Chapter 10 Horse Latitudes

In: Paul Muldoon and the Language of Poetry
Ruben Moi
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‘Presto: we are in the horse latitudes of language, from which we’ll never get out,’ critic William Pratt writes of Horse Latitudes. His reservations echo clearly Jameson’s treatise, The Prison House of Language, and critique of Derrida’s philosophical project as a vortex of adlinguistic reduction.1 His comment also reveals that Muldoon’s poetry is as language-focused as ever, and that commentators have become increasingly sensitised to the language of Paul Muldoon’s poetry. Muldoon’s tenth volume of poetry from Faber and Faber in the year he added the European Prize for Poetry to his extensive list of awards, 2006, continues the prominent interest in the functions, inconsistencies and complexities of language. The familiar subject matter of sorrow and despair and of Adornian existential crisis is still in evidence; the volume delves into cancer, death and war. The ambiguities of ‘keeping that wound green’ from Moy Sand and Gravel (3), in the sense of cultivating or curing crisis and trauma, with particular connotations of Irish issues, suggest one of the recurrent threads of this volume too. Questions of how to tackle and overcome individual crisis and public catastrophe prevail in the volume. From war on the very first page through disease and massacre in the following poems, the volume traverses a full gamut of woes: personal, social, political, historical and medical. This latter medical realm of adversity finds expression in pathological terminology, from ‘Hypersarcoma’ (a tumour-related bodily excrescence) to ‘mesotheliomata’ – Muldoon’s coinage for the stigmata of malignant tumour of tissue, especially lungs and abdomen – on the last page. This time Muldoon’s sister is incorporated in the catalogue of death by cancer – ‘In Memory of Maureen Muldoon 1953–2005’ – as is his friend and fellow artist Warren Zevon, who died of pleural mesothelioma in 2003. Thematically, the verses include consideration of individual love and loss in the contexts of violence and war, and they commemorate family and friends while also, on occasion, reverting to Irish matters. Personal pain is always placed in a wider perspective in poker-faced avoidance of unchecked emotionalism, nostalgia and self-pity. Concerns of Ireland and America are always balanced by a larger world, which also suffers from pain and affliction.

Muldoon’s language is nevertheless fresh in form. How to construe the longer units of langue remains one of the main guiding principles for this volume. Perhaps the sentence, in all its protean powers, runs even more smoothly now, and assumes ever more variegated contours of symbolic significance. Sentence-specific exhortations still decide prosody and composition, and augment the hermeneutic range. Some of the turns are new, some of them are established. How does the careful construction of sentences that reflect their own composition augment the individual poem’s significance? ‘The Outlier’ composes its own sentences with Euclidean logic and precision. How far can a sentence be stretched in a single poem while still retaining sense and cohesion? ‘Tithonus’ runs a single sentence across 28 lines. ‘Turkey Buzzards’ employs a single sentence for over 100 lines in 25 quatrains. How short can a sentence be and how many sentences can you compress into a few lines? Many of the haikus in ’90 Instant Messages to Tom Moore’ include sentences, number ‘iii’ possibly seven – a sentence minimalism that mirrors the sonnet minimalism in the Sunlight Soap italicette in ‘The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants’ (Q, 62). Haikus operate as prison cells for sentences and the instant messages series resembles another Muldoonesque alterrative, almost a Madoc in haiku form, an intergeneric splicing of Japanese minimalist form with the entangled narratives of Tom Moore’s art and life, and Muldoon’s own literature and life. If the Sunlight Soap italicette in Quoof remains the microscopic test cell for empowering the sonnet tradition by ultimate poetic economy, the traditional Japanese form offers similar artistic motivation. In far less space. Muldoon’s three-line stanzas contain a number of sentences that run from one to seven, depending, naturally, on the definition of the sentence. If ‘sentence’ is defined along the standard lines of words in connected speech and writing that express a single thought between one full stop and the other, then haiku ‘iii’ includes seven sentences that tend to place themselves ambiguously across the ordinary categories of discursive functions from declarative and interrogative to imperative and exclamatory. The thought that Muldoon serves some sentence even though he is now free and no longer a prisoner, as the lines in ‘Two Stabs at Oscar’ (msg, 65) imply, also informs and illuminates Horse Latitudes. One-sentence sonnets – ‘Starlings, Broad Street, Trenton, 2003,’ ‘Now Pitching Himself Like a Forlorn Hope’ and ‘Hedge School,’ – appear again with their own compositional logic; ‘The Coyote’ turns a sentence over six tercets and a large number of one-sentence stanzas also occur. Striking refrains and repetitions characterise ‘At Least They Weren’t Speaking French,’ ‘Flags and Emblems,’ ‘The Outlier’ and ‘The Old Country.’ Several poems continue the turning of the sentence: ‘Flags and Emblems’ starts with a wh-sentence and retains an interrogative stance, ‘Tithonus’ and ‘Hedge School’ start with a negative clause. Numerous poems start with clauses and phrases of all kinds, anything but a full sentence. An incessant exploitation and questioning of diverse modes of poetic language – rhymes and rhythms, form and prosody, idioms and vocabulary, sentence and syntax – are characteristic of the volume as a whole, together with a refined capacity to prise open the hermeneutic possibilities of language variation in larger contexts. Such critical reviewing of the very medium of art maintains the connection between Muldoon’s language and the many contexts with which it interacts. His incessant auto-critical creativity also retains ethical responsibility, and bears sentence upon self-glorifying and self-exonerating discourses.

The man, who according to fellow poet Michael Longley can rhyme a cat with a dog, continues his aural extravaganza with ‘circus / Sargasso,’ ‘radiator / off-roader,’ ‘other / weather,’ ‘of palm / salaam’ (26), ‘undies / Sundays’ (38), ‘lieutenants / pennants’ (56), ‘raw recruits / parachutes’ (63) and ‘Izaac Walton / Coast subaltern’ (97).2 Decisive couplets, narrative haikus, deft tercets, complex quatrains, refined roundels and resourceful villanelles complement the reign of metamorphic sonnets. Sound and structure are paralleled by numerological specificity. ‘90 Instant Messages to Tom Moore’ (53–76) overlaps in numerological structure and intratextual technique with the 90 tercets in ‘Sillyhow Stride’ (95–107). ‘The Old Country’ portrays familiar ground in a series of thirteen sonnets, an obvious numerological and formal combination of misfortune and love. Furthermore, despite its rejuvenations, the strings of solid rhymes, clichés and proverbs in this poem serve as a template for jaded spirits: ‘Every resort was a last resort / with a harbour that harboured an old grudge. / Every sale was a selling short’ (39). The poet who once renovated the status of cliché – ‘Yes, well clichés are clichés for very good reasons. There’s a hell of a lot in them’ – has a field day with linguistic, conceptual and national clichés that exploit the span between satire and seriousness that the serioludic ambiguities of ‘keeping that wound green’ opened up in ‘Hard Drive’ (msg, 3).3 Interwoven simile, used with such force in his earliest volumes, reappears in protracted form in ‘Eggs.’ A formidable formal dexterity, vocabulary beyond the Oxford English Dictionary, linguistic questioning, impossible rhymes, contextual awareness, intrapoetic orchestration and a final crescendo are some of the staple standards Muldoon has set for his own art from the very beginning. Verses also thrive on semantic confusion, for example over the beans and instruments of flageolet (69–70). Synonyms abound, for example ‘weasel,’ ‘whitrack’ and ‘whitterick’ in ‘The Old Country.’ Muldoon still masters the myriads of possibilities that language can draw from, but in Horse Latitudes, like in Moy Sand and Gravel, there tends to be more of a drive towards the polished and the constructive than towards the pitfalls and more deconstructive aspects of language.

