is an anagram of “oral tact,” the word “tact” as Muldoon reminds us in one of his Oxford lectures deriving from the verbtangere, “to touch”) and the book is dedicated to the memory of Muldoon’s sister Maureen who died after a long battle with cancer in 2005 and who is addressed in the magnificent poems “Hedge School” and “Turkey Buzzards.”
Death is a constant but also a paradox, symbolised by the dual nature of the turkey buzzard, a carrion bird that feasts on human corpses and defecates on itself yet is the most beautiful and graceful creature when in flight. “Sillyhow Stride” too is an elegy, for the composer and musician Warren Zevon, another loss to cancer, whom Muldoon collaborated with and shared a years-long friendship. Yet even on occasions of mourning, words are always called into play, always gesturing towards possibility as the “sillyhow” of the poem, a slang term for “caul” is used elsewhere to refer to his dying sister’s oxygen mask, while “stride” as well as being a jazz-piano style also plays on the etymology of “enjamb” meaning “to stride, encroach.” Here too another meaning of “horse” is uncovered, that of the street term for heroin, the drug of Zevon’s addiction and which features in many of his songs, thus: “another hit/ of hooch or horse that double-ties the subtle knot”. Appropriately, half-rhymes are used throughout, mimetic of this pervading sense of instability, of upset: “kick/ coke,” “barm/ prom,” “juleps/eclipse,” “hallowed/ hold.”
In “Bob Dylan at Princeton, November 2000” Muldoon’s affinity with Dylan is revealed in terms of their shared penchant for rhyme. Dylan has always professed to being a poet first, a musician second, and his idiosyncratic way with rhyme is well-known, as he instructs in “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense / Take what you have gathered from coincidence.” This awareness of the endless coincidences and connections between words, the fundamental importance of sound and sense is what interests both Muldoon and Dylan. As Dylan has said of his song “Everything is Broken”: “The semantic meaning is all in the sound of the words. The lyrics are your dance partner.” An over-riding concern with memory and the past haunts Muldoon’s collection and rhyme is employed very much as a mnemonic device, containing in itself, as Arthur Hallam put it, “a constant appeal to Memory and Hope”.
Indeed, Dylan’s “crickets talking back and forth in rhyme” (“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”) bring us nicely to the sound of the grasshopper in Muldoon’s “Tithonus,” which invokes the mythological figure who, as is well-known, was granted immortality but not eternal youth and so grew more and more ancient until he finally turned into a grasshopper. Tennyson’s poem of the same title, a sensuously crafted meditation on mortality, also lies behind Muldoon’s poem which has the speaker as listener trying to find the source of an enigmatic sound in an old house. Moving across seven four-line stanzas, the sound recalls and summons up the past, the ghosts of a family in this family home, as the listener strains to track it down, only to discover finally “what turns out to be the two-thousand-year-old chirrup / of a grasshopper”. All is held together aurally here by persuasive patterns of end-rhyme and the playful onomatopoeia of “hush-hush,” “jinkle-jink,” “spur-spink.”
As is typical of Muldoon’s effects, the “hush-hush” here is then echoed later in the collection as a repeated rhyme-word in “Eggs.” In turn, “Eggs” itself calls to mind “The Fridge” from Hay in which Muldoon goes foraging for a bottle of beer in a fridge only to have his three formative teachers emerge from it. In “Eggs”, the mundane activity of putting the shopping away transports the poet to his past and a painful family scandal of alcoholism that was kept “hush-hush” in the not so distant reality of taboo and repression that is the Irish past.
The sonnet “Hedge School” is another perfectly crafted piece and one that also deals with repression and cover up. Here we find the poet trusting to language as a way of deflecting attention from the self and its grief, from the fact of his dying sister to whom the poem is addressed, “Dear sis,” in one breathless and meandering sentence that flows across fourteen lines and four stanzas. The poet’s dynamic thought process has him remembering their great-great-grandmother attending a hedge school, a covert school for Catholics in Ulster, which is then linked to his own daughter now in a present day all-American school learning Shakespeare and Latin (the Roman Empire finding its continuation in the present-day American one with the pointed reference to Guantánamo) as “all past and future mornings” come agonisingly together in mind. Ancestral origins, which go even further back, are also woven in as: “I sheltered in a doorway on Church Street in St Andrews / (where, in 673, another Maelduin was bishop).”
