South of the border

Food has always played a large part in Paul Muldoon's poetry, so if his full collections are main courses the many interim volumes…

Food has always played a large part in Paul Muldoon's poetry, so if his full collections are main courses the many interim volumes he has published over the years are best described as snacks. By this definition his verse diary from 1992, The Prince of the Quotidian, was a genuine trifle, but not all have been so slight. His libretto for Daron Hagen, Shining Brow, was a brave and commendable experiment, and Six Honest Serving Men was as effective a play as any Irish poet has written since MacNeice's The Black Tower.

Following closely on the verse collection Hay, Bandanna is his second libretto and could easily have been subtitled "Othello meets Touch of Evil".

From "Lunch with Pancho Villa" and "Vaquero" in Mules onwards, Muldoon has always been drawn to Latino culture, as happy to write about Putumayo as Mayo, Bernardo O'Higgins as Kevin O'Higgins. Bandanna takes place in a village on the Mexican-US border, where Morales is the local police chief. He has made the Irish-American Cassidy his capitan, much to the annoyance of his lieutenant Jake. As a way of getting at his boss, Jake purloins a bandanna belonging to Morales's wife and passes it on to the cynical labour organiser Kane. Jake and Kane plant suspicions in Morales's mind that Cassidy is having an affair with his wife. Their plot works and Mona Morales is forced to go into hiding. Her husband discovers her in a motel, where he strangles her with the bandanna, before shooting Jake and himself.

Although Lorca isn't mentioned, Muldoon has evidently paid close attention to the Spanish poet's plays. The fact that Bandanna is set on the Day of the Dead, la Dia de los Muertos, contributes to the sense of tragic inevitability, and the townspeople's choruses too are effectively done.


The characters speak in short, easily singable lines, with the emotional directness Muldoon has said libretto-writing brings out in him. His usual punning style doesn't disappear completely, though: "Your police or mine?" Kane protests when Morales tries to arrest him. Mona's long last speech is poetry of a high order:

To die is to awaken and come into bud as the willow quickens in the willow mud.

We come into bud and put out a shoot. In the willow mud we put out a root.

Muldoon now vies with John Ashbery for the title of most frequently imitated living poet, but while honours have come his way as thick and fast as Mexican illegals to the border crossing in Bandanna, he can always rely on Irish critics to wheel out the same old accusations: that he writes crossword puzzles, that he's heartless (with the token exception of Incantata), and that, increasingly, he pitches everything at his academic hangers-on. All are equally wide of the mark.

The codes and patterns of Yarrow aren't a patch on the occult manipulations of Yeats's Vision, but no one ever calls Yeats a sterile puppeteer. Where emotion is concerned, Bandanna is as satisfyingly over the top as any Puccini plot-line, and as unacademic, too.

Despite the fact that his first book appeared in 1973, Muldoon is not yet fifty. While Hay was not Muldoon at full tilt, he continues to reinvent himself powerfully, unlike most of his contemporaries, and is as deadly serious as he is lucid. He has, in other words, the three things Eliot said only combine in the most important poets: abundance, variety and complete competence. Of how many other Irish poets can as much be said?

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