Many critics comment on the language of Horse Latitudes, both with admiration and in less favourable terms. Jason B. Jones notes that in his ability ‘to infuse the most arcane language and strictest forms with urgent meaning, Muldoon unleashes the innovative force of repetition.’4 Langdon Hammer follows suit in his review, which pivots upon the discussion of the serious and ludic qualities of Muldoon’s poetry, and concludes: ‘In Anglo-Saxon “silly” meant “blessed,” and “sillyhow” is an archaic, probably Scottish word for a holy caul, or mask. Muldoon’s wit and wordplay can be seen as that, a mask. Is he really serious? Yes indeed, but readers will keep asking the question, as they still do of Jonathan Swift and James Joyce.’5 Pratt – the critic who finds himself and everyone else entrapped in ‘the horse latitudes of language, from which we’ll never get out’ – on the contrary, is far more critical. He notices the American features and the alterrative tendencies in the volume, and condemns its linguistic solipsism: ‘Muldoon mimics American slang and mixes it with literary allusions in a hash of colorful, unquotable pastiche, full of verbal echoes, a series of non sequiturs without beginning, middle, or end.’6 James Fenton, who thinks there is a way out, at least for the poet, recognises the subtleties of Muldoon’s language, and acknowledges with reservation his involvement with human wretchedness:

Accustomed as we sometimes are to smile at the brilliance of his verbal transformations, his attention to every slightest syllable, his alertness to the opportunities offered by rhyme and form (‘Form is a straitjacket in the way that a straitjacket was a straitjacket for Houdini’), we may sometimes wish this escapologist had not so swiftly nipped out through the bathroom window but had stayed around a little longer. He is, after all, in this volume, asking us to share in great distress.7

Helen Vendler, Heaney’s champion in America who once stated of Muldoon ‘that his lyrics were impressively constructed but too often had a hole in the middle where the feeling should be,’ now writes that he ‘seems to me a more convincing poet now than he was 10 or 15 years ago,’ and that ‘he has been able, in his finely maintained tightrope act, to bear aloft both grief and playfulness.’8 Fran Brearton notes the volume’s trans-Atlantic outlook, comments on its resourceful use of language, and draws attention to a much–ignored component: ‘Horse Latitudes, for all its “play,” is therefore also a deeply political book.’9 Muldoon himself offers some explanations of the political dimension of the book in didactic terms that also elucidate some of the technique of the title poem:

I started the sonnet sequence ‘Horse Latitudes’ as the U.S. embarked on its foray into Iraq. The poems have to do with a series of battles (all beginning with the letter ‘B’ as if to suggest a ‘missing’ Baghdad) in which horses or mules played a major role. Intercut with those battle-scenes are accounts of a ‘battle’ with cancer by a former lover, here named Carlotta, and a commentary on the agenda of what may only be described as the Bush ‘regime.’10

These reviews tend to testify to a gradual understanding of how Muldoon’s original, estranged and frequently shocking insights into the human condition in his poetry are predicated upon language. They also constitute a considerably more profound hermeneutic engagement with his language beyond the binary of linguistic levity and thematic seriousness that has dominated has dominated much reviewing and dictated the terms of the critical debate, although it is very clear that some commentators are still delimited by this mentality.11 Strangely, only one of the critics, Brearton, connects this volume to the immediate contexts of contemporary political discourse and current wars. This instant recognition of the volume’s immediate relevance comes natural to the author of The Great War in Irish Poetry and ‘Poetry and the Northern Ireland Troubles.’12 Muldoon’s explicit explanation, like previous ones, for example the one on Bloody Sunday as a political backdrop for ‘The Last of The Sloes, for Ishi’ in New Weather, also reminds readers of how Muldoon’s poetry always relates to immediate contexts of political contention, ideological combat and the tragedies of war, no matter how tangential his imaginative leaps and unconventional language might appear. Indeed, his ludic quality, which ‘swerves away from any form of poker-faced solidarity with the political programmes,’ and his capacity to defy poetic and prosodic gravity in ‘the poetic equivalent of walking on air,’ often tend to delude many critics of the serious qualities of his language-oriented poetics.13

Direct comments by Muldoon on the political connections of his poetry are rare. Probably, Muldoon’s explicitness on Bush and the Iraq war was prompted by the limited and most likely new readership of his art edition for Enitharmon Press, Medley for Murin Kuhr, in which ‘Horse Latitudes’ was first published.14 Possibly, Muldoon’s outspokenness is a reflection of his involvement with an American society where direct statements and vociferous declarations hold a position that was almost unthinkable in the guarded and coded exchanges and the mentality of muteness in Northern Ireland at war – the situation articulated so precisely in Heaney’s ‘The Ministry of Fear’ and ‘Whatever You Say Say Nothing.’ Muldoon’s revelatory and informative explication ties his poetry directly to the war in Iraq. His words also demonstrate the importance of language, and explain some of his technique and thematic choices. Moreover, they set up one specific structure of hermeneutic possibility that tends to reduce more than it augments interpretation. Such directness occurs from time to time in the volume too. Nevertheless, the title and the poems in this volume, like its language – an inseparable double harness – retain a strangeness and restive force which are sufficient to resist and break through many of the imposed directives, including those of the author.

Horse Latitudes, a rather rare nautical term, emphasises Muldoon’s focus on language and trans-Atlantic exchange. In the language of nautical meteorology, ‘horse latitudes’ designates a sphere close to both sides of equator – between the doldrums and the trade winds – that is characterised by calm waters and light winds. Sometimes the ship was conveyed by strong currents despite the lack of winds. On some occasions sailors had to jettison horses in this zone to lighten the ship’s load and in order to preserve limited supplies. On occasion, seamen carried out the dead horse rituals in the same regions, by flogging an effigy of a horse and throwing it overboard, to celebrate the end of their initial period of labour for seamen’s wages and the day they would actually start earning money. These horse latitudes capture forcefully current issues of trade and cultural exchange between continents, and serve as an image of the complex condition of globalisation. Images of horse-loaded ships also recall the times of Columbus, conquistadors and conquest, a time when these ships were as much vessels of war as of trade and transport. From the perspective of language and literature, the subtropical latitudes provide wide seas of semiosis and significance for a volume on the crossings of culture by a Hiberno-American poet. One of the many latitudes of the title implies a dimension of self-interrogation into the export value of an increasingly world-renowned poet in his fifties with hoof prints firmly indented on the paddock of contemporary poetry. Since Muldoon’s emergence from the disturbances in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, his move to the United States in 1987, the continuous crossings of the Atlantic ever since, and his rise to fame over the last three decades, one might ask: does he need to discharge some of the vital cargo of his poetics, or change the track of his established course?

Horse Latitudes also invokes many-layered horse idioms, of which ‘hobby horse,’ ‘horse play’ and ‘to flog a dead horse’ spring instantly to mind in relation to the poetry of a rider who has turned by turns from a form of linguistic bareback to a more sober type of linguistic dressage. Horses run wild across the whole terrain of Muldoon’s artistic career. From ‘Dancers at the Moy’ and the enigmatic ‘The Radio Horse’ in New Weather, via the bestiary of Mules, to the speaking horse head in ‘Gathering Mushrooms’ in Quoof and to ‘At the Sign of the Black Horse, September 1999’ in the previous volume Moy, Sand and Gravel; in these examples, horses trot, gallop, jolt and bolt, flexing the muscles of artistic, erotic and linguistic force. Most memorable, perhaps, are the shifting horses in ‘Why Brownlee Left’ and Bucephalus, the speaking horse of that restive enigma, ‘Madoc – A Mystery.’ Certainly, the title points to wider horizons, and to artistic licence and liberation. A full range of poetic powers are in evidence including Swiftian satire and Tolstoyean alternatives of narration. The ostranenie of Russian Formalism is one mode among others which makes use of the imaginative powers of horses and the alphabetic constructions of language in order to defamiliarise ourselves from ourselves – in the style of Swift’s Houyhnhnms – for the sake of better acknowledging the widespread folly and inhumanity of humankind. The choice of George Stubbs’ Mares and Foals without a Background as the cover illustration to Horse Latitudes recalls Muldoon’s many ekphrastic poems and the painstaking research that his artistic anatomy entails, first and foremost his equestrian exactitude. Similarly, the allusion to the song with the same title by The Doors on Strange Days hints at Muldoon’s (earlier) rebellious attitude at the the musical culture which is part of his own writing, particularly ‘Sleeve Notes’ in Hay, and at his lyrics in General Admission and The Word on the Street. If the rock reference seems abstruse, it is, however, surely deliberate by the lyric writer and intermittent guitarist for his own garage rock bands (The Rackett, Wayside Shrines and Rogue Oliphant) and the text writer for some of the late album tracks (‘My Ride’s Here’ and ‘Macgillycuddy’s Reeks’) of Warren Zevon, Muldoon’s friend and the subject of this volume’s final elegy.

