Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon surely didn't sit down together and decide to have their new books published simultaneously. But the decision of their common publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, to bring out Heaney's Human Chain at the same time as Muldoon's Maggot only reinforces the sense that there is something fated about the pairing of these two poets. It's not simply that they are the leading Irish poets of their respective generations: Heaney, born in 1939, won the Nobel Prize in 1995, while Muldoon, born in 1951, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. It's not even that both are from Northern Ireland or that Muldoon was once Heaney's student, so that it's possible to imagine a kind of apostolic succession. What makes it so valuable to read them together is that they could not be more unalike as writers. By offering the sharpest possible contrast to one another, each accentuates the other's uniqueness: Heaney never seems more Heaneyish, or Muldoon more Muldoonish, than when they appear side by side.
A maggot is a maggot, of course, but as Muldoon recently told an interviewer, it can also mean "a couple of other things: a capricious, whimsical thought, a piece of music -- a dance tune usually." Combine those last two senses, and you have a good description of a Muldoon poem: a capricious, or far-fetched, or at times frankly bizarre set of images and obsessions, worked out with the ingenious rhythmicality of a piece of music. Muldoon seems to want the reader to think of a "maggot" as similar to what, in German, is called an Ohrwurm, or "ear worm" -- an infectious tune that you can't get out of your head. To underscore the point, he uses the German word as the title for a short poem:
Just as I'm loading up on another low carb pork rind snack
I spot in my wing-fuselage connection a fatigue crack.
It bears out my suspicion that this low-level hum's a soundtrack
And everything I've seen so far I've seen in flashback.
Carrying a single rhyme across four lines is as easy as breathing for Muldoon, whose formal dexterity allows him to make double sestinas or sets of a hundred haiku sound airily dashed off. Equally characteristic is his ability to combine a hectic, comic tone with an underlying somberness: this poem, which begins with binging on pork rinds, ends, seemingly, with death in a plane crash.
But "Ohrwurm" is too short a poem to give the full flavor of Muldoon's style, which thrives on repetition and variation. Most of the poems in Maggot come in extended sequences, and are constructed according to the peculiar formula Muldoon has long since perfected. He starts with a fixed rhyme scheme and a handful of ideas or images, and proceeds to recombine these in ever more rococo variations. The result is rather like watching a juggler add more and more flaming torches and chainsaws, until it seems impossible for him to keep everything up in the air.
In Maggot, the sequence "The Humors of Hakone" is probably the best of these performances. Its nine poems are each made up of five quatrains, rhymed ABAB. But because the line lengths are not fixed, and the rhymes are loose sometimes to the point of being imperceptible ("dry/mortuary" and "open/Cuban" are among the more audible pairs), the poem does not sound like it has any form at all. This combination of seeming randomness with strict rule-following is a Muldoon trademark. So, too, is the grab bag assortment of premises: in "The Humors of Hakone," we are seemingly being addressed by a forensic pathologist who is investigating the death of a woman in Japan, which somehow involves a "corduroy road," a high-speed train, and a photo booth. Add it all together and stir, and you get passages like this:
Too late to determine if a salivary gland
might have secreted its critical enzyme
or, as her belly resumed its verdure,
implored an eye to give up its vitreous potassium
as a nun from a mendicant order
might unthinkingly draw in her voluminous
yellow robe to implore one for a little buckwheat.
Reading the whole sequence does not make the individual parts make more sense, but it does give the impression that Muldoon is in control of the chaos. He is an inscrutable comedian-wizard, mixing poems like potions that usually leave you fizzy-headed, if seldom actually transformed.
Heaney is only a dozen years older than Muldoon, but to turn from Maggot to Human Chain is to leave a fractured, buzzing, intercontinental present for a rural, meditative, almost Wordsworthian past. Heaney has always been the archaeologist and ethnologist of his own childhood, recognizing that the dialect and implements he grew up with, the old way of life led by Irish farmers, were all disappearing in his lifetime. Now seventy years old, and writing in the gathering shadow of mortality -- not long ago Heaney suffered a stroke, an event that appears in several poems -- his recollections of things past have become even more movingly elegiac.
The poem "Slack" gracefully combines all these themes. Slack, we learn, is the Northern Irish word for coal residue, and in Heaney's hands it becomes a metaphor for old age: "In days when life prepared for rainy days/It lay there, slumped and waiting/To dampen down and lengthen out/The fire…" This low-quality fuel, good for extending life but hardly for living it, also makes us think of the slack muscles of the stroke patient, especially since Heaney writes in Human Chain about undergoing physical therapy:
His eyes-front, straight-backed posture like my own
Doing physio in the corridor, holding up
As if once more I'd found myself in step
Between two shafts, another's hand on mine,
Each slither of the share, each stone it hits
Registered like a pulse in the timbered grips.
Using a walker, in these lines, becomes a muscle memory of pulling a plowshare -- suffering converted into labor, and labor into art. The title of this poem is "Chanson d'Aventure," which may seem like taking valiancy a little too far: is a trip to the emergency room ("Strapped on, wheeled out, forklifted, locked/In position for the drive") really the beginning of an adventure? But Heaney has always been a poet of affirmation, one who offers strength rather than exploring fear; and this moral firmness has never been more appealing than it is in these late poems. Remarkably, Human Chain is Heaney's best book since 1996's The Spirit Level, above all for the way it records the poet's undisturbed faith in his art:
A great one has put faith in "meaning"
That runs through space like a word
Screaming and protesting, another in
And memories of live":
Mine for now I put
In steady-handedness maintained
In books against its vanishing.
