Books: The Sunday Poem

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work; 4. Paul Muldoon

Ruth Padel
Sunday 13 December 1998 01:02 GMT

The undisputed, quintessentially post-modern master: a Northern Irish Catholic teaching in America, with incalculable influence on all British poets under 50. Seven collections, combining deep lyricism with complex comment on history, politics and art through playfully virtuoso technique. The range of reference can seem abstruse but the prize-winning Annals of Chile has openly personal poems about birth and death. This is the title-poem of his fourth collection.


How often have I carried our family word

for the hot water bottle

to a strange bed,

as my father would juggle a red-hot half-brick

in an old sock

to his childhood settle.

I have taken it into so many lovely heads

or laid it between us like a sword.

An hotel room in New York City

with a girl who spoke hardly any English,

my hand on her breast

like the smouldering one-off spoor of the yeti

or some other shy beast

that has yet to enter the language.

This poem compares male sexuality and language. Both begin as private ("quoof"), but - especially for Catholics - are "red-hot", "hot water" issues: something you "juggle" in bed (like dad), carry "into" woman, or wield to keep them at bay. With girls you cannot talk to, it becomes a "shy beast": a word which has not "entered" language they cannot speak. Its metaphors ("sword", "spoor") echo each other. One is a weapon; the other, a footprint of something which may not exist, "smoulders" like that original hot brick. "Yeti", the abominable snowman (hardly warm, therefore) suggests how strange, and cold, "strange beds" can be. Language and sexuality may be intimately alienating, abominable: a not-yeti, which "has yet" to appear, as "quoof" has yet to "enter" English, the breast- touching poet "has yet to" enter the girl. Verbal mastery is exploring sexual tentativeness.

The first stanza radiates "our" comfortingly shared experience. "Juggle" (suggesting uncertainty) is answered by "settle" (suggesting security); "red-hot" (suggesting danger) by "old sock", suggesting trusted continuity. Its two last lines change things. If they stood alone, the stanzas would be equal length. Joined to the first stanza, they make the poem asymmetrical: sexual adventuring begins ambivalently in the family, growing awkwardly from it. "Sword" rings back to "word": language and sexuality belong together, part of male armour. As what warms also burns, so language communicates and separates.

The poet enters a New World of uncertainty. His punctilious "n" before "hotel" contrasts with the unpunctilious follow-up: that "one-off" hand, suggesting "one-night stand". (One night, and he's "off".) Presenting sexuality as a strange, shy, possibly non-existent creature (like the title-word), the poem holds back from moral, emotional conclusions. Muldoon often seems a "difficult" poet. This poem is about poetry's big difficulty: making the private public.

c Ruth Padel

'Quoof' is taken from Paul Muldoon's New Selected Poems 1968-94 (Faber)

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