Naturally, the beasts also inhabit this volume. Morin Khur, ‘the thoroughbred of Mongolian violins’ (89), discloses the significance of horses to the volume’s aesthetic architecture and polished language: ‘The sound box is made of a horse’s head. / The resonator is a horse skin. / The strings and bow are of horsehair.’ The instrument stems from the carcasses of ‘a body-strewn central square’ (89). ‘Medley for Morin Khur’ constitutes a composition cold and passionate as carnage in its transposition of atrocity and massacre into art and melody. In its crystallisation of cruelty into blinding beauty and deafening musicality, the poem not only works as a defense of poetry, it also postulates that the song of suffering is as valuable as airs of romance. The poem’s powerful poignancy and apprehensive aestheticisation captivate the reader and draw her/him into the wrangles of war and writing.

This apotheosis of the horse works as a counterpoint to the riding, whipping and horse play that appear throughout the volume. In all their multiple meanings, the horses also work as beasts of language throughout Muldoon’s oeuvre. They belong to the same linguistic bestiary as the ‘Hedgehog,’ Mules, the yeti and shy beasts in ‘Quoof,’ ‘Pangur,’ S – and the whole school of eels. ‘A bit like an eel – this equestrienne’s whip’ runs a line in ‘Alba’ (26), almost as a self-referential note on how Muldoon splices genres, forms, imagery and language as if drawing himself away from standard categories and selfsameness, and from a uniform use of language. In one of the poems in Horse Latitudes, ‘Glaucus,’ the Corinthian king, has trained his horses so well for battle that they cause his own demise: ‘Glaucus was still on such a roll / it was lost on him that the high point of the games / was his being eaten now by his own mares’ (91). The King of Corinth’s war ambitions have caught up on him. His own secret weapon, the war-crazed horses fed on human flesh, causes his own death and destruction. The image is as shocking as it is striking in its evocation of the international arms trade. Seemingly, the lines resonate with nightmarish self-observation. They certainly illustrate horrifically the artistic powers of letters and language, and the battles with language in the poetry of Muldoon.

The polyvalent power of the horses also suggests strongly how the many beasts and birds in this book shiver and soar with artistic power and poetic flight. The poematic inquietude of ‘Hedgehog’ (NW, 27) and the parabolic admonitions and ‘moral for our times’ in ‘The Frog’ (Q, 29), two poems that also record the recalcitrance of language and reference, prepare the ground for many of the poems in this volume.15 ‘Turtles,’ another Muldoonian image for people and processes in Northern Ireland, reveals uncannily the crossings from one condition to another, the changing climate from war to peace in Northern Ireland, and hesitates over the processes of recovering the disappeared. The ancient reptile also indicates how language can change from sliding smoothly to crawling slowly or ending up hopelessly on its own back in different environments. The squid in ‘The Landing’ metaphorises the amphibian condition of military and civilisatory operations on foreign strands, the double standards of their justification, and the doublespeak of spurious explanation of their conduct in the field. The squid can also be regarded as a symbol of syntax; how the many smaller tentacles that grab their sustenance and glide through the seas unite in a larger body. ‘The Coyote’ and the dog in ‘Now Pitching Himself like a Forlorn Hope’ retain a deep sense of ‘a dog’s life’ and ‘dogs of war.’ They also suggest antagonistic aspects of language and the ferocious struggle for supremacy in the spheres of politics and media, not least in questions of social welfare and international armed conflict. Beasts in this volume slouch in and towards B-cities and other locations. Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Muldoon’s bestiary is how his poems incessantly present bestiality as inseparable from humanity. They are constant reminders of the human potential for cruelty, mercilessness, atrocity, massacre and unfathomable inhumanity amidst the formidable conviction of benevolence, compassion, magnanimity, solidarity, altruism and unquenchable philanthropy to which his poetry also testifies.

‘Horse Latitudes,’ the titular sonnet symphony of historical bloodshed and death by cancer, confirms Muldoon’s fascination for syntax and the alphabet, and his strategy to engage with the larger discourses of international politics, in this case ‘the agenda of what may only be described as the Bush “regime,”’ as he states so precisely.16 In these verses he refines the alphabetic method known from several of his poems, for example from the vitalogue ‘The Birth’ (AC, 31) and the alphaphilia of ‘The Plot’ (H, 15), from his anthology The Faber Book of Beasts, and most strikingly from his conflation of the critical and the creative idiom in his Clarendon lectures, To Ireland, I. In ‘Horse Latitudes’ any ordinary abecedarian or alpha priority order is replaced by a poetic structure of Bs. Muldoon, again, highlights the importance of the single letter; not the most obvious one, and disconnected from its alphabetic order or lexical function. Linguistic latitudes in the opening poem range from B to B, not A to Z, from Beijing and Bannockburn to Bazentin and Burma, all beginning with the letter B, with the conspicuous omission of Belfast as much as Baghdad. Such a b-regulation of letters and cities allows for the ‘provocative propinquity’ and ‘felicitous fusion’ that Muldoon frequently aims for in his alphabetic method.17 All these voiced plosive consonants come with their own phonetic zest and the onomatopoeia of war and battle. A subtle political dimension is also included: the British are involved in most of these battles; in Belfast, America and elsewhere, just as Bush, the Americans and the British are involved in Baghdad and Basra. These B-poems also run contrary to the chronological ordering of the poetic universe in Madoc according to the names of individual thinkers, all the alpha protagonists of the history of ideas. Additionally, this B-template does not merely reveal a tendency for adlinguistic aestheticism or intratextual intricacies; it evinces a special aptitude towards limitation on the ordering of expansive knowledge, opens out non-temporal accounts of history, imposes arbitrary universality, and points to the many versions and visions that did not acquire priority in the formation of ideologies, civilisations, identity and aesthetics. The B-template also tends to deconstruct the grand narrative of each and all wars; they are all equally tragic, irrespective of their time and place. B-sounds, B-seriality and B-logic in these sonnets are buttressed by other Muldoonian tricks, turns and themes. Effortless rhyme distribution, smooth line turns, powerful prosody and sanguinary imagery – ‘a heart-wound by a hauberk’ (4), ‘the checkered careers of their guts’ (10), ‘the mark of a hoof (or a horseshoe) in her fontanelle’ (16) – testify to the apotheosis of human misery and artistic longevity. These nineteen sonnets of war also integrate the accounts of a battle against cancer by ‘Carlotta.’ Accounts of war and cancer run parallel like chariots of death and destruction. Muldoon’s poetic hippodrome also clamours with the death and devastation of current affairs at the time of the book’s publication: the Iraq war of the Bush regime. ‘Blackwater Fort,’ which refers to the Nine Years War in Ulster when O’Neill and O’Donnell were defeated by the English throne in 1603, asks rhetorically: ‘“Why,” Carlotta wondered, “the House of Tar? / Might it have to do with the gross / imports of crude oil Bush will come clean on / only when Tigris comes clean?”’ (9). It is of course a remarkable instance of linguistic serendipity that will not go unnoticed by Muldoon that the name of the American president also starts with B. Muldoon buttresses his criticisms of the Bush regime in public and popular forums too at the time. In the international books of the year columns in the Times Literary Supplement in December 2004, Muldoon recommends three books, all related to the war in Iraq: Gilgamesh translated by Stephen Mitchell, House of Bush, House of Sand by Craig Unger and The Future Dictionary of America by more than 170 writers and artists. Two of the entries in the dictionary use scathing Swiftian ire to condemn the verbal obfuscations of apologists for Bush. Two specimen Muldoonisms emerge: ‘Condeeluusion:’ ‘a term once used for a tendency exhibited by high-ranking officials in the George A. Bush regime 1. to have a false impression 2. to convey one (see condeesceension).’ An illustration of a dancing couple who happily turn their back on each other, ‘doing the condoleesy,’ visualises the spin and pivots of political rhetoric spearheaded by the unnamed Secretary of State in the Bush administration: Condoleeza Rice. ‘Colinoscopy’ is defined as ‘a term once used for a tendency exhibited by high-ranking officials in the George W. Bush regime to examine their conscience and find it clear. (see colinectomy).’18 Colin Powell, the general and Secretary of State who advocated the invasion of Iraq on false premises to the United Nations, is the obvious originator of Muldoon’s coinage for exonerative diagnosis and surgical removal of conscience. The two terms are as hilarious as they are mordant. They might be the best popular examples of the creative and critical arsenal of Muldoon’s neologisms and they illustrate vividly the constructive functions of his generative vocabulary to manifest in new words political phenomena and questionable morals that existent registers do not fully comprehend. Such a submission to the overriding political issue of the day (regardless of its historical and universal importance) nevertheless seems strange in the poetry of an author who has instinctively resisted obvious interventions in active contemporary politics. The concurrence of private anguish and political agendas in Horse Latitudes continues one powerful aspect of Muldoon’s poetry, but the outspokenness and clear-cut oppositions of parts of this collection, not to mention Muldoon’s own vociferous placing of the volume in respect to the political issues of the day, deflate the complex alliances that have previously engendered so much unsettling power in his poetry, particularly in the political debates of Ireland, north and south. Such Bush-bashing might bring Muldoon higher on the Nobel shortlist, but this type of unequivocal critique in straightforward language appears anomalous in a poet who used to question critically all forms of established positions, also the oppositional ones, mainly by equivocation, metaphorical ambiguity and imaginative complexity while using a language that always unsettled the event to which it related by questioning its own chosen poetic form and linguistic medium.

