Ruben Moi
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If ‘the whole poem is more likely to be metaphor than to contain metaphors,’ as Peter Scupham claims of Muldoon’s poems, than ‘Mules’ holds its own with restive figures in his entire second volume from 1977, Mules, just as ‘Hedgehog’ persists as one of the immalleable metaphors from his first volume New Weather.1Mules can be understood as a meditation upon the fusions of poetic language and its many realities, and as a questioning of the outcome of the artistic process and the resultant artefact, whereas New Weather can be read as a metaphoric and metamorphic investigation of poetic language and all its caprice and contexts. The first volume offers harsh conditions, demise, survival, happenstance and serendipity; the second evokes sterility and stagnation of a fated and pessimistic quality. Where a nocturnal and vulnerable but vital animal, the hedgehog, signifies risk of extinction in the debut volume, the cross-bred offspring of jackass and mare with no powers of procreation embodies moribundity in Mules. If many of the poems in New Weather depolarise divisions – linguistic, discursive, cognitive, poetic and political – the verses in Mules are bent on imagining and charting any possible space between binary constrictions.

As a poetic figure these beasts become emblematic of Derrida’s hymen, the postmodernist paradigm of liminality that Edward Larrissy discusses so cogently in Muldoon’s poetry, but Mules, as the alliterative overlapping with Muldoon makes clear, also presents itself as an obvious subjective correlative, an idiosyncratic configuration of prosody and semantic uncertainty in which paronomastic mayhem and language estrangement integrate autobiographical aspects and immediate contexts to offer wide interpretative possibilities.2 Likewise, ‘Armageddon, Armageddon’ implies similar paronomastic confusion by implicating Armagh, the troubled home region of the poet, in the title and lines of this closing apocalyptic vision. Clearly, the strong sense of stasis and termination embodied in the title image stems from the intensifying conflict in Northern Ireland, from the disintegration of Muldoon’s first marriage to Anne-Marie Conway, and from the death of his mother of cancer.3 Yet it also reflects a crisis in Muldoon’s poetic language. The ingravescence from the possibility of death and extinction in most of New Weather to the actuality in Mules exudes a pessimism that reflects upon the conditions of Muldoon’s poetry at the time, not least the functions and effects of his poetic language. In the manner that New Weather introduces Muldoon’s energetic and enigmatic engagements with language and his negotiations with the many claims upon poetic language, Mules continues his obduracy in respect of standard figures of poetry and the familiar dictates of the political, but the point of this recalcitrance now appears darkened and dispirited. The doomed situation of the mules suggests a realisation of and, possibly, a resignation to the possibility that poetic language ultimately might prove incapable of coping with the terror of civil conflict, and the horror of personal loss and bereavement. It is as if the unassailable belief and hope in linguistic solutions and dissolutions in New Weather now, in the title of Mules and the image of the two superimposed mules on the cover of the Faber edition, approach a point of doubt and despair – possibly some sort of Wittgensteinian silence. ‘They end as we end – / Dead in their beds, going round the bend, // In mid-sentence at keys’ (45), states the persona in ‘Cider’ on the ambivalent impasses of roads, life, alcohol and language. This narrathanographic sonnet balances on the brink of demise and departure, a mood that pervades Mules. Its sense of abrupt termination before the sea of silence tends to be more an annulment of ideas of transcendence and posterity, as most of the poems in the book gather great vitality and articulation from acts of splicing and interbreeding. How can the art of poetry renew itself and its relevance in a world of brutal violence and implacable hatred? What meaning can it bring to the disintegration of love and the losses wrought by terminal disease and sudden death? How can the language of poetry, like hedgehogs and mules, plod on through chaos, confusion and morbidity?

Inquiries into language and literature predominate in Mules, from the questions of public rhetoric and metatextual debate of the initial poem, ‘Lunch with Pancho Villa,’ to the apocalyptic debacle of social order and personal relationship in the final ‘Armageddon, Armageddon.’ The first addresses ambiguously the crux of poetic commitment in a time of civic disturbance, whereas the last, much in response to the initial poem, integrates the personal and the cosmic with the public. Meditations in time of civil war carry over, of course, from Yeats’s oeuvre, from the preoccupations of Heaney and many other poets at the time, and from the previous volume, New Weather.4 In a geo-temporal displacement familiar from ‘The Year of the Sloes, for Ishi’ (NW, 44–47), the opening poem sets the stage for these recurrent problems in revolutionary Mexico – a Catholic nation with a war-ridden history and a problematic proximity to an imperial power in the second decade of the twentieth century. Formal specificities sustain the geo-temporal correlations of Mexican-Irish revolutions. On a structural level the two sections reconfigure the divisions of interests on two separate continents, present binary conflict, and capture the second coming of the historical conflict in Northern Ireland. Probably written in 1976, the six ten-line stanzas mark the time span since 1916. If one chooses to date, as many do, the breakout of the of the conflict in Northern Ireland to the Civil Rights marches in 1968, the thirty lines of the second section prophetically account for the years leading up to the Easter Agreement in 1998. In their numerological precision and thematic concerns these lines recount the cultural nationalism of Yeats’s commemorative ‘Easter 1916,’ but in their displaced setting, uneasy ironies and metapoetic considerations Muldoon’s poem unsettles much of the political opinion and cultural sentiment of the 1970s – a mood to which Yeats contributed, but in ways that critics have been unable to agree on.5

Illiterate, and with an equivocal reputation as bandit and murderer, Pancho Villa’s position as the leader of the north in the revolution against starvation and oppression meant that he was soon caught up in local feuds. In Muldoon’s poem, however, the rebel leader figures as a literary superior; ‘co-author of such volumes as Blood on the Rose, The Dream and the Drums, and How It Happened Here’ (11), and a critical mentor to the junior poet who relates the story. Deceptively real, these titles recount with vision and éclat the Romantic imagery of sufferance and martyrdom, ideological militarism and historical justification. This combination of revolution, poetry and literary criticism references by implication such historical revolutionaries as Trotsky and Mao as touchstones, but the bloody rose symbolism points to the poetic nationalism of ‘Roisin Dubh,’ Yeats’s rose poems and, most pertinently, the sacrificial and sanguinary symbolism of the rebel poets, primarily Pearse and Plunkett.6 In an atmosphere of armchair radicalism Pancho Villa advices his attendant poet:

Look, son. Just look around you.

People are getting themselves killed

Left, right and centre

While you do what? Write rondeaux?

There’s more to living in this country

Than stars and horses, pigs and trees,

Not that you’d guess it from your poems.

Do you ever listen to the news?

You want to get down to something true,

Something a little nearer home. (11)

Colloquial tone and a sense of patronage emphasise familial relations between the two comrades in poetry who contemplate their artistic vocation, a plausible enactment of colloquies of poets, for example those of the Belfast Group – tutorials between the undergraduate Muldoon and his tutor Heaney at Queen’s University Belfast or gatherings with other established and aspiring poets in Belfast in the violent late sixties and early seventies, for example, those attended by Michael Longley, Frank Ormsby, Ciaran Carson and Medbh McGuckian.7 On this view, the poem also functions as a subjective correlative. In ventriloquial terms the poem presents the persona as both advisee and advisor – ‘What should I tell this callow youth / Who learned to write last winter’ (13) – and thus evokes Muldoon’s own doubts about doctrinal demands and aesthetic absolutes. Pancho Villa has no time for such personal compunctions; he avers sternly that closed forms of poetry cannot give an account of the dismal situation of geopolitical murders. Rondeaux – stanzaic manifestations of formal circumlocutions – epitomise artificiality and the poet’s narcissistic concern for melody, metrics and prosodic intricacies. Themes and tropes of universal and natural character have to be relinquished for the demands of the immediate agenda and the pressures from several institutions. Amicable and admonishing, the verses re-enact the dual drives of political alliance and artistic detachment, almost a poetic condensation of the debate between Jean Paul Sartre and Roland Barthes, and also contrast rural setting against a more turbulent urban situation – both with multiple twists and ironies.8 Where home might be depends on complex individual lives; that ‘news’ is truer than natural phenomena borders on a lie: ‘stars and horses, pigs and trees’ are as close or distant to homes in Northern Mexico as they are in Northern Ireland. ‘Lunch with Pancho Villa,’ one of Muldoon’s many subjective correlatives, ventriloquises the trespassing of the actual upon the artificial in general, and satirises the public demand for accessible verses and local authenticity. With irony, the poem fictionalises the claims made upon poetry by a guerrilla leader, complaints and caveats not unrelated to Muldoon’s poetry itself.9

