Peter MacIntosh

Swiveling in the Rowlock, with Language on the Loom   

Review of Paul Muldoon’s One Thousand Things Worth Knowing

Hardcover: 128 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

 

In 1854, the curious book One Thousand Things Worth Knowing[1] appeared for the amusement of those willing to gain from such an odd bevy of receipts and recipes, topics ranging from carving ham (there are three methods) to the treatment of ringworm. Beginning with “the Art of Dressmaking,” the book touches upon subjects such as “Diseases of the Hair,” “Warts and Corns, […] How to Cure Them.” Both which seem prerequisites for the chapter on “How to Win a Sweet Heart—[the] True and Only Way.” For the less vain, there’s “On Making Pudding,” “The Art of Carving,” and (my favorite) “The Canary-bird Fancier.” Whether intended or not, the piecemeal provides for the implied reader a flash into the brainstorm behind Paul Muldoon’s twelfth collection—which, yes, exists under the same title.

 

Those who’ve grown accustomed to a poetic that depends upon hunting winds at various altitudes will not be disappointed. We find the skäld[2] still willing to sail off the map as Andrée of Gränna did in an arctic balloon, to suffer what Cavafy considered “the fatal accidents.” With his latest effort Muldoon, at his best, is as difficult as ever. Fittingly, we find he has not only turned up the gain, but invented a few new gears for a language that distends into something like an algorithm:

 

 

In the way that 9 and 3 are a perfect match

an Irish war band has 27 members.

In Barrow in Furness a shipyard man scans a wall for a striking      wrench

as a child might mooch

for blackberries in a ditch. In times to come the hydrangea

will mark most edges of empire.

For the moment I’m hemmed in every bit as much

 

by sorrow as by the crush of cattle

along the back roads from Durham to Desertmartin.

Diseart meaning “a hermitage.”

In Ballynahone Bog they’re piling still more turf in a cart […]

 

 

This comes from “Cuthbert and the Otters,” the skaldic series in celebration of the work and life of Seamus Heaney. By filching from the dróttkvætt[3] form—which similar to Celtic versions goes beyond the demands of Germanic alliterative verse—Muldoon creates a framework that, borrowing from Hopkins, forcibly “selves” into a fragmented though thoroughly singular environ. An environ distinguished for how it turns, as to till, a modernist’s cut of text into post-modernism’s most capacious turf.

 

These eleven lines I’ve taken on loan provide just a fraction of what adds to twenty-seven rime-royal stanzas, the seven-line unit first developed not by "those Danes,” but Geoffrey Chaucer. Such an accommodating unit (like the dróttkvætt of eight lines) provides not only for the planting of sonic patterns at the end, but for the careful dispersion within. It’s true. The ear will find wrench with ditch hemmed every bit as much as hit is to hide. Of course, it is the hind wing of a moth that is first to nod through “a colt born with a curvature of the spine,” which sounds back to the “beehive cell thrown up along the Tyne.” Though, at 189 lines, the heroic lament pales in comparison to Beowulf at 3182, it does not hurt to liken the poem to a marathon. A marathon as Muldoon, in a purgative sense, blazes (much as Pheidippides) an unyielding span that, in itself, recognizes the mettle of Heaney’s life and work.

 

Possibly, the most impressive shift found with the collection stems from how these poems knowingly hold on to some of the cardboard and scaffolding through which they were realized. Furthermore, if we scrutinize the coverpage, it is scaffolding that builds for the playful focal point in what is otherwise a dull rolling plain. In this way One Thousand Things Worth Knowing mirrors the process-driven work of Paul Klee: there’s a lot of cutting up, sounding over, re-purposing of tone and tempo. Much of what allows for this comparison extends to the prosody, how it is purposely pocked and running with lines of no particular length. Structurally, this provides for progressions that, if we think of the switchback, pivot and build off the sidetrack, accommodates for terrain so steep in thought it would cause for Samuel Johnson a fire of the brain if not the belly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] One Thousand Things Worth Knowing: A Book Disclosing Invaluable Information, Receipts and Instruction, in the Useful and Domestic Arts : Everything of which is of Practical Use to Everybody.  Merone & Butcher, 1854.

 

[2] Throughout (similar to my review of Mark Bibbins’ They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full) one will find certain key words (skäld, filched, those Danes, scumbl[ing]) which plait the review to the collection.  