Whatever else Muldoon might be – buffoon, prankster, enigma, iconoclast, master of mischief, funambulist of politics – he is also a great elegist. Many of his poems have, through formal experimentation and linguistic iconoclasm, given new life to dead persons, for example the Irish navvies in ‘The Loaf’ and the stillborn in ‘The Stoic’ (msg, 37, 47), his father Patrick Muldoon in ‘The Coney’ (mtb, 3), his partner Mary Farl Powers and his mother in ‘Incantata’ and ‘Yarrow’ (AC, 13–29, 39–189). This volume is dedicated to Maureen Muldoon, the poet’s sister who died of cancer in 2005, like their mother did in 1973, and Farl Powers in 1992. Her fate runs like metastasis through the themes, poems and linguistic features of the volume, most noticeably in ‘Turkey Buzzards,’ ‘Hedge School’ and the fate of Carlotta in the title poem. ‘Sillyhow Stride,’ in memory of Muldoon’s artistic friend and rock musician who died from lung cancer in 2003, also takes its place in Muldoon’s catalogue of commemoration. In the fray of personal tragedy, historical massacres and contemporary global politics, the strong focus on horses functions as an alienation device to question the absurdities of human existence. However, meditative solemnity, more than outrage and accusation, characterises this interrogation. Muldoon has previously employed a large catalogue of beasts to question forcefully social order, identity, poetic symbolism, linguistic representation and aesthetic concepts; but in this volume they mainly appear well groomed, picturesque and pleasing – with the clear exception of the violent and unrestrainable war horses in ‘Glaucus.’ Within Muldoon’s own idiolect and tradition of restive quadrupeds, these beasts appear artistically domesticated in ‘Horse Latitudes.’

Muldoon’s capacity for the stygian of the human mind and civilisation also characterises his many bird poems, such as ‘Starlings, Broad Street, Trenton, 2003’ and ‘Turkey Buzzards’ in this volume. Probably, due to all their connotations of song, other-language, up-lift and flight, birds tend to retain a closer connection with poetry than other creatures creatures. Muldoon’s aviary, however, contains the same originality and complexity as his mammals and biological plants; no larks, nightingales or swans appear. The Birds, Muldoon and Richard Martin’s version of Aristophanes’ eponymous comedy, gives the whole tradition of romantic bird metaphoricity a solid send-up in its hilarious linguisticisation of birds, such as ‘merganservant,’ ‘ombirdsman,’ ‘birdnik,’ ‘supergrouse’ and ‘bard,’ and of politics of all kinds in ‘Nebulbulfast.’19The Conference of Birds, also known as The Speech of Birds, the extensive Sufi poem by the Persian poet Attar of Nishapur in which birds of all feathers come together to decide who is to become their king, augments the metaphorical and contextual implications of the bird poems. Two of the bird poems in Horse Latitudes are of a dark and tragic quality. Starlings and buzzards are as common to the Eastern as the Western hemisphere. In ‘Turkey Buzzards,’ Muldoon’s elegy for his sister Maureen’s death by cancer in 2005, the most wide-spread species of the carnivorous vultures on the American continents symbolises the menace of mortal disease, the disintegration and death of Maureen, and the Promethean fate of distress and sorrow to family and friends. Nevertheless, the buzzards also represent a poetry and language that lift to a higher dimension the miseries of human life. The hundred-line sentence running through twenty-five quatrains enforces the theme of aesthetic transcendence of mortality. Its continuity and length imply the span and completion of a full life, and the aesthetic achievement of art that extends the past life into poetic longevity. The sentence’s circular composition – the first and last lines are the same – returns a metaphysical verdict on the recurrent seasons of life, and on the infinite cycles of death: the utter vanity of the human condition. The sentence, like its two buzzards, soars on its own uplift – a linguistic creation that is emphasised by the visual configuration of the double set of bi- and tetrametric lines in each quatrain as two hovering vultures. In a larger context, this poem is poised in the balance between song and suffering – how the poetic artifice reaches some of its highest moments from the deepest human misery. Suffering, pain, death and destruction prevail so strongly in the poem that the grave human concerns eclipse a couple of other implications: the clampdown of mindless critics upon creative arts and an Adornian admonition of culture vultures in the sphere of arts. A similar darkness and uplift also shadow ‘Starlings, Broad Street, Trenton, 2003.’ This poem appears after ‘Turkey Buzzards,’ like two wings of the same poetic bird. The two ornithological poems are also connected by their single-sentence composition and their ornithomorphic qualities. Dark, gloomy, singing and scavenging, and with an inclination to flight and collectivity, the starlings and vultures share with the night-revelling youth much of the same situation and fate. They eat, drink and sing, but they may also be cut down by terminal disease or end up as soldiers or victims of war.

Horse Latitudes is a powerful volume. Its verses balance the gravity of individual disease and death with historical massacres and grand political issues. They also attend to the quotidian and the ordinary, perhaps nowhere more convincingly than in the low-key ‘It Is What It Is.’ Family fates of playful children and dead parents interlace here with artistic self-reflection: ‘The fifty years I’ve spent trying to put it together’ (49). Few poets explore the wretchedness of war and violence, disease and death, and the mysteries of verse with greater virtuosity and confidence than Muldoon. Nevertheless, at present, his art appears threatened by his own powers. Perhaps there is a sense, in the way this volume crowns Muldoon’s achievement, that the bestiality and hybridity of Mules, the enigmatic departures of Why Brownlee Left, the many transfigurations and unintelligibilities of Quoof, the cultural explorations of Meeting the British, and, not least, the attention to the unrealised and unknown in Madoc and Hay, offered more unbridled rawness and made more havoc in its critical reception than this confrontation of human tragedy by means of a more secure situatedness in language and form. In its refined bellelettristic composition, in its range of knowledge and registers, and in its mellifluous swirling of sonnets, songs and pitch-perfect prosody, the collection excels most standards of poetry, but perhaps it falls slightly short of Muldoon’s previous unexpected rawness.20

Horses, Shklovsky’s primary source of strangeness and defamiliarisation, are of many different kinds, and they play in many fields. In a comment in the 1980s upon the undifferentiated perception of the poetry of Heaney and Muldoon by English critics, Edna Longley queried whether the two poets resembled each other like Chinamen in the view of outsiders. John Carey joins the race of distinguishing the two in ‘The Stain of Words’ – an alarmingly anti-lingual title – his review in 1987 of Heaney’s The Haw Lantern and Muldoon’s Meeting the British: ‘You could scarcely pick two poets more unlike.’ His review leaves little doubt about where to place your cultural capital:

Inevitably, comparison tells against Muldoon, reputable and gifted though he is. Heaney’s poetry seems unforced, deep, natural – loping along effortlessly lengths ahead of the field. Muldoon’s is tricky, clever, tickled by its own knowingness. The difference is that between a Derby winner and a pantomime horse.21