Pancho Villa’s claims upon poetry – ‘There’s more to living in this country / Than stars and horses, pigs and trees’ – are not inane or without precedent; they have a long history in Irish and classical literature.10 However, as perennial elements in literature of natural symbolism, ‘stars and horses, pigs and trees’ may not be opposed to the human misery of violence and wars. The combination of rural creatures and vegetation with celestial lights glances tangentially against O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars and this allusion perhaps obliquely invokes O’Casey’s recriminatory prioritising of labour class issues over Irish nationalism and violence and the glorification of revolution. If this allusion is too far-fetched, only a misty-eyed and insensitive reader, perhaps an ideological writer personified by Pancho Villa in the poem, would overlook the linguistic counterpointing of words with private resonance against language of public warfare. Obviously, ‘stars’ is also significant in the senses of personal fortune, individual talent, self-fashioning, military rank, prison status, and the staging of reality and fantasy. ‘Pigs,’ on the other hand, exists as the derogatory term for policemen, all types of human beasts, and the armoured vehicles most used in Belfast during the Troubles. ‘Trees’ evokes ‘Wind and Tree’ in the previous volume, indicates rootedness and family diagram, and well-branched organisations. Today ‘horses’ recalls leisure activity and riot cavalry more than Romantic cavaliers or revolutionary riders. ‘Horse’ is also slang for heroin and indicates the narcotic underbelly of border transactions, guerrilla warfare and internal community policing during the Troubles. ‘Horse’ also invites a wide-ranging play on proverbs, of which a few will serve to illustrate some of the techniques and tendencies in this volume. ‘To horse’ indicates animal husbandry, sexual philandering and exaggerated expenditure in this volume that combines rural life with erotic explicitness and deflations of poetic economy. ‘To look a gift horse in the mouth’ presents in proverbial currency an affirmative sublation of contradictions – the gift, the gifted and the given – in verses in which a prodigious new poet traverses the legacies of literature and history within contemporary conditions and negotiates this terrain with linguistic novelty. Such writing includes the disclosure of affected airs, pretence and arrogance – an intentional prance that clearly also amounts to riding the high horse. Numerous other Trojan horses of poetic dressage and horseplay occur in the course of the volume. Basically, the poems in the volume explore this entire semantic gamut in their infringements of precepts of idiomatic propriety and symbolic appositeness, and in their confounding of linguistic expectations. ‘Pigs and trees, stars and horses’ come to signify a use of vocabulary that does not rest upon its preliminary meanings, and a poetic language that can be as forceful as it can be restive.

That the meditations in ‘Lunch with Pancho Villa’ dwell upon the subliminal space between language and meaning becomes even clearer when philosophical questions clash with the linguistic fabric of the poem:

But where (I wonder myself) do I stand,

In relation to a table and chair,

The quince-tree I forgot to mention,

That suburban street, the door, the yard –

All made up as I went along

As things that people live among. (12)

The detailed delineation of domestic interior and immediate neighbourhood, which seems to be a subterfuge by the acolyte to the imperatives of his senior ‘to get down to something true, / Something a little nearer home,’ actually vindicates the linguistically invented over the physically given. Just as the prosaic matters of street, door and yard deflate the imaginative and the utopian, the invented status of these ordinary objects – ‘all made up as I went along’ – annuls the constructed opposition of the real and the imaginary. These lines highlight poetic deceit and the text’s own constructedness, and suggest that Muldoon’s poetry excels at linguistic artifice, as much as explorations of the interstices between the imaginative and the real, the poetic and the political, the solipsistic and the social, the private and the public, the urban and the rural.

In considerations of Irish literature pertinent to the setting and theme of ‘Lunch with Pancho Villa,’ Seamus Deane assesses Irish culture as ‘neither wholly national nor colonial but a hybrid of both,’ and dwells upon language, landscape and history as the contested sites of this culture in his introduction to Celtic Revivals.11 He sees these fields of dispute as originating in the history of European Romanticism and its congenital emphasis on ‘local attachment.’12 In ‘Pancho Villa,’ Muldoon relocates this Romantic agon via a premeditated distancing enacted through verbal play and historical setting. Although the main issues remain somewhat the same, the Anglo-Irish axis is subjected to other crosswinds. Metatextual considerations and complex adlinguisticity complicate Romantic idealism, and supplement linguistic directness and local attachment with the Spanish-American language differences in the borderlands of Mexico and America at the beginning of the twentieth century. These geo-temporal substitutions reflect upon the conditions of Northern Ireland at the time of the poem’s publication, and perhaps these introductions of co-existent cultures and local attachment in other places at other times also adopt the Chicano communities of the 1970s usa as counterparts to their contemporary communities in Northern Ireland. Historical disputes over language and land, in Ireland recorded for example by the poetry of the dispossessed, are overtaken by hermetic linguisticism and new social agendas in Muldoon’s poem. In this respect, the poem tends to herald Louis de Paor’s Poems of Repossession more than it venerates Kinsella’s anthology Poems of the Dispossessed. Evasive and unresolved, ‘Lunch with Pancho Villa’ proposes a complex meditation at the start of this book and early in Muldoon’s development, a reminder for future volumes that in most of his poems his language is meta-conscious, divided against itself and that, natural imagery notwithstanding, it always relates ambiguously to the political.

Language remains at issue throughout the volume; its course always hard to control and determine, its functions frequently fragile, unsettled and perfidious. ‘What’s the fish-pond to the fish, / Avocado and avocado-dish, / But things shaped by their names?’ (44), asks one poem. ‘We seemed to speak the same language’ (19), another states uncertainly, its past tense telling of the diminishment of communication and companionship. ‘I watched a man sawing a woman in two’ (51), a young boy states in ‘Duffy’s Circus,’ with all the possibilities of illusionary magic, sexual intercourse and blatant murder. The image points to the multiplication of meaning by violent severance of wholesome bodies, for example language and sign, in a volume where the main images suggest incongruous conjunctions and cross-fertilisation, or cross-sterilisation. The uncertainties of the later ‘Blemish’ are presented in undecidable grammar, ‘resting somewhere between a question and a detached subordinate clause’ in Kendall’s words.13 Muldoon’s poetic language expands its own hermeneutic terms of reference by questioning the power of naming, resisting communicative agreement, and by orchestrating polysemantic statements and adopting grammatical hybridity.

Choice of vocabulary contributes to equivocation and uncertainty and several poems conjoin larger discourses that cannot be easily reconciled. However, many of the poems tend to challenge and redirect questions of language from the public domain of ‘Lunch with Pancho Villa’ to a more personal sphere of shock, trauma and disaster. ‘Bang’ illustrates these tendencies. The title sounds the poem’s paroxysm of violence, abuse and energy and its contents traverse the realms of explosion, sexual violation and poetic vitality – all of them, as the title also implies, possibly drug-induced. Revolutionary rhetoric, such as Pancho Villa’s, co-opts heroic subjects and action; ‘Bang’ shifts the focus to victims and damage. The first line shoots down the widespread self-consoling delusion that ‘it never happens to me,’ in a line that also resonates with the empathic powers of artists: ‘For that moment we had been the others / These things happen to’ (50). What has happened is not entirely clear, but the result is devastating and nightmarish:

Our slow coming to in a renovated clearing,

The farfetched beginning to reassemble.

Which of us had that leg belonged to? (50)

The fact that trees ‘look the other way’ and ‘birds were whistling / At the ordinariness of it all’ (50) charges the atrocity with natural indifference and a horrifying sense of triviality. The sudden impact brings back to the persona’s mind a memory from a carnival when he witnessed a priest in a mind-boggling situation:

Beside some girl who had lost an ear-ring,

She moaning the name of the one who scored the goal

Earlier that evening. (50)

Lewd and prurient, the latter episode exudes unbridled desire with explicit and grim hints of molestation. Instant associations of the two atrocities appear to indict paramilitary cruelty and ecclesiastical misconduct alike. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of the two assaults implies that the two condemnable acts might ensue from similar sources: idealism, conviction, hierarchical orders, psychological suppression. But most of all, the poem brings to the fore, in the late 1970s, how the universal rhetoric of military conflict excluded debate of other issues, such as the position of women and the malpractice of religious institutions, important personal and social concerns that have since entered public discourse, sometimes in disturbing and disruptive ways. On an intra-poetic view, the poem reveals how some of Muldoon’s poetic energy arises from a splicing of social trouble and individual trauma – the presentation of sex and violence in ensnaring language and form – amounting to a typical Muldoon signature, despite his own avowals of circumspection in relation to the troubles, and unwillingness to make any ideological commitments.

