Poetry Reviews: Paul Muldoon et al.


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By David Gullette

Paul Muldoon is eager to drop dispatches from the front lines of Our Lives Now. This is one of the characteristics that separates him from most of the other poets who write today.

Howdie-Skelp by Paul Muldoon. Farrar Strauss Giroux, 192 pages, $ 27.

Artistic fuse readers may remember I reviewed Paul Muldoon’s book Frolic and Detour last year, and I was delighted that the book contained a few poems “which I deem to be instant classics of English language poetry“. I have no reason to change this judgment. In fact, the publisher quotes my blurb in the razzmatazz of the new book.

Howdie-Skelp is also incredibly varied and full of technical fireworks, husky wit, non-sequence bumper cars, a great collision of images and ideas, but I have to say I like the previous book better. : there are simply more individual poems a careful poetry reader wants to come back to.

Let me start by recording my worry that what Muldoon calls a Howdie-Skelp is when a midwife slaps the newborn baby. face to wake up the lungs of the child and make him take a first breath. Apparently holding a baby upside down and slapping her butt is no longer done, but I can’t find any evidence of a responsible obstetrician saying “Hi” to a newcomer with a skelp. in the face. Do you disagree? Talk to my lawyer.

The new book is full of feats of strength: “American Standard” has fun transforming a dream road trip into a pastiche of “The Waste Land” by Eliot in 15 sections (I hesitate to call them stanzas) on nearly 40 pages. What moves a reader forward? Lots of surreal laughs for one thing: “What’s going on around the ten ton alligator / that can rip your tarmacadam drive / while running on a dime.” (Would it be Dante Alligator?) There is also what you might call “the dabbling of an American performing”, just as half-baked American artists will try to achieve an “Irish performing”. But then we remember that Muldoon, who worked and lived in the United States for many decades, earned his Americanisms. Virgil de Muldoon is a waiter named Virgilio who continues to hover around the poet’s elbow during the journey through a post-modern Wasteland with his pals Tom and Ezra. It’s insanely fun, until it doesn’t, like reading too long a collection of SNL scripts. As in Pound, there are tirades about American politics. Eliot’s “Shantih shantih shantih” becomes “Santee” or “Shandy” or “Shinto” or “Cento”, then “I saw the eternal footman holding my coat and my panties.” Even “David Bowie’s Three-Hull Canoe” can’t get us out of this Drunk English Major chatter quickly enough.

So it’s a relief to slow down with shorter poems, with more modest (but achievable) goals. In “Spring Wagtail,” the poet recalls that his grandfather may have known a lot about the illnesses that plague Clydesdales, “but may not have recognized dementia / as a trait of the Muldoon. Sometimes a phrase / like “Hugh began to worship” will hang over “a family member, like a Clydesdale overloaded with a load of Withies,

“While the Spring Wagtail crosses freshly turned furrows

Is a small boat

Occasionally glimpsed in the trough between storm waves.

It seems to me a perfect display of images: the “rambling” of a loved one who loses his mental aplomb, the enormous horse weighed down by a burden, the little bird moving in the furrows seen as a tiny boat appearing and disappearing. in the waves of an angry sea. Muldoon can do that from time to time: catch you off guard and give you as good poetry as it can get.

Let me rent three more rooms in Howdie-Skelp. “The Triumph” is a long, nine-section poem, a tribute to Irish poet and novelist Ciaran Carson, who died a few years ago (in Boston we learned about it as did a Poets’ Theater tribute to poet Michael Longley and his wife Edna was about to take place at Boston College). Apparently, while battling cancer, Carson loved to treat his friends to the stories of “Captain Chemo”. “Remember,” Muldoon asks the absent Carson, “how you would retire at nine to be one step ahead of your dreams, / dreams as vivid in your everyday life as Easter is to ashes. and to the bag? ”We should all be lucky enough to see Paul Muldoon recreate lives in verse after act five.

Then one of my favorites in this collection, “A Bull”. Thirty-nine quatrains, each starting with the “Everyday” tab, each with their own rigid rhyme scheme: aaaa. That is, the four endings in each quatrain rhyme. Sounds like a recipe for unbelievably tidy boredom, right? No, it’s anything but: Muldoon likes to see how much freedom he can infuse in man-made prisons. Thus, with Taurus an obvious replacement for the poet himself, we find:

Every day put a new spin

About the way he keeps that shit eater smile

Despite his notoriously thin skin.

The quagmire of what could have been.

Or:

Every day plotting how to get revenge

Who trolls him on the Internet.

Under the vapor trails of the jet set

The solidity of its silhouette.

Or:

Every day takes a hit

Of a little shit

Armed with the latest version of lit crit.

The fly always comes full circle in its Messerschmitt.

Every day it seems, rekindling a flame

Against the culture of shame

And his endless blame game.

Every day counter a counterclaim.

And finally, “Plaguey Hill”, a “Crown of sonnets” torn from the headlines (including 15, with slight traces of rhyme) on the theme of the Covid pandemic, with cameo appearances by Andrew Cuomo, Tony Fauci , Dear Evan Hansen, and Dr Ai Fen from Wuhan. Muldoon is eager to drop dispatches from the front lines of Our Lives Now. This is one of the characteristics that separates him from most of the other poets who write today. There will be a lot of surprises along the way, but we can always count on Muldoon to “make something new”.

While I have your attention, allow me to recommend three other poetry books that have fallen on my virtual transom:

Barbara ras came from a struggling Polish-American working-class family in New Bedford, moved west after Simmons, won the Walt Whitman Award for Best First Book of Poems by an American Poet (Bite every sorrow), and has since published and taught widely around the world. University of Pittsburgh Press has just published its best book yet: The blues of the sky, which I cannot recommend highly enough. I would particularly direct you to a poem called “My Big Dream,” which you can read here, if you promise to buy the book.

Scott harney grew up in the Charlestown working class on the flanks of Bunker Hill. He managed to get into Harvard (took the bus there so he could study poetry with Robert Lowell) and met Megan Marshall, with whom later in life he bonded as a partner and lover. When he died prematurely, never having published a poem in any respectable journal, Megan found a treasure trove of poetry among her papers and selected an impressive sample, which Arrowsmith Press published under the title The Blood of San Gennaro. Indulge yourself and get to know this hitherto unknown American poet with the “urban” accent of Charlestown. The Poets’ Theater created a play called MEET SCOTT HARNEY which began to tour the Commonwealth of Nations.

Finally: I met the poet from the Cree Nation (Saskatchewan) Louise Bernice Halfe (aka “Sky Dancer”) at a poetry festival in Italy a few years ago. At the age of nine, the Canadian government forced her to leave her motley family in Le Rez to enter one of these famous “residential schools” run by nuns, the aim of which was to erase all traces. indigenous language and culture of children, and transform them into model (white) Christians. The sexual and physical abuse was horrific (hundreds of children died and were buried in the back) and is one of the themes she explores in Burn in this midnight dream (www.brickbooks.ca). It is poignant poetry, complemented with a few Cry words, that elevates the painful discussions Canadians are having right now as they attempt to face the tragic / criminal history of residential schools. Earlier this year, Louise was named Canada’s Poet Laureate, and the Poets’ Theater is working with Boston-area organizations to bring her to Bean Town next October in time for our own Indigenous Peoples Day.


David Gullette was one of the first editors of Plowshares (Happy 50e Birthday, Plowshares!) And is currently the literary director of the Poets’ Theater.

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