Certainly, despite all the misguided and contentious judgements in Carey’s review, Heaney and Muldoon’s combative sodality of imagination constitutes an indelible watermark of their achievement.22 Consequently, it seems appropriate and not coincidental that the two compatriots rested their associations with Faber to publish special issues of their latest work almost simultaneously with Enitharmon Press – an entirely different arena, away from critics and public attention. This independent fine arts press, renowned for high quality collaborations between visual artists and writers, provides another setting and lends a different significance to the contestatory companionship of the two fellow poets. Seamus Heaney and Hughie O’Donoghue’s The Testament of Cresseid was published in a total number of 475 copies – 100 in a de luxe and 375 in a regular edition, both including 25 hors commerce copies – and Muldoon’s Medley for Morin Kuhr in an edition of 200 copies including 25 hors commerce, all at very unusual prices.23 Excellence, exclusivity and premium value are clearly the key words. The choice of press testifies to both writers’ reverence for the visual arts and to their extensive transdisciplinary co-operation with other artists, and reveals the importance of visual work as a source of inspiration, while hinting at the many ekphrastic poems in their own work. In other respects, Enitharmon – Blake’s figure of spiritual beauty and poetic inspiration – might indicate the Romantic strain in parts of their work, Heaney’s more than Muldoon’s. Similarly, these exquisite editions stand in juxtaposition to Heaney’s commitment to his community and Muldoon’s engagement with popular culture. At any rate, the exclusivity signals an appreciation of poetry away from its ordinary trade edition currency and the overlap in timing and choice of press yet again shows the careers of the two Ulster poets running in a somewhat parallel course. In their comprehensive relations to familiar fictions, the Irish context, the Western Canon and World Literature, one symptomatic difference between the two – which their other publications confirm – is Heaney’s confluence with and Muldoon’s contravention of traditions. Muldoon’s Medley for Morin Kuhr presents a new sonnet-symphony from the master of prosody, pain and irony that displays many of the Irish-American and Princeton professor’s typical poetic strategies and thematic concerns. Nevertheless, this well composed and stylistically secure collection tends to lack some of the apprehension, disturbance and unexpectedness that have so far charged his artistic achievement. By contrast, the Nobel Laureate’s version of Henryson’s poem prolongs his cultivation of the canon and his involvement with translations. Muldoon’s medley reaches far and wide in intertextuality, strategies, stylistics and geography; Heaney’s translation is tight and singular in scope. The cover of The Testament of Cresseid is dark green, an evocation of natural phenomena and Irish matters. Muldoon’s Medley for Murin Kuhr presents an irregular red pattern against a background of green folds that initiates many of the medley’s preoccupations in its allusions to clashes of naive hope and raw experience, to blood-soiled ground, and to matters of the Emerald Isle. While the political frequently outweighed the individual in Heaney’s poetry and prose up to the nineties, The Testament of Cresseid favours the personal over the public. While the idiosyncratic and the indirect frequently overshadowed the political in Muldoon’s poetry up to the twentieth century, Medley for Murin Kuhr is aligned more directly with the political. Over the last few years Heaney has come close to acting as the poetic wing of Amnesty International. The Testament of Cresseid balances his Celtic heritage with classical culture through its exploration of individual fate in the aftermath of war. Over the last few years Muldoon has come close to acting as the poetic critic of America’s international relations policies. Medley for Murin Khur approaches directly the American politics of war while it at the same time incorporates historical battles on the British Isles with a certain emotional detachment and artistic insouciance. Both books challenge the tendency to label uncritically Muldoon an ahistorical and apolitical aesthete, and Heaney a community-committed artist burdened by history. Together they chart in complementary fashion some of the poetic orientations and human dilemmas of local communities – in Ireland, Northern Ireland, America and elsewhere – that evolve from the formations of a problematic history into the possibilities of an increasingly international future.

Muldoon’s poetry has nothing to do with ‘the stain of words,’ the stigmata Carey applies to Muldoon’s artistic achievement (nor does Heaney’s, of course).24 Carey is flogging a dead horse; he vainly advances the idea of language as a process ‘to return us from words to things’ and a lifeless conduit for the already known and felt where ‘private suffering’ ‘is turned into words we can all use for our own griefs.’25 The idea that language turns objects, phenomena and emotions as much as it can ‘return us from words to things,’ the idea that language turns in circles around the limited vocabulary ‘we can all use,’ the idea that there might be ways of expressing grief that have yet to be invented and that griefs ‘beyond our own’ (whose?) might be unknown to us, and the idea that grief might be different from individual to individual and from culture to culture, appear not to occur to Carey. These ideas all come creatively and logically, perhaps even naturally, to Muldoon’s poetry. His language expands language as well as mind and lives – whether by joy, anger or frustration – of an increasing number of readers, but obviously he does not strike a chord with a critic like Carey.

Horse Latitudes, the title that creates puzzlement and curiosity from two well-known words, spurs its own frames of meaning, interpretation and language. For a poetry volume that continues Muldoon’s hyper-conscious scrutiny of multitudinous forms and functions of language, this book contains fewer titles that draw attention to their own language than previous volumes. ‘Riddle,’ ‘At Least They Were Not Speaking French’ and ‘Perdu’ do, and at least two of them, possibly all three, point to French language and culture – traditions from the continent across the Atlantic that are left behind or possibly jettisoned in the crossings of place and time. ‘Riddle’ plays pranks with letters and language, but its implications add to our perception of Muldoon’s poetry as imbued with linguistic ideas and the structures of language. Indirectly, the poem also comments upon controversial political issues, and the language of codes and reticence that frequently shields urgent issues from open debate. ‘Riddle’ works as a tongue-in-cheek response to critics who have labelled Muldoon the unserious wizard of word play; it is the type of poem that would annoy Carey (and many others before Muldoon’s poetry expanded the understanding and framework for its own reception and interpretation). The poem’s setting of buccaneers and trading suits the collection’s title, as well as its many shifts of context and meaning. Furthermore, the buccaneer’s world on the margins of law and society sounds strangely akin to our current situation of abuse of power, challenges to democracy and the risks to constitutional integrity posed by unscrupulous politicians and vested interests. Current political idioms and the language of negotiation overlap with the lingo and conduct of buccaneers: ‘Just because I’ve a heart of steel / doesn’t mean I don’t feel’ (76). Parrots exist in both worlds: ‘the cockatoo / who’ll wait as long for a word from me as I’ll wait for a word from you’ (77). This final line sounds uncannily familiar to today’s political world of international diplomacy, duplicity and coded silence. One of the answers to Muldoon’s riddle is griddle – the utensil for sieving and baking that imply the separation and sifting of the whole into smaller and cleaner units before the processing into the final product. The making of poetry is here cast in terms of the processes of baking and mining. With its demonstration of the difference caused by the single letters and how their absence constructs entirely new meanings, as seen in the fall from ‘the ideal’ to ‘the raw deal’ (76), the poem’s alphabetic sleight of hand is redolent of deconstructive approaches well-known from the Left Bank and Parisian circles. The poem exhibits a dual tendency to connect and disconnect the linguistic threads of meaning. Such a play with letters inevitably signifies more than just a displacement of phonemes and alphabetic signs. First of all, the poem shifts its focus from lofty ideas to the nitty-gritty details of the single letter, from grand narratives to the language in which they are presented, from ‘the ideal’ to ‘the raw deal.’ Secondly, the poem points to the outer regions of law, and comments obliquely on the possible personal interests and double standards of agents/agencies, democracy and constitutional law. Thirdly, this refined deconstructive poetic product illustrates the significance of Derridean philosophy in Muldoon’s poetry, and enacts indirectly a very unpopular strand in American history, life, language and intellectual critique, perhaps more since the turn of the millennium than ever before: French.