‘The text of bliss is absolutely intransitive.’14 In his abolition of objective criteria for subjective frissons in the erotics of reading and the pleasures of the text, Roland Barthes brings into full play the unlimited and directionless but absorbing and consuming creative energies of a boundless and non-analytical hermeneutics of heterogeneity. This vertiginous textual solipsism and hedonistic gratification contradict flagrantly any call for revolutionary language and literature, in the traditional sense. Desire, immalleable and fixated, exists in Mules as both motif and motivation. Erotic drives from the ordinary and ecstatic to the lewd and perverse explode and linger in many of the poems. These poems portray falls from innocence – a thematic extension of New Weather, and record sexual encounters of various kinds, many of them unsavoury. Depravity and moral corruption encroach upon human existence and remain a constant threat to a protected childhood and the safety of family and social networks. The intransitive, unbounded and unresolved dominate over the transitive, finite and soluble in the volume.

‘Cass and Me’ reveals stupid behaviour in a brute while it registers at the same time a child’s maturation, in what seems to be a degeneration of innocent child play in to semi-incestuous lechery: ‘Which of us, I wonder, had grown, / Whose were those wide eyes at my groin?’ (18) ‘How to Play Championship Tennis’ (19) records a young boy’s encounter with the beguiling methods of a homosexual pedophile. The closet in ‘The Ducking Stool’ (29) indicates suppressed sexuality and a devastation of the sacred in its ominous allusion to the ostensibly reassuring biblical comfort: ‘In my father’s house are many rooms.’ The ‘narrow wardrobe / Among stinking mildewed foxes’ (30) provides no realm of Lewisian fantasy to the little girl hiding in her grandfather’s rectory, rather it is a locked closet of rot and predation. A mode of ghostly Ibsenesque retrospection occurs in ‘Cheesecake’ – slang for salacious photographs of attractive and scantily dressed women – in which a mother finds photographs of herself in her son’s collection of porn stars. In ‘Ned Skinner’ a raw and ill-mannered dresser of pigs exposes a young child to covetous self-abasement and callousness by trying to impose himself on the child’s aunt with coarse reminders of younger days. ‘Boon’ presents, in Muldoon’s anatomy of warped desire, a rare occasion of ingenuous childhood love. ‘At Martha’s Deli’ does not: ‘So Will had finally broken off with Faith!’ (47). In what is evidently an ironic quip on the belief of William iii in religious wars in this sonnet, free will and religious fate are pared down to a kebab-joint affair. Title and names establish a refined, culinary contrast to the greasy menu – a framework for the tragically precocious young girl’s voracity and the descent from romance to raw brutality: Faith ‘might live only a year.’ The sonnet ends on a gruesome beginning of an affair:

The taste of blood on a greased knife

Whereby she would happily drink herself to death.

She kissed me hard. I might have been her own Will. (47)

Succeeding from an image of the kill of a hunt, the final triplet creates a portrait of a death-driven dominatrix against a backdrop of twisted sexual fantasies and vampirical suicide. Mutilated metrics and violent lyricism reinforce this excoriating presentation of a star-crossed teenage love affair, which undercuts the mature male smugness of Shakespeare’s namesake in ironies of legislation, determination and sexual desire in Sonnets 135 and 136. In response to this male education ‘The Girls in the Poolroom’ (31) are in for a few sessions of social and erotic training in a sequestered male milieu of penned desires. With obvious vulgar play on the terminology of the sport in question and with hints of anal fixation, one of the lines seems to literalise a figure of speech: ‘How could I / But make men of them?’ (31). Allusions to unprocreative sex and a nasty sense of sexual punishment suggest the girls get what they deserve for infringing on the masculine preserve. Helpless, the cool player does not fully master the situation and the urge to masculate the girls might stem from a proto-macho denial of personal feminine traits. Undefeated, Emily, the female counterpart in the poem, proves an equal partner in the power play in her challenging of his frame of mind. Linguistic lasciviousness and libidinous drives to literalise figures of speech spur the exchanges of desire in these lines. A cruder version of the later multisemiotic billiards in ‘Green Gown’ (H 19), this stanzaic sextuplet takes its cue from a game laden with vulgar Freudianism in libidinous permutations of idiom, imagery and sexual identity.

Muldoon’s charting of sexual liaisons at various stages of life is shocking and surprisingly skillful. Concupiscence and sexual curiosity in their many variations belong to adolescent identity formation but the coming of age in these respects does not always include merely felicitous excitement and ingenuous romance. His incisions into the suppressed and unspoken dimensions of family life, community and social sub-cultures are disturbing and they attend to depredations which are excluded from the public eye and which evade legal consequences. The poems are concupiscent, too. The raw and the corporeal displace sublimation and romaticisation in most of these poems with motif and motivation frequently remaining indistinguishable. Erotic encounters cut into the fabric of textual conventions and the penetrant vocabulary serves to disclose the depths of human desire.

‘Big Liz’ presents desires removed from the domestic arena of family and procreation. In her carnal presence and burlesque performance Big Liz, the star of a male chauvinist scene of urban nightlife, enacts dual drives and gender contest in a playful performance. Obviously, the poem stages another erotic encounter, but in the light of Barthesian textuality, Heaney’s critique of Muldoon’s allegorical names and Scupham’s claims about metaphoric poems, ‘Big Liz’ can be interpreted as a very attractive textual piece. Extrovert and outrageous, her performance is poles apart from the timid and cowed woman in the claustrophobic Hitchcockean paranoia in ‘Elizabeth’ (NW 32):15

She opens up before us like a seam,

Stepping back through the hoops

Of flannel petticoats, the grain of trees

To the inevitability of earth. (28)

In theoretical terms, the stage artist eclipses more celestial female abstractions as an impulse to poetic creation. ‘Big Liz’ suggests a very seedy daughter of muses and Mother Ireland, if any relation at all can be found with the standard catalogue of idealised women from Dante to Kathleen ni Houlihan. This secularisation is also seen in the irreverent but dexterous treatment of textual garments from literary ancestors. As for allegorical names, ‘Big Liz’ enacts a sexual and sarcastic send up of Elizabethan virginity and Protestant plantation politics; as an athletic figure of the text, the body artist moves through many lyrical hoops. The acrobatic bending backwards to natural elements and the voyeuristic position of the audience place Heaney’s poetry at the centre of these poetic circles. Feisty, and in strong opposition to moralistic taboos and social censure, the vigour of ‘Big Liz’ challenges the natural elements, the female victimisation and the self-accusatory engagement with the troubles in Heaney’s North. Her stripping and exhibitionist nudity replay ironically Yeats’s disrobing posture in ‘A Coat’ and ‘inevitability of the earth’ traces the rooted inspiration of Irish poetry from Heaney and Yeats back to the romanticism of the Young Irelanders.16 Tempting chimes and enticing enjambments are deployed to evoke lust and longing in this seductive fourteen-line number and the play on ‘collier’ and ‘collar’ recalls the ribald reposte at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s romantic sonnet for the stage. In the poem, Big Liz controls a large audience of men and elicits successfully their enthusiasm, but the protagonist and a collier, weary of each other, respond differently. The collier, perhaps one of the neighbours and previous sweethearts in ‘Ma’ (23) or other poems in the volume, only has an eye for the diamond in the dancer’s navel; the protagonist mainly observes the miner’s reactions. The miner is hypnotised by the lure of an artificial accoutrement in her body, the crystalline refinement of the dusty carbon extracted in his own professional work. With the attitude of a social anthropologist on a mission, the protagonist observes the observer. In a double take on voyeurism, both tend to reflect the positions of a poet mindful of the quality and the reception of his own art. ‘Big Liz’ can be read as a metaphor for poetic activity, but first and foremost Muldoon’s text-tease reveals how his poetry excels in urban frissons that step out of their canonical layers (Gypsy Rose Lee is to enter the same stage in ‘7, Middagh Street’ in Meeting the British), and it also shows how lofty ideas can be dismantled and dressed down by means of poetic form where language is invariably charged but playful and multivalent. In later volumes this libido of language turns increasingly polymorphous and the text-tease develops to divest the layers of a spectacular array of historicism and aesthetics.