 

[3] It is worth noting that the dróttkvætt may resemble Celtic versions because of the Viking Invasions, a topic that recycles throughout the collection.  Moreover, this particular form could have been introduced with the Norman settlements, which would make for port cities such as Belfast and Dublin.

 

As with “Federico Garcia Lorca: Death,” Muldoon is driven by his own sense of incongruity—we find the horse set upon becoming a dog, the dog a swallow, the swallow a bee; and it’s the bee’s work that levels back to the horse—by the faint rose the horse draws from its beak [sic]. For even the implied reader, such metastasis gives to feeling like a washed-out Hare Krishna devotee (one whom the speaker of “Saffron” spots, nonetheless, “in saffron robe and topknot / stranded at a bus stop”). Accordingly, a first read will leave one a bit overpowered.  For this is a collection that extends from the margins of empire to the confines of a monastery, the time of Marc Antony to Anwar al-Awlaki and the age of the selfie.

Such scope brings to mind Leopardi’s Zibaldone, how Muldoon is able to strike major chords with minor keys and fold events lived into a disquieting range of history. As a result, it’s necessary to pick up on the repetends which recycle throughout to fasten our reading(s). If you’re missing the point, think of these poems as the repurposed walls of Bushwick, Brooklyn, which Muldoon tags with portentous plays (bee dunes, buzz drones) upon the following emblems: honeycombs, honeybees; pine cones, strands of the pine tree; curative herbs and teas—all which one might associate with the well-being of a hermitage or monastery. Read with these tags in mind, one picks up on what it means to pine in the process of grieving—in the way Muldoon is not only mourning the loss of Seamus Heaney, but yearning for a sense of place that will “slit the cloth” of melancholy.

 

While pieces such as “Firing Squad” would suggest Muldoon "as ready to be hanged, drawn / and quartered […] to be shot,” his twelfth collection reveals a poet who is far from cutting out or resigning his spot. Instead, his poetic seems heightened if not charged in wake of being summoned to commemorate the life of Seamus Heaney. Moreover, it’s the poet’s sense of inheritance (‘Heaney, Father / Fair / Enough.’ [4] ) that affords the more subtle movement with the collection’s turn from loss to consolation. This is made clear by “Pelt”—a sharp and acerbic poem of eighteen lines—which, following his ten-page elegy, attests to the strange contentment that comes after the rain, the soil, the grief. It follows that contingent to this turn is transference. Accordingly, we find Muldoon passing what once was given, providing guidance for the few aspirants who’ve followed in step, who’ve cut their poetic beyond the margins so to speak. By tracing over the mishaps of the Lewis and Clark party, “Some Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them,” warns of the dynamite and thin ice that, sooner or later, falls the path of any pioneer:

 

Stratocumulus, or cumulonimbus, the clouds have made such
   strides
in crossing the Rockies
they’ve now caught up with us.

 

It’s no coincidence that the weather pattern, stratocumulus, to begin the piece is itself a harbinger of worse weather to come. Moreover, the speaker builds from this omen to caution a son [5] against keeping "things at face value,” to stress why it is necessary to dig at the root, whether one is checking the box of their ballot or compiling “a camping checklist.”

While there’s no sure-footed way to read One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, one can be assured this is a collection that, following Homer’s Odyssey, pines for home. Whether through the exploits of Leif Ericson or the more innocuous Lewis and Clark Party, the progressions carry back to the Moy; to Contae Ard Mhacha where Heaney first picked up on “the mist-wreathed” promise that, “scumbl[ing] cumulonimbus and stratocumulus,” would give New Weather. The collection which was first to address the Troubles of Northern Ireland through the displacement of “the redskin / and the Palestinian.” Thematically, One Thousand Things follows in step. By flashing back to the Viking invasions, these poems more forcibly address the misfortune brought not only by those Danes, but the Brits and (speaking of legacy) those doughboys of Wall Street. In closing, this is a collection that, at heart, is best conveyed through the duplicity of the hydrangea. While skimmed at its surface, the collection may only imply a heady heartlessness, those who dig at the root will find Paul gives much in being understood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[4] From Seamus Heaney’s “Singing School,” collected in Open Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996

 

[5] To be clear, the review was written with a review copy prior to the actual launch of the book when the poem was dedicated 'to a son.'  With the final published version, Muldoon would attribute his dedication to his very own son, Asher.

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