Where ‘Riddle’ evokes implicitly metropolitan sophistication and French culture, ‘Chiraqui’ does so extremely directly. ‘Chiraqui,’ is ‘a term once used for anyone exhibiting anti-Bush sentiments, particularly high-ranking French officials,’ as Muldoon writes in his third entry in The Future Dictionary of America.26 To listen to or to express anything that smacks of the ideas or politics of French politicians, here obviously embodied by the President of France from 1995–2007, Jacques Chirac, is tantamount to political harakiri in America around the turn of the millennium. Muldoon’s hilarious coinage, just like his two other entries ‘colinoscopy’ and ‘condeelusion,’ firmly intervenes in the public debate at the time on the politics of the Bush precidency, and its differences from the French in how to approach Iraq and the regime of Saddam Hussein. Although Muldoon’s poetic and political idioms sometimes overlap in Horse Latitudes, his dictionarial wit and creative lambency also differ considerably. ‘At Least They Were Not Speaking French’ keeps up the same dialogue as ‘Riddle’ and ‘Chiraqui,’ and takes its point of departure from linguistic idioms and grand conversation. French, together with Gaelic, Latin and German, holds a distinct position in Hiberno-Anglo Ireland, in its history, culture, language and literature, as the many interactions with and adaptations of and translations from French in the poetry of Muldoon, Ciaran Carson and Derek Mahon remind us.27 Muldoon’s equivocal title records this tradition while at the same time it accounts for the unpopular position of French culture and ideas in many segments of Anglo-American society. Obviously, the title plays on the stock phrase for bad language ‘Pardon my French.’ Conventionally, this excuse posits in commonsensical usage French as profane, lascivious, effeminate, contrived, frilly and silly in contrast to supposedly Anglophone values which are, in this stereotypical view, more religious, moral, masculine, authentic, pure and wise. Yet the poem also recounts a distrust of French culture that runs through the history, philosophy and language of England and America – a distrust that has reached new heights since the turn of the millennium. Derrida, one of the most distinct and established critical French voices in America over several decades, defines and advocates for the French position as follows:

Right now, the French and German governments are trying, timidly, to slow down or temper the hastiness or overzealousness of the United States, at least with respect to certain forms this ‘war on terrorism’ might take. But little heed is taken here to voices coming from Europe. The major television networks speak only of the unconditional and enthusiastic support of England and Tony Blair beside the United States. France should do more and do better, it seems to me, to make an original voice heard.28

Muldoon, who previously reviewed Patricia Craig’s The Rattle of the North as influenced by ‘the recent attempt to establish a post-Barthes, or “Londonderridian” canon of Irish “writing”’ and wrote poems on Derrida, Foucault and Kristeva in his parapostmodernist monstrosity Madoc, is, like so many other critical voices in the contemporary English-speaking world, highly aware of the French tradition in current international discourse, and the reservations towards it that have been standardised by the euphemism for bad language, ‘Pardon my French.’29 All three sonnet stanzas start and end with this title phrase in a poem that accounts for family disease and social activism, and in which the recurrent phrase indicates a deeper disdain for the sick and the socially deprived. Repetition of lines and the recurrent refrain of ‘fol-de rol fol-de rol fol-de ro-di-do emphasise an atmosphere of vanity, insanity and circularity. Again, Muldoon spins an achieved, many-angled poem on the hardships and inclemency of life to criticise without self-pity thoughtless attitudes and social malformations including language itself, this time in the guise of a juxtaposed expression of a common idiom and grand narratives. Refrains and roundels, in the volume as in this poem, also overlap with long-standing French traditions. A further Muldoonian strategy along these Gallic lines is seen in all the words in French and of French origin that he incorporates into his English, often with a sense of the chic and the modern, but always with mixed connotations of popularity and ridicule, and of the multidiscursive, the autrui and the elsewhere: ‘Gauloise’ (7), ‘fanfaron’ (9), ‘chevaux-de-friese’ (10), ‘fontanelle’ (16), ‘traduction’ (17), ‘Blanche’ (22), ‘banquette’ (28), ‘mont-de-piété,’ ‘pig in a poke’ and ‘boucherie’ (30), ‘Nostalgie de la / boue la boue la boue la boue / an all-Ireland fleadh’ (69), ‘flageolet’ (69), ‘(“les ans, mon ange, les anges manqués”)’ (93), ‘cordon sanitaire’ (103). The words serve multiple purposes of rhyme, rhythm, irony, alienation, surprise, humour, fun, le mot juste, allusion and reference. French phrase, form and lexicon in this volume intimate the contribution to Anglo-American language and culture that is frequently taken for granted or overlooked or euphemistically frowned upon: ‘Pardon my French.’

‘Perdu’ takes a different tack on the French position. A borrowing from French – more specifically from middle French in which perdu (perdue in feminine singular form), the past participle of perdre, means, more or less like in English, lost or perished, and often occurs in connection with the extremely hazardous position of sentinelle perdu – the word draws attention to its own un-Englishness, particularly to French-speaking people. Its title, situation and incumbent questions of justice interact directly with Heaney’s ‘Mycenae Lookout,’ but also relates to his ‘Punishment,’ ‘The Strand at Lough Beg,’ ‘Casualty,’ and ‘Station Island.’ In Muldoon’s poem ‘a Salish man’ and his son face the grim fate of war, torture and death as the lookouts of their besieged community:

The grave already held two powder kegs

and I came to as they were breaking my legs.

They were breaking my legs so I would fit

when I came to and called for an end to it.

An end to the ration of bread and beer

and the rationale for having dropped me here.

They dropped me here still bloody from the “scratch”

I might have got from a shadowy Sasquatch. (85)

The Indian sentinel and his son – ‘“Tell the buriers to bury me with you”’ (85) – are already condemned to perdition; their community is probably destined to go the same way. Torture, murder and massacre are covered up in deceitful language, ‘scratch,’ and the responsibility for the atrocity dissolves in a mythological monster, ‘Sasquatch.’ These verses of violence are resonant with the fate of the last member of the extinct Yahi tribe in the civilisatory elegy ‘The Year of the Sloes, for Ishi’ in Muldoon’s debut volume, New Weather. They, thus, belong to Muldoon’s Amerindian alterratives, but the wars of the West in the Middle East and Asia offer a far more immediate hermeneutical context for the poem than Northern Ireland after The Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The symbolic significance of syntax that Muldoon established so powerfully in Moy Sand and Gravel adds an insistent dimension of justice to ‘Perdu.’ Eleven end-stopped couplets unite the fate of father and son, and capture the binary deadlock of one culture being brutally extinguished by another. Sameness in the first and final couplet creates a double sense of adamant resolve and repetitive inevitability. Chains of linked phrases unite the terms in the second line of each stanza with the first line in the next and copper-fasten the concatenation of logic, and possibly the pedestrian routines and rhythms of one victim following another. Simplistic rhymes and rudimentary vocabulary, by Muldoon’s own standards, enhance the miasma of atavism and brutishness. ‘Perdu,’ in typical Muldonic funambulism, withholds any explicit sentence on the rationale and justification of the situation in the poem, but its title, poetic technique, linguistic arsenal and syntax more than suggest that imperatives of human rights and ordinary standards of law and order are no longer at risk: they are totally lost and gone.