In Barthesian terms ‘De Secretis Mulierum’ (43) outstrips ‘Big Liz’ and reveals itself as a truly blissful text: intransitive, insatiable and unbounded. In this poem, hitherto totally ignored in critical commentary, multivalent language and ekphrastic energies reveal unsettled creativity. The lines are seminal with all the characteristics that will later come to full fruition in larger formats and that will attract praise and disparagement alike: allegorical names, colloquial idiom, erudite knowledge, experimentation with sonnet forms, veiled allusions. Yet, to read this poem as a prism for his later spectrality is not to say that it does not contain its own radiance, if not brilliance. Textual secretions, multiple allusions and painterly iconography combine in an orgiastic rupture of proprieties. The title restates the title of a medieval miscellany of writing on female nature, ‘Of the Secrets of Women,’ by a group of religious men, normally and possibly erroneously attributed to Albertus Magnus.17 This academic exercise analyses coitus, conception, the corruption of virginity, menses, the nature of hermaphrodites, monsters of nature, pregnancy and the influence of celestial bodies on terrestrial events. It also includes mules, horses and donkeys in a discussion of natural longevity; topics of nature that overlap with Albert Mangus’s other two treatises, De Animabilus and De Vegetabilus. Muldoon’s poem, in pictorial eloquence, are suggestive of these treatises:

De Secretis Mulierum

They’re nothing really, all the girls I’ve known

With legs up their oxters,

Their hair all blossom and their long bones

Laden with fruit,

Nothing to Harry Conway’s daughter.


Well, she’s the one, if you can make her out,

Whose head is full – no, not of pears, not plums –

But pomegranates, pawpaws. (43)

The Latin title sets as lofty a head note as the chiefly Irish name for armpit, ‘oxters,’ and the deceitful surname, ‘Conway,’ also known from Joyce’s ‘The Dead,’ add an Irish glow to the pretentious bragging of the young womaniser in this voluptuous sonnet. Much less raw than ‘Big Liz’ and other poems, sexual explicitness here consorts with floralimages in what could be pure linguistic delight as much as humorous parody on florid language and romantic imagery. Syntactic craft ensures the irrelevance of former acrobatics and succulent excesses to both partners in the new courtship. ‘Harry Conway’s daughter’ is singled out for affection for her exotic features by the only non-rhyming end word in the poem, ‘out.’ She is, nevertheless, attached to her rivals by biological figuration, but still unique. The poem is pregnant with allusions and linguistic play, targeting especially the works of Albertus Magnus, but Frost is imbricated, too, the orchard has ‘scarcely been touched by frost.’ The opening sexual explicitness denudes the underlying erotics of Romantic organicism, just as the vocabulary – de vulgaris eloquentia – takes the florid imagery for a ride. ‘Tits and bums’ appear in the poem. ‘Tits’ are a far flight from the birds of Romantic imagery: here the tits and bums obviously exude a bum-delighting vulgarity of female attributes, unconventional sexual practice and rough-sleeping loafers.

Infidelities and instinctual drives are pervasive in the poem. A three-stanza sonnet, with irregular metrics and wry linguistics that undercut high-falutin rhetoric in blusterous tones, suggests an orgiastic coupling of old traditions with contemporary linguistic hedonism. Two exclamation marks emphasise this ecstatic euphoria. Within the arena of contemporary poetics this delightful poem relates to Montague’s The Rough Field, the floral fascination in Longley’s poetry and Heaney’s ‘Strange Fruit’ in North. Furthermore, as an embedded clue – ‘if you can picture’ – suggests, the covetous qualities of the poem branch towards yet another discursive partner: the picturesque. The pictorial prowess of the language presents the girls with all the luscious allure of O’Keefe’s flower paintings or as a mockery in written form of Renoir’s intention to paint people like beautiful fruit. The arrival of new love has a touch of Botticelli’s Prima Vera, although her head appears like one of Arcimboldo’s double images. The loaded play on flowers and birds suggests Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, as much as any romantic orchard for courtship. And the sexual position of ‘legs up their oxters’ in the scene recalls the shocking exploitation of tradition in Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. Obviously, countless other works of arts are possible candidates for the ekphrastic intercourse. Ekphrasis, a confluence of the verbal and the visual arts that features as a staple aspect of Muldoon’s poetry, provides a non-linguistic dimension to the language of his poetry.

‘De Secretis Mulierum’ manifests with ‘oomph’ and ‘ooh’ a preference in Muldoon’s poetry not only for desanctified morals and polytextuality, but also for frivolous language. In its passionate allusiveness and suggestive vocabulary, the sonnet demonstrates cross-generic exchanges in multilayered language which engenders multiple meanings and invites free-floating interpretations. An unsettled and, at times, polyvalent language fits well the many sexual encounters in the volume, and their concomitant states of anxiety, fear and, sometimes, delight. It makes perfect sense that such an unquiet and intransive language seeks continuously new forms and objects.

A painting from 1631 becomes the object of linguistic art in ‘The Bearded Woman, by Ribera’ (38). Initiating the technique of the pictorial turn – which in Muldoon’s poetry also includes such poems as ‘Mary Farl Powers: Pink Spotted Torso’ and ‘Edward Kienzholz: The State Hospital’ (Q, 20, 21); ‘Paul Klee: They’re Biting’ (mtb, 32); ‘John Luke: The Fox’ and ‘Anthony Green: The Second Marriage and the unacknowledged ekphrasis ‘Homesickness’ (msg 31, 32, 63); ‘Sandro Botticelli: The Adoration of the Magi’ (Mag, 15) and ‘Charles Émile Jacque: Poultry Among Trees,’ ‘Rita Duffy: Watchtower ii’ and ‘Camille Pissarro: Apple Picking at Eragny-sur-Epte’ in his latest One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (14, 30, 97) – the poem deals with language as much as religious iconography and feminism.18 The painting is not one likely to have been part of Yeats’s pre-Raphaelite imagination, or a candidate for his municipal gallery, and the poem is also left out of Edna Longley’s illuminating essay ‘No More Poems about Paintings?’19 The crossover of the linguistic and the pictorial provides Muldoon with the possibility of exploring the reservoir of his creative forces that extends far beyond the realm of literature, and into sibling arts, such as film, music and painting – arts which are essentially non-alphabetic. But the ekphrastic poem also reflects upon the conditions of language. To present visual arts in poetry, in this case Ribera’s painting, probes representationalist views of language as always inadequate to the visible fact, and challenges the sympathetic adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. As an analogy for the creative act of writing – the emptiness of the white space, the clashes of representation and imagination, the tugs of tradition and innovation, the concerns for form and technique, the questions of framing – the ekphrastic poem reflects upon the conditions of language in a different mode.

‘The Bearded Woman, by Ribera’ takes the Spanish painter’s portrait as a point of departure for exploring family constellations and the borderlines of gender – dominant topics in the volume which also echo linguistic features. In this poem Muldoon’s libidinous language captures aesthetic rapture: ‘I’m taken completely / By this so unlikely Madonna’ (38). The other woman in the poem, ‘swigging a quart of whiskey,’ is also strong-willed and captivating; clearly, the women in the poem ‘beard it.’ Their dominant position in the poem is buttressed by the consequent feminine rhymes of the first stanza and the literality of cliché innovation marginalises the man: ‘With what must be her husband / Almost out of the picture’ (38). In linguistic terms the inversion of gender balances hints of the nature of language also, how language, despite all its arbitration and contingency, tends to be male dominated, as argued in the works of Parisian feminists such Kristeva, Cixous and Irigaray, and as woman in the title so appositely divulges.20

The naming of the French capital of post-structuralist philosophy in the title of ‘Paris’ (40) serves as a pointer to the drives of much of Muldoon’s linguistics, and for this particular poem’s treatment of deracination, identity and exile – all typical Muldonic themes – and for the poem’s language play that is stylistically enhanced in the later ‘The Bangle (Slight Return)’ (H, 109–140). The title is even more indicative of the poem’s para-onomastic play on names and semiosis of provisionality. The rapt referentiality of ‘Paris,’ in which the overlapping of initial plosive and vowel with Paul indicates an alphabetic connectivity with the author (and hence another subjective correlative), establishes a multidiscursive site between Pancho Villa’s Mexico and the apocalyptic illocality of the final ‘Armageddon, Armageddon’: the private and the personal vie for dominance with the poetic and the public. Allusions to the judgment of the Homeric hero, and to the unrequited lover of Shakespeare’s tragedy, bode ill for the romantic dinner. The onomastic plurality parallels the revaluation of the fleeting personalities of two lovers:

All the people we have been

Are here as guests …


A last shrimp curls and winces on your plate

Like an embryo. ‘Is that a little overdone?’

