Grains of lasting truth and beauty

POETRY:   Muldoon is our Auden, one who established an early reputation and became equally influential on his peers and on younger…

POETRY:  Muldoon is our Auden, one who established an early reputation and became equally influential on his peers and on younger writers saysPeter Fallon

'No man can be in two places at the one time, barring he's a bird." So said Sir Boyle Roche, but then that often bullish 18th- century politician wasn't acquainted with the poetry of Paul Muldoon.

In nine collections, this curious, scrupulous artist has again and again returned to questions such as "two places at once, was it, or one place twice" (in 'Twice') and to moral dilemmas, wondering "which side, if any, he should be on". True to form, his new 'A Collegelands Catechism' has no answers.

Years ago, in a discussion at Galway's Cúirt on the position of the Irish writer living abroad, in exile mar bheadh, Muldoon expressed the feeling that he was free as a bird. But certain birds, by their natures, are bound by the arcs of their migrations, and in Moy Sand and Gravel, more than in any previous undertaking, he straddles his native Armagh and his adopted country. He mixes the aggregate of the orchard county's subsoil with the waters of the New Jersey canal beside which he now lives in a "house I may yet bring myself to call mine".


Emily Dickinson wrote "I dwell in Possibility/ A fairer House than Prose", and the poet Muldoon is one who has been equally exercised by the potential of other lives. What if his father had emigrated to Australia or Argentina or Brazil? What if Southey and Coleridge had established their Pantisocracy in the New World? For such a poet, it's no surprise that the pivotal poem in this collection ponders the miscarriage of his, and his wife Jean's, daughter. But in 'The Stoic', supplanting Zeno's Painted Porch of Athens with the Gateway Arch of St Louis, Missouri, he doesn't imagine or create that lost life. Rather, he takes stock, Janus-like, by steadying himself and squinting backwards and ahead in a gaze which extends across the whole book, across an ocean, his life, inheritance, mixed marriages and riddles of allegiance. It is a metaphysical triumph extending the line of his 'Lag' and the early poem 'The Sightseers'.

Moy Sand and Gravel is a book about taking stock and about connections. In it, Muldoon stitches old and new threads into colourful, colour-filled (there's a startling array of hues and shades) designs. His readers are familiar with the range and renewal of his formal repertoire, but one aspect of his marvellous rhyming, for example, is worth highlighting further. His ear is so finely tuned that he turns to words which contain their own counterparts. So "slight" rhymes with "gaslight", "lift" with "Montgomery Clift", "lode" with "explode", "rigid" with "Brigid". Hundreds of such pairs occur. Whole poems proceed in such accord, so free and easy has their maker grown in the forms.

He is our Auden, a master of contemporary language in classical patterns, one who established an early reputation and became equally influential on his peers and on younger writers, one who recognises poetry as "a game of knowledge, a bringing to consciousness, by naming them, of emotions and their hidden meanings".

And he is our Frost, blending the colloquial with traditional metres, underscoring his lore and wisdom's apparently simple, ever seductive surfaces with challenging, sometimes combative ideas. Moy Sand and Gravel includes a series of haiku, 'News Headlines from the Homer Noble Farm', which was for two decades Frost's house in Ripton, Vermont, and is the place where the Muldoons have taken to spending their summers.

It includes also the now familiar long concluding poem, a prayer for his infant son, whose peaceful rest is weighed against a survey of the world he is inheriting. This examination of conscience, with its inventory of the boy's Jewish ancestry, measures the cost of the making of America. Tinged with a survivor's guilt, it reaches for atonement.

There are translations of Caedmon, Valéry and Horace, as well as responses to paintings, but the book's twin glories are its integrity and coherence and the big handful of lyrics as pellucid as any their author might have dreamed of writing: 'Hard Drive', its rhythmical muscle coursing towards its last word, "green"; 'Whitethorns', its fenceposts taking root and flowering; 'The Loaf', with its mouth music, in which he tastes the bread baked from the seed of the past's labours and poverty; and 'The Turn', a 39-line single- sentence rumination of his own history, completing his own interrupted utterances, and all the time remembering the "bones of thousands of his countrymen". 'The Goose' (its leg, unforgettably, "like the scaled-down version of a knight's armour") and 'Homesickness' are especially sympathetic. 'Unapproved Road' is a masterpiece. For one so long and falsely charged with emotional evasiveness, Muldoon will survive as one of our laureates of marriage and fatherhood.

Moy Sand and Gravel is not without, let's say, a blemish. You could say there's something de trop about 'Winter Wheat', while 'Famous First Words' has an air of self- parody (consciously, perhaps) or pastiche.

Whitman considered his friend Thomas Eakins more than a painter, a "force", an epithet to which Paul Muldoon is now entitled. I predict that when we learn to read it fully, to comprehend all its allusions and nuances, to follow its lines of thought and feeling, we'll value this as his most satisfying book so far. It is precisely the capacity to inhabit different states, parallel and overlapping histories, cultures and locations, which contributes to Muldoon's magnificence and the greatness of this book. He is as steadfastly at home and imaginatively quick in the ancient world (see his eclogue, 'The Grand Conversation') as with the most modern of inventions; like fibre optics, say - through which (if I understand them correctly) he is able to take notes and sounds and to transform them into points of light.

Peter Fallon's books include News of the World: Selected and New Poems. His translation of the Georgics of Virgil is forthcoming

Moy Sand and Gravel. By Paul Muldoon. Faber and Faber. 90 pp. £14.99