The volume’s personal trauma and public issues are intimately interwoven in the language of the one-sentence sonnet ‘Hedge School.’ The term ‘hedge school’ refers to the alternative rural school system in Ireland for the poor and the dispossessed, mainly Catholics, during several centuries of suppression by the Penal Laws, in which numerous paragraphs were designed to force Irish children to avail themselves of the colonial power’s established school system, mainly Protestant. Hedge schools provided learning, but also figured largely as an organisation of national opposition and cultural defiance, as Daniel Corkery describes them in Hidden Ireland, and Brian Friel presents their culture so vividly in Translations.30 ‘Then I landed in the hedge-school of Glanmore,’ Heaney writes in ‘Glanmore Sonnet ii,’ and goes on to explain in personal and romanticised language: ‘Glanmore truly was what I called it, a “hedge school” in the literal sense. I gathered blackberries off the briars and ate them, as if I were back on the road to school. I even found a blackbird nest in the hedge at our gable.’31 The hedge schools enacted a centuries strong tradition in Ireland of learning, resistance and cultural consolidation. Muldoon evokes and identifies with this tradition from year ‘673,’ when ‘another Maelduin was bishop,’ via his ‘great-great-grandmother’ in a ‘Papish’ hedge school, to his daughter in ‘her all-American Latin class’ (94) in his ‘Hedge School.’ An introductory negational phrase, ‘Not only,’ sets a dark and sombre mood for the themes in this single, convoluted sonnet sentence that reflects the love and complexities of education. The poem also accounts for the person’s – most likely Muldoon himself – autodidactic research into the ‘New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary’ for illumination on the word ‘metastasis’ in relation to his ‘dear Sis.’ Muldoon’s poem highlights the hedge school, the American high school and the Oxford English Dictionary as institutions of education, while at the same time subscribing to an understanding of education that extends beyond the confines of institutions. Where the institutions in the poem provide instruction in philology, the humanities and much general knowledge, the school of life provides harsher lessons in the shape of mortal disease and the violation of human rights. The persona’s memories of his grandmother blend with his reflections upon his daughter’s classes on Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, and how she ‘may yet be forced to conjugate / Guantánamo, amas, amat,’ at the same time as he traces ‘the root of metastasis’ (94). Language, fundamental to education, highlights itself by italics, citation, Latin, slang and syntax. The constellation of ‘Guantánamo, amas, amat’ in the same line appears strikingly incongruous. Italicisation and the chimes of the last syllable –‘amo with ‘amas’ and ‘amat’ – join together the aborigine word for ‘land between rivers’ and ‘sea existence,’ Guantánamo, now ubiquitously synonymous with the contested penal policies of the controversial naval station, and the first words many students of Latin will learn, the conjugations of ‘I love,’ ‘You love’ – words and associations that would otherwise be extremely unlikely to appear in same sentence. Its implication that the military interrogation centre directs the conjugations of the Latin word for love, suggests how the politics and discourses of Guantánamo precipitate changes in language. Such Muldoonesque conjugations bring unexpectedly together two distinctively different terms, and reverses many of their set associations. Love – of family, country, ideals – bears upon Guantánamo. Conversely, fixed paradigms and forced recitation confine the teaching of philology. Many prisoners and officers at the detention centre have in common their families, a sense of their home country and sets of ideals in which they believe, despite the gravitation towards dissimilarity, opposition and conflict in the place. Conversely, the teaching of humanities in many schools and the management of education are subject to conformist teaching methods and imposed regulations. Authority and control circumscribe the ideas of enlightenment and liberty normally associated with education: social, religious and ideological structures stigmatise the hedge school, force is an element in high school and dictionaries exercise control over language. Questions of who and what direct education, institutions and school systems surround the more specific situations in the poem itself and these verses indicate a coherence between structures of education and strictures of imprisonment. Education, as Gramsci advocated so convincingly in his Prison Notebooks, needs to foster the critical awareness and transformational competence of the individual, not a school system that functions as one of the main pillars in the ideological hegemony of preserving the status quo of a flawed society. Such principles of education serve the preservation of democracies, as much as they fuel radical and counter-hegemonic movements. In the proverbial colloquialism of freedom fighters only the rivers run free and prisons amount to universities of freedom. The Irish hedge school provided exactly that kind of education, as did The Maze and Robben Island. Muldoon is not pleased with the current situation of education: ‘It’s hard to know how to deal with the crisis that faces education in the US. Maybe poetry is a place to start!’32 ‘Hedge School’ was first published in the New York Times in June 2004 as a poetic intervention in the public discourses that seem continuously to reach new heights of euphemism, doublespeak and languistic obfuscation in what appears to be part of a re-schooling of the established understanding of human rights principles, constitutional privileges and international jurisdiction. Neoliberalism seems a smaller problem than the conversion of ex-liberals to these pernicious shifts in discourse.

To maintain human decency and international rights appears to be increasingly difficult in many corners of the Western world. ‘The Mountain is Holding Out’ (87–8) reads like a parable of the last stand. This parable, variously interpreted, relates as much, perhaps even more, to the situation of the humanities within today’s universities as to the position of universities in today’s society. In Muldoonian manner it is tempting to point out that Princeton can be rhymed vicariously with prison. For all its resonance with centres of detention and seats of learning, ‘Hedge School’ also attends to education as lessons of life beyond knowledge and intellectual empowerment. ‘Dear Sis’ turns the focus in the volta from institutional education and public crisis to individual life and medical emergency: metastasis. The poem strikes an unsettling note by implicitly asking to what extent knowledge and education can possibly prepare for personal crisis and the afflictions of the human condition, or, in grander jargon: how epistemology relates to ontology. Yet, as so often in Muldoon’s poetry, these verses overcome such unsettling notes in their aesthetic power and wisdom, and through the transformative powers of language. Metastasis is the medical term for a disease, primarily cancer, that spreads to a different part of the body from where it originated. The medical term enables a better understanding of the patient’s predicament, and references the advanced expertise that frequently cures the patient. Furthermore, the term is metastatic itself, as ‘tracing the root’ in the Oxford English Dictionary makes clear. Of multiple origins, partly a borrowing from Latin and partly a borrowing from Greek, its meaning has now metastasised almost entirely into the medical sphere. Its general meaning of transformation from one condition to the other becomes outdated by the day and its sense of rapid transition from one type of figure to another is virtually lost already. Interestingly, the dictionary links metastasis directly to the obsolete term ‘retortion,’ the action of responding to an argument by using its originator. Muldoon’s poem, along the lines of oed definitions and etymology, is metastatic. His transmuted sonnet records in a single sentence, which changes from clause to clause, the originary process of education from multiple origins through altering conditions, to turn the arguments and logic of current media discourse against their own originators. The juxtaposition of cancer, education and Guantánamo in ‘Hedge School’ suggests that the school system and the prison camp suffer from serious disease, and raises the question whether or not they can be cured in time before they enter a fatal and terminal phase.

Horse Latitudes continues Muldoon’s engagement with language. After the liberation of language from the confines of history, geography, the speaking subject and referentiality, the arbitrary motions of letters and signs of language have roamed, like Shklovsky’s horses, across the fields of critical interpretation and public debate. The French connection, particularly Derrida’s language philosophy, still enables critical resistance towards overriding discourses. A metastatic language of uncertain origins and false mythologies also enacts the processes of terminal cancer. Its many deconstructive features also serve to undermine the predominant rhetoric of political oppression and the propaganda of war – a grim global situation that Adorno would easily recognise. Muldoon is very adept at such semiosis. Still, the development of Muldoon’s poetic language moves in a constructive direction. His consciousness of the structure of the sentence that came to prominence in Moy Sand and Gravel still serves a large number of syntactic and metaphorical functions in Horse Latitudes. Muldoon’s sentence has become another hallmark of his poetic language.


William Pratt, ‘Review of Horse Latitudes by Paul Muldoon,’ World Literature Today 81, no. 5 (2007), 71; Jürgen Habermas, ‘Beyond a Temporalized Philosophy of Origins: Jacques Derrida’s Critique of Phonocentrism,’ in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987), 161–184.


Muldoon, The Prince of the Quotidian, 29; Haffenden, Viewpoints, 141.


Donaghy, ‘A Conversation with Paul Muldoon,’ 83.


Jason B. Jones, ‘Horse Latitudes and the End of the Poem by Paul Muldoon,’, accessed 25 April 2019.


Langdon Hammer, ‘Gamesmanship,’ The Sunday Book Review, 18 February 2007,, accessed 17 February 2019.


Pratt, ‘Review of Horse Latitudes by Paul Muldoon,’ 71.


James Fenton, ‘A Poke in the Eye with a Poem: Horse Latitudes by Paul Muldoon,’ The Guardian, 21 October 2006,, accessed 15 February 2019.


Helen Vendler, ‘Anglo-Celtic Attitudes,’ 58–59; ‘Fanciness and Fatality: Review of Horse Latitudes by Paul Muldoon,’ The New Republic 235, no. 19 (2006), 26–33.


Fran Brearton, ‘Muldoon “Goes Native” across the Pond? Review of Horse Latitudes by Paul Muldoon,’ Tower Poetry, no. 3 (2007), 8.


Paul Muldoon, Medley for Murin Khur (London: Enitharmon Press, 2005), 6.


Those who see Muldoon as a meretricious formalist and preposterous prankster will not rest their case. Neither will the defenders who praise his iconoclastic methods and detect in all his levity sincere moral concerns. ‘To those who enjoy having a leg pulled, Muldoon is your man; to those who expect something more substantial from poetry, Muldoon rhymes with buffoon,’ William Pratt concludes in ‘The Annals of Chile by Paul Muldoon,’ 365. Kendall labels Muldoon a ‘perennial spoofer of false piety,’ but acknowledges this as one of the poet’s strengths, Paul Muldoon, 211. The jury is out in Eve Patten’s ‘Clever, Comic, Liberating,’ 26–27. Helen Vendler changes her view on Muldoon’s lack of compassion to a more convincing poet in ‘Anglo-Celtic Attitudes,’ 57–60; ‘Fanciness and Fatality: Review of Horse Latitudes by Paul Muldoon,’ 26–33. ‘He rides the wave of his swank virtuosity, but chaos and sorrow underlie it,’ Laura Quinney concludes her review ‘In the Studebaker. Moy Sand and Gravel by Paul Muldoon,’ 21. MacFarlane agrees in his review of the same collection: ‘Those who think of Paul Muldoon as the benign, pudgy Puck of contemporary poetry, imping around with a mischievous grin on his type-face, miss the vital dimension of his ethical seriousness in which his work exists.’ ‘High and Dry in the Flood. Paul Muldoon’s Moy Sand and Gravel,’ 24. Despite reservations and incisive critique, the reviews and articles over many years by Seamus Heaney, Edna Longley, John Banville, Derek Mahon, John Goodby and William Wilson reveal that they are in no doubt about the significance of Muldoon’s poetry.