Thus, he runs for cover from unbearable grief by trying to devise a way of “tracing the root of metastasis,” the very word “text”, as Muldoon would know, deriving from the Latin textus meaning “that which is woven”, the text itself as a cover or textile. Tellingly, the word “metastasis”, as well as referring to the progress of cancer in the body, specifically, of course, his sister’s body, is also a rhetorical term meaning a rapid transition from one point or type of figure to another. There is something very profound going on here at the level of language and most particularly through the deliberate scheming of rhyme. Just as the root of the word “metastasis” cannot easily be traced, the spreading cancer, the “metastasis” itself cannot be rooted out either. Furthermore, “metastasis” is forced into rhyming with “dear Sis,” a poignant linkage through words that speaks of an inescapable inevitability in both language and lived experience. It is the mind’s ability to create patterns and connections, to commemorate and recreate, which gives hope and affords some degree of consolation in times of grief as the life of the mind gathers all its myriad resources to go on in spite of death.
Not surprisingly, Muldoon’s poems gain much from being read aloud as the full force of these rhymes, various aural and formal patterns and subtleties of tone come across. Muldoon is ceaselessly attuned to the music of language and his public poetry readings are always vibrant live performances. He is also infinitely resourceful. Indeed, in “The Coyote,” the animal itself (which is of course the trickster figure from Native American mythology) seems an apt figure for Muldoon the poet as characteristically, whether in grief or glee, inventive, mischievous, and evasive. Even more so perhaps “The Outlier” too (an outlier in geological terms is a rock or stone that is found at a distance from a formation of rocks) seems a deliberate self-portrait of the poet, as being an outsider, one set off from the rest. Moreover, in terms of formal arrangement, the cumulative effect of the repeated lines which has each stanza building on the last as another line is added, could also be mimetic of a “rolling stone.” Muldoon, always betwixt and between, and one, to invoke Dylan again, “with no direction home”:
In Armagh or Tyrone
I fell between two stones.
In Armagh or Tyrone
on a morning in June
I fell between two stones.
In Armagh or Tyrone
on a morning in June
I fell between two stones.
Muldoon’s famed playfulness is evident in poems such as “90 Instant Messages to Tom Moore,” a series of haiku text-messages addressed to the nineteenth century Irish song-writer. “The Old Country” is a corona of sonnets built out of outdated clichés of old Ireland, which are humorously exploded through repetition as Muldoon with typical ingenuity mocks such rampant banality in language. On this note it cannot go unmentioned that Horse Latitudes and the Oxford Lectures were followed closely by the publication of Muldoon’s General Admission, a collection of lyrics for the band Rackett in which the poet himself plays guitar. Muldoon’s limitless creativity and verbal dexterity really comes to the fore here, the ludic Muldoon letting loose or “feeling his oats” (meaning, as he tells the reader in his Oxford lecture on Tsvetayeva’s “Poem of the End,” “more than usually rambunctious, capricious”) as in “Right up There” which has Muldoon rhyme “Mussolini” with “Seamus Heaney”, then going on to joke wickedly:
You’re of a piece with Seamus Heaney,
When it comes to digging dirt
Typically, “My Ride’s Here” co-written with Warren Zevon, has among its wide-ranging cast, Lord Byron, John Milton, John Wayne, Jesus, and Charlton Heston and contained throughout are rhymes to rival Dylan. Here’s the speaker as victim of a crazed, terminal case of love-sickness in “Need to Know”:
I used to know why Spenser
Used the archaic yclept
What’s with the drug dispenser
How come I’m being prepped
John Carey once called Muldoon a “pantomime horse” in contrast to Heaney as “Derby winner.” With these Muldoon’s most recent outings, from Horse Latitudesthrough the Oxford lectures to General Admission, the Irish poet proves that the middle stretch need not be bad for all poets as he continues to outrun all of his contemporaries, never to be reined in.[/private]
I appreciated this well-written commentary on Muldoon. It is a shame that more online writers do not emulate this sort of explication.