And these country faces at the window

That were once our own. They study the menu,

Smile faintly and are gone. (40)

Veterans of their own entanglements and exhausted by their own relationship, an adolescent version in many ways of ‘The Mixed Marriage’ (42), they see likenesses of their earlier days in the passing pedestrians. An unsavory image ‘shrimp – like and embryo,’ hints at abortion and the self-referential question relates as much to the choice of image and the nature of the poem, as to their own melodrama and the preparation of the food. The restaurant setting, unattractive menu and their lack of appetite see the couple ensnared in an atmosphere of poor taste, lassitude and estrangement. ‘Chicken Marengo! It’s a far cry from the Moy,’ the poem exclaims, in subconscious subterfuge that has several implications. Playing on polarities of cosmopolitans and culchies, the exasperation alludes to lack of courage and rectitude, with concealed textual ironies. ‘Caulfield is supposed to have designed it [the Moy] on the principle of an Italian town, Marengo,’ Muldoon explains.21 Exiled in France, the couple is unaware that they were also deracinated at home. In Paris the squabbles over the shape of the table during the peace discussions of the Vietnam War frame the couple’s negotiations:

The world’s less simple for being travelled,

Though. In each fresh, neutral place

Where our indifferences might have been settled

There were men sitting down to talk of peace

Who began with the shape of the table. (40)

With echoes of the meditations upon table in ‘Pancho Villa,’ of Virgil’s unfinished epic The Aeneid, and on the Vietnam war, when peace negotiations in Paris commenced with elaborate preliminary discussions on the shape of the table, ‘Paris’ renders in onomastic polysemy, semiotic shifts and intertextual convolutions the complexities of home, love and life.

In contrast to the many poems of erotic encounters, ekphrastic allusions and effervescent language, ‘Ma’ (23) offers a sober and solemn elegy to Muldoon’s mother, to whom the book is also dedicated: ‘for Anne-Marie.’ Alliteration, Lawrentian ambience and familial relations link the poem to ‘The Mixed Marriage.’ The poem contributes to the redressing of gender balance in this book, and suggests, perhaps, a hidden frame for Heaney’s elegiac sonnet sequence for his mother in The Haw Lantern, ‘Clearances.’ It can also be regarded as a response to ‘The Waking Father’ in New Weather, and to the many father figures in poetry at the time.22 ‘Ma’ draws a positive and less contested portrait of the mother, although it is far from romanticising the materfamilias. The diminutive of endearment, the conversational tone and the feminine rhymes portray the mother as the centre of everyday family affection – a contrast to the Madonna in ‘Our Lady of Ardboe,’ the iconic lady in ‘The Bearded Woman, by Ribera,’ and to the many unconventional members of her sex who populate the book. ‘Old photographs would have her bookish,’ relates the mother ambiguously to the pornographic snapshots in ‘Cheesecake’ and the literate school-mistress in ‘The Mixed Marriage.’ Yet the mother is presented as vernal and vital in a series of pictures of premarital romance and domestic tranquility. In one photo a weeping willow forecasts the sorrows of her wake; in another, premarital romance extends memory, hesitantly, beyond the birth of the chief mourner, in intimations of his own biological serendipity. A cut-off line marks her death and the many run-on lines in the verses evoke the continuance of her spirit. The dash of compound words, ‘yellow-hammer’ and ‘story-telling,’ also infuses a broken unity to the poem. ‘And the full moon swaying over Keenaghan’ (23) bestows a benevolent light upon the wake, but also hints of an indifferent universe. The moon ‘thins to a last yellow-hammer, and goes’ (23) in a gradual installment of night-riding sorrows and pangs of grief. A final descent into the hardships and dangers of mines denies any sense of apotheosis, transcendence or divine comfort:

Old miners at Coalisland

Going into the ground. Swinging, for fear of the gas,

The soft flame of a canary. (23)

Bereavement and loss are configured as a constricted and sombre space to be filled by the survivors. The bird signals the inadvertent convulsions of grief and lethal explosions of pain in a community stricken by sorrow. Personal grievance is magnified by this unsentimental transition to images of a moribund industry. Commemorative but unsentimental, the linguistic sensibility of ‘Ma’ reveals Muldoon’s ability to transpose personal emotions into high art, a sublimation of sorrow that continues in the extended and complicated elegy for his mother ‘Yarrow’ (AC 39–189), and which also characterises the mesmerising threnody for his partner Mary Farl Powers, ‘Incantata’ (AC 13–29), and reaches its apex in the monody for his stillborn child, ‘The Stoic’ (msg 37).

The many contrasts in the volume, of the public and the personal, of the earthly and the heavenly, of the political and the poetic, come together in the title poem. Despite the human and linguistic darkening powerfully evident in the mule metaphor, the initial rhetorical question of the title poem sets a note of optimism by implying a felicitous union of disparities: ‘Should they not have the best of both worlds?’ (52). Detached, the initial line, one of Muldoon’s many obliquely self-referential comments, pertains not only to the interbreeding of animals, the complex nature of people, and the many spiritual and secular dimensions of human existence in Northern Ireland and elsewhere; it also pertains to the nodal position of poets, not least Muldoon’s own position, as well as the incongruity of poetic artifice and the compound qualities of language. The biological creatures in the poem are lent cosmic significance – ‘the star burned in our mare’s brow’ – a fabulous image of cosmic and biological mystery. As providential bodies smitten with religious insignia – ‘Would Parsons’ jackass not rest more assured / That cross wrenched from his shoulders?’ (52) – the animals embody a mixed ancestry of the celestial and the terrestrial and these mixed registers combine the carnal pull of animal procreation with biblical allusions, and with associations of human brandishing and punishment. The two neighbours controlling the covering share some of the animals’ excitement, a fact silently noticed by the child of one of them: ‘I watched Sam Parsons and my quick father / Tense for the punch below their belts.’ Wonders of copulation recede to be replaced by melancholic meditations upon the future conception of the helpless and sterile foal, in lines where the syntax commingles the immediate past with the foreshortening of a distant future: ‘It was as though they shuddered / To think, of their gaunt, sexless foal.’ Finally, the conception of the hybrid beast becomes a fantastic vision of paragliding, in which the placenta is beautified as a silk parachute with archetypal associations of fall from grace overwriting the autochthonous element: ‘We might yet claim that it sprang from earth / Were it not for the afterbirth / Trailed like some fine, silk parachute, / That we would know from what heights it fell.’ The copulation and marvellous birth are poised in a state of limbo and the volume’s many contrary forces of the human and the beastly, the immanent and the transcendent, the feminine and the masculine, the ideal and the real are evoked. With less emphasis on the personal than the public, the poem interacts with the iconography, bipartition and language of its immediate context.

The sterile offspring of a male donkey and a female horse embodies the many dividing lines of heritage, and the distinctions of culture and gender in a hybrid state like Northern Ireland. As a durable work beast of mixed pedigree with strong biblical associations, the mule comes to symbolise the volume’s concerns with the Christian and pagan traditions, the crossings of the metaphysical and the mundane, and the traversal of rural and urban borders. Likewise, the mule imagery is equestrian and involves also the contestation of the feminine and the masculine. Possible interpretations are multiple, but the implications of this interbreeding are not a naïve embrace of cultural diversity and communal integration; rather they appeal to a recognition of difference as a prerequisite for peaceful co-existence. Stark Darwinism undercuts cultural dissemination and confronts humanist optimism, since the product of interbreeding the two genera of the same family can no longer reproduce itself. Sterility is the consequence of intercourse.

Muldoon’s comment, that the poem stems from a newsreel from the Korean war showing ammunition-laden mules paragliding over the battlefield, emphasises his bifocal rendition of the local situation, as does his statement that he ‘was trying to explore these lives that couldn’t quite reproduce themselves, and that were sterile in themselves.’23 In the socio-political crisis at the time, such war-inflected pessimism subsumes a resignation over the disintegration of dialogue in the stern face of violence. If ‘The Year of the Sloes, for Ishi’ in New Weather responds obliquely to Bloody Sunday, the sinister lessons of ‘Mules’ could be seen as a response to the Ulster Workers’ Council strike that brought down the power-sharing proposals of the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974 and to the failure of the Nobel Prize-winning Peace Movement in 1976, the demise of both of which instilled an irrevocable sense of the relentless logjam in the communal and sectarian strife in the North. The murderous seventies also saw the gruesome savagery of the Shankill Butchers and loyalist paramilitaries, ruthless ira campaigns and implacable state militarism. In this context, the ending of the poem in midair – in a state of suspension – alludes to this pervasive pessimism, but nevertheless issues more from a mindful recognition of communal difference than a resignation to the hopeless instransigence on all sides.

