Review: Michael Robbins on Paul Muldoon

When I teach poetry I find I return to Paul Muldoon’s “Extraordinary Rendition,” from his 2011 book Maggot, for these lines:

You gave me back lake skies,
pulley glitches, gully pitches, the reflected gleams
of two tin plates and mugs in the shack …

The first line’s consonance and assonance are nice, but I’m mostly interested in the first four words of the second line: “pulley glitches, gully pitches.”

Muldoon’s the Busby Berkeley of contemporary poetry, his choruses opening and closing like elaborately staged flowers, floating kaleidoscopes of a (sometimes too) clinical precision. A poem in one book will rhyme with a poem in another book published a decade later. The rhymes themselves often out-Byron Byron (Xenophon | fanfaron; quartz | Hertz; Eisenhower | horsepower).

But the proof of “pulley glitches, gully pitches” is that Muldoon’s razzle-dazzle can comprehend subtleties. A mere transposition of initial consonants creates a double rhyme that reveals an organic order. One intuits a natural relation, almost a way of life, as my students can attest. It never takes them long to imagine the kind of person who might need to attend carefully to both the malfunctions of pulleys and the inclines of gullies. A simple point, but an important lesson, I think—in syllabic play, of course, and in sound’s possibilities for sense.

The title of Muldoon’s new collection, Frolic and Detour, is a bit on the nose, for when hasn’t he frolicked while taking the longest way around? He’s in on the joke: in the long title poem, he deadpans, “it’s rare / for me to deviate // from the task in hand,” before lassoing Woodstock to Robert Lowell to The Last of the Mohicans to Sacco and Vanzetti to Peter Pan to Walmart to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. That’s just the first section.

The book’s slight but lovely opening poem, “The Great Horse of the World,” employs end rhymes that again suggest relations as natural as “breeze” and “trees”: horse, stale, heed, pail, feed, coarse, tail. But then we’re off in the weeds with the sonnet redoublé, or heroic crown of sonnets, “Encheiresin Naturae,” whose title, plucked from Goethe’s Mephistopheles, refers to the supposed force alchemists sought to wield with the philosopher’s stone. More specifically, it names the power that joins soul to body, the subject of Mephistopheles’s counsel to a student who takes him for Faust. This prompt, coupled with epigraphs slyly linking the flummery of W. B. Yeats to, uh, the agribusiness giant Monsanto, leads Muldoon to his native Ireland at harvest, with Troubles on his mind. Muldoon’s poems are propelled by association—sonic, metaphorical, historical, coincidental, sometimes private, but usually purposeful: “almost everything had to do with a deal / struck between that famous poet and his spirit board.” This brings Yeats back to Faust, the threshing floor becoming “spirits where they threshed / upon the threshold of this world”; supernatural deals made and broken leading both to World War I and the British occupation. It’s all so, as the young folk say, extra. But that’s Muldoon in nuce, saints be praised.

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I should note that I know Paul a bit, which mustn’t prevent my remarking that at times in Frolic and Detour the poet is merely noodling. It’s easy enough to forgive for grace notes like “The corncrake sounds but one alarm” or “I suppose that, at dusk, / a cartouche might look somewhat like a cartridge.” The fireworks and abstrusity get all the press; they’d be but fustian and frills without Muldoon’s animating vision. Over and over he wins you over:

That smell’s the smell of retting flax
from County Down flax dams.
Some sheets are sewn from old flour sacks
but some are monogrammed.

(Is he channeling the Housemartins?)

Several of the poems wax indignant about Trump (man and metonym), but with a liberal fire I find flickers only faintly (compare the late Sean Bonney’s apocalyptic Our Death, from last year). It’s the simpler pleasures that stick with me—the sonic frolic of “steam-bent wild fig felloes fixed with willow pegs,” the sense reached after a winding detour:

… What a wind whispered in the corn’s ear
back when it was green and silk-fine
had now been made abundantly clear
as the harvest was gathered in …

Pulleys may glitch and gullies pitch, but the harvest is gathered in.


Michael Robbins is the author of Alien vs. Predator, a book of poems, and a book of essays, Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music. His new book of poems, Walkman, is forthcoming.


Book news
The top year-end stories in books and libraries (via industry news source Publishers Weekly) continue to show the effects of consolidation and digitization in the book world. In 2019 the only major competitor to book distribution giant Ingram left the business, and the head of UK retailer Waterstones became the head of Barnes & Noble also. The importance of audio and streaming for the book business were felt in rights struggles between book publishers and audio giant Audible (owned by Amazon) and in a lucrative book-acquisition spree by Netflix. Libraries challenged big-five publisher Macmillan and Amazon over distribution terms for ebooks; publishers fear library ebooks have become “frictionless” and diminished the market for books, libraries argue they already pay a lot for ebooks and library readers broaden the readership. Scholars and librarians continued to wrestle with publishers over open access to federally funded research. Meanwhile Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin joins other public-spirited authors (such as Ann Patchett, Jeff Kinney, Louise Erdrich, Emma Straub, Judy Blume, and Garrison Keillor) in opening a bookstore (in Santa Fe), and publisher Hachette announces that it “will launch a new carton system this year that eliminates plastic and makes our packaging entirely recyclable.” Speaking as a person who receives a lot of books in packages—hurrah. The Los Angeles Times has hired New York books editor Boris Kachka as book critic, signaling a continuing commitment, unusual in the besieged world of daily journalism, to books coverage. And A Passage to India, Desire Under the Elms, and When We Were Very Young enter the public domain as of January 1, 2020.

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