BOOK REVIEW / Lord of the Red Herrings: 'The Annals of Chile' - Paul Muldoon: Faber, 14.99/7.99
Sunday 09 October 1994
Muldoon himself left Ulster for the US some years ago, and his recent poetry has one foot in the Moy and the world of his parents and the other in North America where he lives (and South America, its more exotic double, where he doesn't). Muldoon began writing short lucid poems about Ulster; now he writes long obscure poems where the world's his oyster. Since taking the plunge with 'Immram', all his long sequences involve increasingly convoluted, hallucinatory and protracted journeys across the Atlantic - 'The More a Man Has', Madoc (his epic shaggy- dog story about the Romantic poets Southey and Coleridge in America) and, in the new book, 'Yarrow', an autobiographical mock-epic that intercuts snapshots from home and New York State with a thousand and one fictions. Imagine Wordsworth's The Prelude rewritten by Thomas Pynchon and torn up into 150 gnomic fragments, and you'll get the general picture.
If Muldoon is the Prince of the Quotidian (the title of a mischievously O'Hara-ish poetic diary recently published by the Gallery Press), then he is also Grand Duke of Red Herrings. The new book's title is a red herring, but then so is almost everything in it. The title refers to a poem called 'Brazil' which begins 'When my mother snapped open her flimsy parasol / it was Brazil: if not Brazil, / then Uruguay', and ends with an allusion to words such as 'withershins' being expunged from 'the annals of Chile'. The shuffle of alternative exotic place names concerns the annals
of childhood, not Chile; recalling his early in-
timations of the Donne-ish 'America' of the
female sex (a 'bracelet of shampoo', not hair, 'about the bone') they refer not to a sub-continent but his Ma. Muldoon puts the 'withershins' back into history.
The book starts with a translation from Ovid's Metamorphoses about the fleeing Leto giving birth on an 'unstable' island, but that is the least of the unstable metamorphic translations with which it brims over. The early poems dwell on the death of his parents and a friend on one hand, and the birth of his daughter on the other, and their shimmeringly perverse wordplay constantly conjures linguistic vitality and fluidity from the fixity of death and single definition. The most beautiful of them, 'Milkweed and Monarch', describes a visit to his parents' graves in Ireland, remembering not them but 'the little pickled gherkin' of a girlfriend in the States. It begins: 'As he knelt by the grave of his mother and father / the taste of dill, or tarragon - / he could barely tell one from the other - / filled his mouth', and that little assonantal chain of mother/ father/other/mouth not only fills the mouth but triggers some dazzling serial rhymes which take us through 'savour', 'palaver', 'Moher', 'samovar' and a misreading of his mother's name 'Regan' for 'Anger', only to return us to him kneeling at 'the grave of his mother and father' again, but now in a way that makes an enrichment of confusion, barely able to 'tell one from the other'. When he writes like this, Muldoon has few rivals among contemporary poets for technical daring or emotional force.
Setting 'one' against others, often many others, is the key to Muldoon's Pandora's box. Mary Powers used to mockingly call him 'Polyester' or 'Polyurethane', he tells us in the virtuoso 'Incantata' dedicated to her memory, and Paul Muldoon's verse always wears its 'Oscaraoscarabinary' artificiality rather than its heart on sleeve. The bulk of the new book is taken up by 'Yarrow', a witty but mind-bogglingly cryptic palimpsest, stuffed with private jokes, nonsense and multiplying allusions to world literature and personal memory. It is Dadaist performance, boy's adventure story, Grail quest, personal memoir, 'withershins' travelogue and mischievous monument to the Red Herring. Eventually, it begins to take shape as a tribute to fertility, to the metamorphic dimension of memory itself. Though full of codes and codology, like the multiplying yarrow of its opening image, it has its roots in his home-patch, in snapshots of his past ('my rocking-horse's halter fast-forwards through my hands') and his parents: 'While my da studies the grain in the shaft of his rake / and I tug at the rusted blade of the loy / my ma ticks off a list / of seeds'. Hunkering on the ramparts of Troy with Wyatt Earp, or listening to Maud Gonne explain the 'San Graal' to Popeye and Constance Gore- Booth, or crouching 'with Schmitters and Arp in the house of Hanover', or watching 'a Spanish Lear' intercut with Michael Jackson on TV, the poet relishes the post-Modern licence to intersplice fact and fiction, and intercutting a hundred alternative narrative-codes with his own history, invent a 'Joycean object, a nautilus / of memory jammed next to memory'.
What this adds up to, I don't know. At the end he invokes a 'poopookarian ignis fatuus' - an image for the poem, I suppose - and this particular Pandora's box is certainly suspect and meant to be. My guess is that, as with Muldoon's earlier sequences, this astonishing antic performance will grow clearer in time, a mock-quest that hides a real quest revolving around a series of elusive female figures from the Sixties femme fatale 'S-' via Sylvia Plath and Morgan la Faye to his mother. You could describe it as 'Geography: The Home Movie', but its playful mapping of multiple textual identities across the site of loss seems to me a hundred times more promising for the future of poetry than Craig Raine's much-hyped and self-hypnotised History: The Home Movie.
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