Fran Brearton, The Great War in Irish Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); ‘Poetry and the Northern Ireland Troubles,’ in The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth Century English and American War Literature, ed. A. Piette and M. Rawlinson (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 222–230.


Heaney, The Place of Writing, 52. For Muldoon’s comment on his poem and Bloody Sunday, see ‘Notes for “Chez Moy: A Critical Autobiography”’ (unpublished manuscript, 1994), in Wills, Reading Paul Muldoon, 38; Kendall, Paul Muldoon, 41.


This art edition by Enitharmon Press contains ‘Medley for Morin Kuhr’ and ‘Horse Latitudes,’ and was published in a limited edition of 200. See Moi, ‘The Testament of Cresseid by Seamus Heaney and Medley for Morin Kuhr by Paul Muldoon,’ 277–281.


For other beast poems in Muldoon’s poetry, see ‘Big Foot’, (Q, 18), ‘Beaver’ (Q, 19), ‘The Salmon of Knowledge’ (Q, 23), ‘Mink’ (Q, 28), ‘The Frog’ (Q, 29), ‘The Unicorn Defends Himself’ (Q, 34), ‘The Coney’ (mtb, 3), ‘Chinook’ (mtb, 9), ‘Brock’ (mtb, 12), ‘The Fox’ (mtb, 24), ‘The Soap-Pig’ (mtb, 25), ‘Capercailles’ (Mad, 6), ‘The Panther’ (Mad, 9), ‘Rainer Maria Rilke: The Unicorn’ (H, 17), ‘Beagles’ (msg, 17), ‘The Otter’ (msg, 30), ‘John Luke: The Fox’ (msg, 31), ‘The Goose’ (msg, 67), ‘The Redknots’ (msg, 71), ‘Turtles’ (HL, 50), ‘Turkey Buzzards’ (HL, 78), ‘Starlings, Broad Street, Trenton, 2003’ (HL, 82), ‘The Coyote’ (HL, 83), ‘Medley for Morin Kuhr’ (HL, 89), ‘Glaucus’ (HL, 91), ‘Geese’ (Mag, 10), ‘More Geese’ (Mag, 13), ‘A Hare at Aldergrove’ (Mag, 18), ‘The Fish Ladder’ (Mag, 23), ‘Quail’ (Mag, 26), ‘Francois Boucher: Arion on Dolphin’ (Mag, 36), ‘Maggot’ (Mag, 42), ‘Charles Baudelaire: ‘The Albatross’ (Mag, 62), ‘Ohrwurm’ (Mag, 72), ‘Love Poem with Pig’ (Mag, 73), ‘A Mayfly’ (86), ‘A Hummingbird’ (Mag, 91), ‘A Second Hummingbird’ (Mag, 92), ‘A Porcupine’ (Mag, 104), ‘Another Porcupine’ (Mag, 105), ‘Capriccio in E minor for Blowfly and Strings’ (Mag, 107), ‘Cuthbert and the Otters’ (ottwk, 3), ‘Pelt’ (ottwk, 13), ‘Charles Émile Jacque: Poultry Among Trees’ (ottwk, 14), ‘A Giraffe’ (ottwk, 65), ‘Dromedaries and Dung Beetles’ (ottwk, 66). Plus all his dogs, eels and horses, of course.


Muldoon, Medley for Murin Khur, 6.


The Faber Book of Beasts (London: Faber and Faber, 1997), xvi.


See Muldoon’s entries in Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Dave Eggers, The Future Dictionary of America (San Fransisco: McSweeney’s Books, 2004), 35–36.


Muldoon and Martin, The Birds, 8, 42–47.


For Muldoon’s own comments on the horses, politics, death and life in this volume, see Paul Muldoon, ‘Horse Latitudes,’ The Poetry Book Society Bulletin, no. 210 (2006), 5.


Carey, ‘The Stain of Words,’ 56.


Muldoon and Heaney sustained a life-long friendship. Muldoon was one of the pallbearers and he gave the eulogy in Heaney’s funeral: ‘The Beauty of Seamus Heaney,’ (YouTube, 2013). Muldoon comments upon his friendship with Heaney and Carey’s review in an interview in 2010: ‘Seamus and I have been friends since 1968. I was 16 when I met him and he was 28, so we were both fairly young. Our relationship is loving, I’m proud to say. It’s survived a lot of drama, most of it drummed up. When my first book was being published, for example, our joint editor at Faber’s made me change the title of it from ‘The Electric Orchard’ to ‘New Weather,’ so it would seem like an ironic comment on ‘Wintering Out,’ Seamus’s book of the previous year. My present editor at Faber’s has yet to alert me formally that Seamus and I have had books appearing within the octave. That’s happened several times and it’s given an opportunity to reviewers to compare and contrast, usually in Seamus’s favour. It results in a simpleton like John Carey acting in bad faith and appearing on bbc television to repeat a view he first shared with us in 1987. To think that generations of Oxford students were ‘taught’ by this poor fellow! In general, though, Seamus has taken a few knocks for this new book, including some nasty ad hominem stuff in the New York Times. So while something tells me we’ll never appear in the same season again, in either the UK or the US, I don’t really mind one way or the other. We’re sort of in it together and I’ll love him always.’ Prospero, ‘The Q & A: Paul Muldoon, Poet,’ The Economist, 6 October 2010,, accessed 25 April 2019. Muldoon writes in an earlier poem:

Three things that are hairy and scary:

the curs of Gorey

the curse of Carey

the course of Gowrie.

‘Triad,’ The Times Literary Supplement, 19 May 1995, 13.


Seamus Heaney and Hughie O’Donoghue, The Testament of Cresseid (London: Enitharmon Press, 2004).


Carey, ‘The Stain of Words,’ 56.




Foer, Krauss, and Eggers, The Future Dictionary of America, 30.


For some encounters with French literature and culture in Muldoon’s poetry, see ‘Paris’ (M, 40); ‘Meeting the British’ and ‘Sushi’ (mtb, 16, 33); all the poems named after French philosophers in Madoc; ‘Paul Valéry: Pomegranates’ (msg, 24); ‘Charles Emile Jacque: Poultry Among Trees’ and ‘Camille Pissarro: Apple Picking at Eragny-sur-Epte (ottwk, 14–21, 97). Carson engages with French poetry in From Elsewhere (Loughcrew: The Gallery Press, 2014); In the Light Of (Loughcrew: The Gallery Press, 2012); The Alexandrine Plan (Loughcrew: The Gallery Press, 1998). Mahon has shown himself to be an accomplished translator of French poetry and drama in Adaptations (Loughcrew: The Gallery Press, 2006); Cyrano De Bergerac (Loughcrew: The Gallery Press, 2004); The Selected Poems of Phillipe Jacottett (New York: Viking, 1988); The Chimeras (Loughcrew: The Gallery Press, 1982). For two recent collections of essays on the exchanges between Irish and French literature and culture, see Anne Goarzin, ed. New Critical Perspectives on Franco-Irish Relations (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2015); Eamon Maher, Grace Neville, and Eugene O’Brien, eds., Modernity and Postmodernity in a Franco-Irish Context (Oxord: Peter Lang, 2008).


Giovanna Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror. Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), 119.


Paul Muldoon, ‘Canon and Colcanon,’ The Times Literary Supplement, 2 October 1992, 22.


Daniel Corkery, Hidden Ireland (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, [1924] 1967); Friel, Translations. See also P.J. Dowling, The Hedge Schools of Ireland (Cork: The Mercier Press, [1968] 1997).


Heaney, Field Work, 34. ‘Seamus Heaney Home Place,’, accessed 17 April 2019.


Prospero, ‘The Q & A: Paul Muldoon, Poet,’, accessed 25 April 2019.

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