‘Mules’ encapsulates the mixed nature of the volume, and recognises its varied literary ancestry with self-reflexive qualities. ‘You might as well affirm the existence of mules, and deny that of horses and asses,’ Plato argues before the court and Muldoon’s choice of metaphor also acknowledges the split nature of his literary ancestry.24 Aesop’s fables provide a miscellany of stories on mules and asses as well as horses and ‘Mules’ erects a counterpoint to Muldoon’s own consistent horse imagery. As a figure of the poetic, the hybrid animal counterbalances his own equestrian power and purity, which run from ‘Dancers at the Moy’ and ‘The Radio Horse’ in New Weather through Mules up to and beyond Horse Latitudes, with mulish stubbornness and cross-fertilisation, just as ‘the star burned in our mare’s brow’ poses an obvious retort to Pancho Villa’s myopic categorisation of ‘stars’ and ‘horses.’ The mulishness of the poem also confronts Yeats as the equerry of lyrical gallantry, and relates ambiguously to Heaney’s early poetry.25 ‘Mules’ descends from Yeats’s equestrian tropes and high-riding ascendancy spirit, and poems such as ‘Tom at Cruachan’ and ‘Leda and the Swan,’ but it recasts the whole animus of his cultural nationalism and the Revival, as well as much of his metaphysics and gender configurations. Similarly, Muldoon’s poem relates ambivalently with the farmland fauna and organicist poetics of Heaney’s early poetry, and reconfigures his literary tropes of antithesis in ‘Hercules and Antaues’ and, as with the Yeatsian legacy, brings together a similar combination of communal commitment, afflatus and gender. As the homophonic linkage of name with Muldoon suggests, ‘Mules’ also functions as a subjective correlative for the author himself. As a transporter of cargo across geographical frontiers, cultural boundaries, literary traditions and linguistic distinctions, ‘Mules’ embodies Muldoon’s hard work on splicing geo-temporal localities, apparently contrary concepts, and the rational and imaginative qualities of language, in this volume, as in the previous one and in those to come.

‘Mules’ also suggests the nodal position of language. While the mule metaphor captures the volume’s conceptualisations of inbetweeness, it also indicates the restricted space between language and referentiality, between the sign and the referent, between the signifier and the signified. Metaphorically, the hybrid animal concretises the middle stance of poetry between verisimilitude and virtuality, and issues a subtle caveat to too literal-minded interpretations – quests for linguistic clarity and logical lucidity which ignore the slide and slippage of language. The word mule also designates, for example, Samuel Crompton’s 1779 machine for yarn spinning. This mule, which conjoined the techniques of Arkwright’s woof-machine with Hargreave’s hand-jenny, recalls the industrial tradition of Northern Ireland, particularly its textile production of linen, and looms large as an obvious metaphor for the weaving of new texts by innovative techniques based on established means of production, a mechanical undercurrent to the biological flow of the poem. Furthermore, mule, in the sense of a slipper or light shoe with an open back worn especially by women, wrings from the word a sense of femininity which suits the balancing of feminine and masculine feet in the verses, and the gender struggles in many of the volume’s poems. Words continuously mule their own meanings in Muldoon’s poetry, in their linguistic restiveness and semantic shifts. ‘Mules’ contains a warning against the settlement of transparent language and hermeneutic literalism.

The impurity of the mule metaphor finds its counterpart in Muldoon’s images of incongruity – centaurs, merman, bearded woman, blemish – and in his ekphrasis and blending of genres, his mongrel idiom and his coupling of discourses. ‘The Merman,’ an obvious hybrid relative of mules, manifests the volume’s tendency to conjoin and confront disparate worlds and discourses in a language that never finally confirms and confines. Kendall is right in reading the poem as ‘a powerful parable of sectarian societies.’26 However, the sonnet’s dream logic, its topology of sea and land and its self-conscious enactment of the Latin versus – the ploughing and turning of lines of poetry as much as farmland – resonate with the artistic undulations of fantasy and veracity, the linguistic dilemma of free-floating signifiers and representationality, and the many choices of form. Similarly, ‘The Mixed Marriage’ shifts its semantics from the religious and socio-political divisions the title immediately evokes to negotiations of parental differences and the two traditions of agriculture and education: ‘I flitted between a hole in the hedge / and a room in the Latin Quarter’ (42). With exultant humour, ‘Largesse’ splices the religious and the ribald, the spiritual and the sexual – ‘numberless cherubim and seraphim / Alleluia on my prick’ (44) – in a voluptuous appraisal of gastronomic, erotic and poetic appetites, and a rejuvenation of the old scholastic dismissal of angelology. The film-noir-ambient ‘The Country Club,’ as the private eye’s name Lee Pinkerton indicates, conjoins the poetry of Robert Lee Frost with Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which is, significantly, associated with crime mystery writer Dashiell Hammet, in what is as much a poetic plot as a murder mystery. In ‘Epona,’ which evokes the myths of the Gallo-Roman goddess of horses, matters of personal relations or artistic struggle assume priority over religious, political and historical battles, in a sexually charged language. In the imagery of alpine expeditions, ‘The Rucksack’ maps the poetic process of tracing the textual tracks of literary forerunners, and the rediscovery of your own tracks in the work of somebody else – an interesting figuration of Bloomian anxiety of influence. ‘The war has been over’, ‘these thirty years’ (41) in ‘The Narrow Road to The Deep North,’where a Japanese soldier appears from the woods in an evocation of Basho’s life and poetry, a forerunner for ‘The Point’ (H 10), and a not exactly subtle allusion to the status quo of poetry in the wars. ‘The Big House,’ one of the poems in the collection criticised by Heaney for being a hermetic puzzle poem, enacts the genre well known from Yeats’s poetry and from novels by Edgeworth, Bowen, Farrell and numerous others.27 ‘The Centaurs,’ a miniature of ‘Madoc – A Mystery’ (Mad 13–261), triangulates in its beastly and human symbolism the religious fervour of the colonial discourses of the Romans, the Spanish and the British. ‘Keen,’ in the sense of Irish funeral song and in all its meanings as adjective, activates the tradition of Eibhlín Dhubh Ní Chonaill’s ‘Lament for Art Ó Laoghaire.’ Muldoon’s version emphasises the female role in the drama, foregrounds private grief more than political conflict, and points directly to its origins in the Gaelic language tradition, ‘after the Irish’ (24). All these texts illustrate that Muldoon’s language is always also an intertextual one; each and all of his poems are placed in a literary context, whether this context is made explicit, as here, or left somewhat less specific.

‘Armageddon, Armageddon,’ continues from the final poem in New Weather Muldoon’s consistent trademark of ending each collection with a longer complex poem that incorporates and further develops many of the volume’s intricate strands. This seven-sonnet sequence, perhaps a week’s diary of troubles, responds to the claims by Pancho Villa in the opening poem, incorporates many of the concerns and styles of the preceding poems, and ponders upon the effects of poetry and language. In its response to the peremptory proclamation of Pancho Villa, this poem’s ambiguous treatment of the immanent and the transcendent, the local and the cosmic, the public and the personal and the actual and the artistic, does not articulate a downright declaration of independence; rather, it develops and differentiates the principles of Villa’s fiat. To some degree, it presents in poetic form a transition from historical materialism, class struggle, revolution and committed literature in Marxist theory, towards radical critique, emancipatory promise and enquiry into cultural identities, while utilizing a self-aware aesthetics. This tendency also includes views of language: Pancho Villa advocates a language subservient to political purpose; the final poem maintains that language, particularly poetic language, can never be directly foreclosed.

‘You want to get down to something true, / Something a little nearer home’ (11), demands Pancho Villa. Parts of ‘Armageddon, Armageddon’ read like a guided tour of Northern Ireland; yet, the verses also question local allegiance, and, as the title reveals, cast local place against apocalyptic eschatology. In its biblical allusions the title echoes religious beliefs and grand rhetoric pertinent to Northern Ireland and beyond, but Armageddon also subsumes Muldoon’s birthplace Armagh – borderland, bandit country and war zone from 1923 to 1998. ‘I’m very interested in the way in which a small place, a parish, can come to stand for the world,’ Muldoon says, in a logic well established in Irish poetics since Patrick Kavanagh’s famous ‘Epic.’28 Public matters in a local place are projected onto a larger dimension, as are the personal vicissitudes of divorce and his mother’s death. The elevation of individual anguish and social conflict to the ultimate annihilation of the world exaggerates the scales, but this catastrophic magnitude reveals the sense of endless despair concerning the volume’s treatment of personal loss and civil war.

Thematically, stylistically and linguistically, the final poem reports back to Pancho Villa’s peremptoriness. Villa demands direct recording of revolutionary acts in terms of ‘news’ and people ‘getting themselves killed’ (11). ‘Armageddon, Armageddon’ juxtaposes social injustice and political violence with personal trauma, as well as actuality and political slogans with myth and literary allusions. Although poems in this book observe Villa’s condemnation of ‘rondeaux,’ they otherwise show a great flexibility of form that both questions and confirms Villa’s implicit repudiation of poetic artifice. The final series of verses are transgressive of the traditional sonnet form, a poetic strategy that reflects radical revisions of established conventions, but also a form that reflects disintegration. ‘Armageddon, Armageddon,’ as most of the poems in the volume, challenges Villa’s limited understanding of language.

A linguistic trick, Larry Durrell’s ‘Snow-White Villa’ (53), at the start of the first sonnet bridges the poem with ‘Lunch with Pancho Villa,’ and alludes to ‘The Big House’ and the ‘bougainvillea’ of ‘The Country Club.’ ‘Mouse Island,’ as its national tricolour of ‘white villa,’ ‘orange’ and ‘olives’ indicates, puts Ireland in its place in the cosmic scales and undercuts with great irony any aggrandising self-pity, whether of the personal or the national kind. Durrell dubbed his most famous work, The Alexandria Quartet, an investigation of modern love – an apt reference for the journey of the couple in this text too, perhaps the same couple as in ‘Paris.’ ‘Spitting the stars,’ the sonnet ends, an obvious retort to Pancho Villa’s limited definition of the term, in an ambiguous inflection of supplication, fellatio and linguistic confabulation. This kind of intralinguistic and intratextual referencing marks the sequence, and adds a sense of typical Muldonic closed circuit surveillance to the closing poem.

The verses of ‘Armageddon, Armageddon’ tone down marital disintegration, but they exude political antagonism, family strife and local setting. ‘Lambeg drum,’ ‘Orange Lodge,’ and ‘No Surrenders’ (55) beat with the pulse of sectarian division. Family members have lost their voice, have been subjected to violence, and are in the final throes of death: ‘Our mother bent-double / Over the kitchen sink … We would bury her when we were able’ (58). ‘Ireland’ (54), ‘Derryscollop,’ ‘Clovenden’ and ‘Armagh’ (55) designate nation and location. These actualities are balanced by allusions to the life and literature of Lawrence Durrell, Baudelaire, W.R. Rodgers and Swift, and to the myth of Oisín. A specific stratum of linguistic contemplation can also be detected throughout the verses.

However much the linguistic finesse of the final sonnet series references its immediate time and place, it also refers to its own beliefs and doubts about language. The whole volume asserts, in response to Pancho Villa’s directives, the right to write about ‘stars and horses, pigs and trees’ (11), although the meanings of these words are continuously reconfigured in a critique of Villa’s limited understanding of them. ‘Armageddon, Armageddon,’ aptly teases out the meanings of the word ‘star.’ The stars being spat in the first sonnet, possibly by a mundane spéirbhean, heavenly woman, are of a very indeterminate nature. The return of both Oisín and the persona to Ireland (54) is cast within the cliché of a star falling to earth. The line ‘Why not brave the Planetarium’ (55) introduces, with earnestness and irony, scientific star-gazing. The journey of the two lovers is not written in the stars: ‘Our tickets / Ratified by their constellations’ (56); on the other hand, sonnet five inscribes daily life in the signs of the Zodiac. Traditional use of figurative star imagery presides over the final verses, when on a dark and fearful night, the persona extends his compassion to a beetle crawling along his palm:

My hand might well have been some flat stone

The way it made for the underside.

I had to turn my wrist against its wont

To have it walk in the paths of uprightness. (59)

The extension of sympathy to an insect, which is a most likely target for violent extinction by human hands, poses a compassionate contrast to the prevailing sense of individual difficulty, civil outrage and religious perdition, and is indicative of a non-violent empathy forged outside the spheres of military command and religious fundamentalism. The dexterity that redirects the beetle’s downward course gestures towards the importance of changing perspectives, perhaps by a poet’s hand. This faint glimmer of hope at the end of the apocalypse provides an unassuming vision of poetry and language; how little its vital importance matters on the great scale of things, and how a little twist, of a word or of phrase, can result in a radical change of outlook, and, possibly, change in the course of events.

If the question of aesthetic detachment or communal commitment directed the negotiations and affiliations of poets in Northern Ireland in the mid 1970s, Muldoon questions in Mules that very question. The hybridity of the animal symbolises as much, as does the idea of Muldoon himself as a mule carrying baggage between different traditions and across various boundaries, whether those between the poetic and the political, or those between Yeats and Joyce, between members of the Belfast group, or those internal ones in language per se. Muldoon’s subjective correlatives in Mules – Mulerium, Merman, Mixed Marriage; Paris and Paul; Armagh and Armageddon – contribute to the questioning of the responsibilities and representations of poetic language by blurring the distinctions between the public and the personal, the factual and the fictitious. A semiotic mongrel in itself, the title moves beyond natural imagery and religious iconography, literary reference and equestrian tropology and tropes of transport and industrial metaphors to reveal a type of spliced and stubborn linguistics. Unsurprisingly, then, this offspring of an ass and a mare points to linguistic contraband and to layers of lewdness, utterly ‘other’ word definitions, flights of fancy, line-wise syntax and cross-generic form, and to all those moments when language and poetry are not at one with themselves. If the maximisation of the instability of form, syntax and singular words, as that of the single letter, is a feature to increase dramatically in later volumes, it exists already in Mules. Juvenile and juicy, ekphrastic and onomastic, clear and contradictory, this language splices and shifts, combines and confronts. In Mules, Muldoon’s poetic language offers resistance to the many commands that impinge upon poetry with words that continuously mule their own meaning.


Peter Scupham, ‘Learning from the Landscape,’ Times Literary Supplement, 1 July 1977, 80.


Edward Larrissy, ‘Muldoon’s Betweenness,’ English 54, no. 209 (2005), 117–133.


Published in 1977, the volume responds to the inferno of appalling violence and social disintegration in Northern Ireland. The preceding five years saw the highest death tolls, the upheavals of the Ulster Workers’ Council Strike and the terrors of state militarism, paramilitary murder campaigns and indiscriminate tit-for-tat sectarian killings. See Paul Bew and Gordon Gillespie, Northern Ireland: A Chronology of the Troubles 1968–1993 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1993); David McKittrick et al., Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children Who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles. 2nd Revised Edition (Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 2004); Robert Kee, Ireland. A History (London: Abacus, 1997); Martin Dillon, The Shankill Butchers: A Case Study of Mass Murder (London: Arrow, 1989). For biographical information, see Kendall, Paul Muldoon, 7–24; Wills, Reading Paul Muldoon, 16–18; Holdridge, The Poetry of Paul Muldoon, 1–9.


In the wake of the shock of the Easter rebellion Yeats ruminates most profoundly on the theme of art and war in The Tower (1929), but ‘The Man and the Echo’ in Last Poems (1939) recounts how the dilemma of political engagement and aesthetic concerns haunted him at the end of his career. Such concerns were inescapable to most poets in Northern Ireland during the recent conflict. ‘How should a poet properly live and write? What is his relationship to be to his own voice, his own place, his literary heritage and his contemporary world?’ Heaney asks famously in, Preoccupations, 13. The Catch 22 of aesthetics and ethics configures the cornerstones of his essay collections: The Government of the Tongue (1988), The Redress of Poetry (1995) and Crediting Poetry (1995). Most poets grapple with the same dilemma, see for example Eavan Boland, ‘Creativity,’ The Irish Times, 13 August 1970, 14; Michael Longley, Causeway: The Arts in Ulster (Belfast: Arts Council of Northern Ireland, 1971), 9. Derek Mahon and Muldoon also discuss the predicament in interviews: Eamonn Grennan, ‘The Art of Poetry,’ The Paris Review 42, no. 154 (2000), 150– 178; Haffenden, Viewpoints, 136–137. Frank Ormsby tends to capture accurately the entrapment of the artists throughout the Troubles: ‘It is arguable that any poem by a Northern Irish poet since 1968, on whatever subject, could be termed a Troubles poem, in that it may, consciously or unconsciously, reflect the context in which it was written.’ A Rage for Order: Potery of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1992), xviii. For a selection of volumes upon which the Troubles impinge, see John Montague, The Rough Field (1972); Padraic Fiacc, The Wearing of the Black (1974); Seamus Heaney, North (1975); Michael Longley, An Exploded View (1973); Paul Muldoon, Meeting the British, (1987) and most volumes by Ciaran Carson, particularly The Irish for No, (1987) and Belfast Confetti, (1989). The hermeneutics of violence predicate much of the critical discourse, see for example ‘The Poetry of War’ and ‘Poetry and Politics: 1970s & 1980s,’ Part 2 and 7 in Fran Brearton and Alan Gillis, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Lisa Fitzpatrick, Performing Violence in Northern Ireland (Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2010); Danine Farquharson and Sean Farrell, eds., ‘Shadows of the Gunmen’: Violence and Culture in Northern Ireland (Cork: Cork University Press, 2008); Edna Longley, Poetry in the Wars (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe books, 1986); The Living Stream: Literature and Revisionism in Ireland (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1994); Clair Wills, Improprieties (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993). See also Denis Donoghue, ‘The Literature of Trouble,’ in We Irish (California: University of California Press, 1986), 182–197; Peter McDonald, ‘Poetry, Narrative, and Violence,’ in Mistaken Identities: Poetry and Northern Ireland (2000), 41–81; Dillon Johnston, ‘Violence in Seamus Heaney’s Poetry,’ in The Cambridge Companion to Contemporary Irish Poetry, ed. Matthew Campbell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 113–133.


Infamously, Conor Cruise O’Brien blames Yeats for the ira bloodshed in Northern Ireland in ‘Politics and the Poet,’ The Irish Times, 21 August 1975, 11–12. Seamus Deane points to the ‘pathology of Irish unionism in Yeats’ and states: ‘Yeats provided Irish writing with a programme for action. But whatever its connection with Irish nationalism, it was not, finally, a programme of separation from the English tradition.’ Seamus Deane et al., Ireland’s Field Day (London: Hutchinson, 1985), 49. Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson and Edward Said lend support to Deane’s claim in Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1990). ‘The man to beat is Yeats,’ Dennis Donoghue retorts in respect of the political debates surrounding Yeats’s poetry. Deane et al., Ireland’s Field Day, 120.


For Pearse’s poetry and the rhetoric of sacrifice and martyrdom, see his poems and Eugene McCabe’s introduction in Dermot Bolger, ed. The Selected Poems of Padraic Pearse (Dublin: New Island Books, 1993). See also Joseph Mary Plunkett, The Poems of Joseph Mary Plunkett (Dublin: Talbot Press, 1916).


See Brian Croxall and Rebecca Sutton Koeser, ‘What Do We Mean When We Say “Belfast Group?”’ Belfast Group Poetry,; Heather Clark, The Ulster Renaissance: Poetry in Belfast 1962–1972 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); ‘The Belfast Group: A Symposium,’ The Honest Ulsterman, no. 53 (1976).


Sartre argues for social responsibility and thematic importance in What is Literature and Barthes emphasises language, form and textuality in his ripostes Writing Degree Zero and The Pleasure of the Text (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, [1973] 1990).


‘“Lunch with Pancho Villa” is a poem in which the old pamphleteer is upbraiding the protagonist in the kind of way that I might be upbraided,’ Muldoon states in his interview with Haffenden, Viewpoints, 138. Heaney upbraids Muldoon as the distant master of evasive involvement – a poker-faced player of orange and green cards in ‘The Prenatal Mountain: Vision and Irony in Recent Irish Poetry,’ 36–53. William Scammel also thinks Muldoon is too elusive in ‘Mid-Air Street? Review of Meeting the British by Paul Muldoon,’ The Irish Review 3 (1988), 144–146.


A striking example of this discussion is to be found in Daniel Corkery’s Hidden Ireland. In his delineation of the decline of the Gaelic poets of Munster, almost a pre-Foucauldian corrective to the historian Lecky’s The History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century, Corkery clearly outlines some of the problems with the use of metaphors of stars in literature. In a discussion on stars and the poets of the dispossessed, such as Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, Eoghan Ruadh Ó Súlleabháin, Corkery writes:

‘They were all oppressed by great trouble of mind and heart. To quote Montaigne: “Anaximenes, writing to Pythagoras saith: ‘With what sense can I amuse myself in the secret of the stars, having continually death or bondage before my eyes?’” For at that time, explains the essayist, “the kings of Persia were making preparations to war against his country.” In the case of our poets, the Persian was no longer at the gate; he had broken in, conquered, and was now dividing the spoils. It was, indeed, no time for contemplating the stars. The charms of natural things, so intimately a part of the consciousness of the ancient Gaelic singers, were hidden from them as in a mist of sorrow.’ Hidden Ireland (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, [1924] 1967), 183.


Deane, Celtic Revivals, 11.


Ibid., 13.


Kendall, Paul Muldoon, 50.


Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, 52.


Heaney has two reservations about Mules in his overwhelmingly positive review: ‘The hermetic tendency has its drawbacks, however, and leads him into puzzles rather than poems – at least, that’s my response to some of the work here as ‘The Big House’ and ‘The Ducking Stool’; and when in different poems we find girls called Faith, Grace, Mercy, and a boy called Will, our patience with the mode gets near to the breaking point.’ Heaney, Preoccupations, 213. See also Scupham, ‘Learning from the Landscape,’ 80; Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text.


The ‘artful voyeur’ of Heaney’s ‘Punishment’ is well known, as is his championing of the chthonic element in North, imaged in the battle of Antaeus and Hercules that frames the first part of that collection. ‘For there’s more enterprise / In walking naked,’ Yeats famously declares in his quest for originality. William Butler Yeats, Collected Poems (London: Picador, 1990), 142. In a celebratory revaluation of the Celtic Revival, Yeats recounts in ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’: ‘John Synge, I and Augusta Gregory, thought / All that we did, all that we said or sang / Must come from contact with the soil, from that / Contact everything Antaeus-like grew strong.’ Ibid., 369. ‘To foster public opinion and make it racy of the soil’ runs the well-known slogan of the Young Irelanders. For the ideas and tradition of the Young Irelanders, see Malcolm Brown, The Politics of Irish Literature: From Thomas Davies to W.B. Yeats (Sumas: BF Communications Inc., 2000). For a critique of the tendency to locate the roots of Irish poetry and literature in Romantic ideas, see David Lloyd, Anomalous States (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993).


For a translation of and commentaries on De Secretis Mulierum, see Helen Rodnite Lemay, Women’s Secrets (New York: The State University of New York Press, 1992).


For elaborate projects on the sister arts in Ireland and Northern Ireland, to which Muldoon contributes together with a panorama of poets and painters, see Malcolm MacLean and Theo Dorgan, eds., Leabhar Mor: The Great Book of Gaelic (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2002); Adrian Rice and Angela Reid, eds., A Conversation Piece (Newry: Abbey Press, 2002). For theoretical expositions of the pictorial turn, see Mieke Bal, Reading ‘Rembrandt’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); James A.W. Heffernan, Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).


Longley, The Living Stream: Literature and Revisionism in Ireland, 227–252.


Julia Kristeva, Revolution in the Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia University Press, [1974] 1984); Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of Medusa,’ Signs 1, no. 4 (1976); Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (New York: Cornell University Press, [1974] 1985).


Haffenden, Viewpoints, 131.


Edna Longley: ‘When did you last see you father’ in The Living Stream, 150–172.


Ted Hughes and Paul Muldoon, Ted Hughes and Paul Muldoon: Faber Poetry Cassette (London: Faber and Faber, 1983).


Erich H. Warminton and Philip G. Rouse, eds., Great Dialogues (New York: Signet Classics, 1999), 433.


For Yeats’s horse imagery, see for example ‘At Galway Races,’ ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,’ ‘Easter 1916,’ ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ and ‘Under Ben Bulben.’ Louis MacNeice attributes Yeats’s equestrian vein to his aristocratic tendency: ‘In pre-War years, however, before the Irish burnings, he was still pinning his faith to the Big House, and preferring to ignore the fact that in most cases these houses maintained no culture worth speaking of – nothing but an obsolete bravado, an insidious bonhomie and a way with horses.’ The Poetry of William Butler Yeats (London: Faber and Faber, [1941] 1967), 97. For Heaney’s horses, see for example the beginning of Door into the Dark (London: Faber and Faber, 1969).


Kendall, Paul Muldoon, 47.


Heaney, Preoccupations, 213. Some famous big house novels are: Maria Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent (1800); Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September (1929); J.G. Farrell, Troubles (1970). See also MacNeice’s comment on the Big Houses and ‘hollow aristocracy’ in Yeats, ‘these houses maintained no culture worth speaking of,’ in footnote 25 above. Deane claims Yeats as the genius and originator of the Big House tradition: ‘The survival of the Big House novel, with all its implicit assumptions, is a tribute to the influence of Yeats and a criticism of the poverty of the Irish novelistic tradition.’ Deane, Celtic Revivals, 32.


Muldoon in interview with Kendall, 1981, 130–131.

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