Raised in Northern Ireland and long resident in New Jersey, Muldoon (Horse Latitudes) remains one of very few poets who commands broad and deep respect on both sides of the Atlantic. This first full-length outing since he took the poetry editorship at the New Yorker will certainly hold the attention of devotees, and individual poems, as always, shine: sestinas, monorhymed works and especially sonnets (including a fine translation of Baudelaire's "The Albatross" and a diptych entitled "Nope" and "Yup") make Muldoon's acrobatic technique serve his strikingly playful--yet grim--sensibility. As he has throughout his career, the poet explores his "dual role/ as proven escape artist and proven identity switcher": domestic discord, ecodisaster, and the simple fear of death compete to propel these sometimes frightening lines. Yet fans who have defended Muldoon against accusations of frivolity, of complexity for complexity's sake, may have a hard time defending his latest work. Shaggy-dog stories, sequences driven by repetitions, and meta-meta-poetry ("Far too late to inquire/ why a poem had taken a wrong turn") predominate, while the strongest work conveys a barely deflected despair about art itself: "I'm waiting for some lover/ to kick me out of bed," one sonnet muses, "for having acted on a whim// after I've completely lost the thread." (Sept.)
From the Publisher
“Paul Muldoon is a shape-shifting Proteus to readers who try to pin him down . . . Those who interrogate Muldoon's poems find themselves changing shapes each time he does.” Richard Eder, The New York Times Book Review
“[Maggot] is filled with haunting images of decay and doom, from hares grazing dangerously on a runway to a geisha's body found on a Japanese mountain … Muldoon has recently said that he could give up poetry, but this book suggests it isn't giving up on him.” Patricia Monaghan, Booklist
“Mr. Muldoon revels in the disorder that wriggles beneath and below even the most rigid order … His new work is a teeming infested book from a teeming, infested mind. It bucks what its author calls "this tiresome trend / towards peace and calm.” Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“[Maggot] is grim, grave, swashbuckling, and made from the marrow of English: there may be no more adaptable strong style in the language than Muldoon's.” Dan Chiasson
“In Maggot … the endlessly inventive Paul Muldoon offers his usual sly puzzle disguised as poems … [Muldoon] treats themes of sex, decay and death with startling, acrobatic wit.” Carmela Ciuraru, The Los Angeles Times
“Muldoon has been a major figure in English language poetry for decades. Despite being as established an established poet as the establishment will allow, there is the vivacity in this collection of a poet with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. Maggot is a rare marriage between the frantic radical energy of a rebellious youth and the sophistication of a master of the form.” Josh Cook, Bookslut
“The most formally ambitious and technically innovative of modern poets, he writes poems like no one else . . . [Maggot's] ingenious poems inform and explicate one another, sharing lines, imagery, even epigraphs . . . When Maggot, with a little pressure, opens up, what surfaces is a sad, acidic masterwork. It's about endings: of relationships, of lives. There's betrayal, sex, and violence (always linked in Muldoon) and the dominant trope of decomposition: cancers, sod farms, wayside shrines, even lepers . . . Maggot is enormously dexterous . . . a fine collection by one of our very finest poets.” Nick Laird, New York Review of Books
[Muldoon's] volatile, hard to follow but nearly always worth the breathless chase and ensuing heart palpitations…[Maggot] is a teeming, infested book from a teeming, infested mind. It bucks what its author calls "this tiresome trend/towards peace and calm."
The New York Times
Read an Excerpt
On my own head be it if, after the years of elocution and pianoforte,
the idea that I may have veered
away from the straight
and narrow of Brooklyn or Baltimore for a Baltic state
is one at which, all things being equal, I would demur.
A bit like Edward VII cocking his ear
at the mention of Cork. Yet it seems I've managed nothing more
than to have fetched up here.
To have fetched up here in Vilna—the linen plaids,
the amber, the orange-cap boletus
like a confession extorted from a birch,
the foot-wide pedestal upon which a prisoner would perch
on one leg in the former KGB headquarters
like a white stork
before tipping into a pool of icy water,
to be reinstated more than once by a guard with a pitchfork.
It was with a pitchfork they prodded Topsy, the elephant
that killed her keeper on Coney Island
when he tried to feed her a lit cigarette,
prodded her through Luna Park in her rain-heavy skirt
to where she would surely have been hanged by the neck
had the ASPCA not got themselves into such a lather
and Thomas Edison arrived in the nick
of time to greet the crowd he'd so long hoped to gather.
I myself have been trying to gather the dope
from a KGB surveillance tape
on the Chazon Ish, “the wisest Jew alive,” a master of the catchall
clause who was known to cudgel
his brains in a room high in a Vilna courtyard
on the etymology of “dork”
while proposing that the KGB garotte
might well be a refinement of the Scythian torc.
The Scythian torc had already been lent a new lease
of life as the copper wire with which Edison would splice
Topsy to more than 6,000 volts of alternating current,
though not before he'd prepared the ground
with a boatload of carrots laced with cyanide.
This was 1903. The year in which Edward VII paid
out a copper line from his mustachioed snout
to the electric chair where Edison himself was now belayed.
Now a belayed, bloody prisoner they've put on the spot
and again and again zapped
is the circus rider on a dappled
croup from which he's more than once toppled
into the icy water, spilling his guts
about how his grandfather had somehow fetched up in Cork
straight from the Vilna ghetto,
having misheard, it seems, “Cork” for “New York.”
For New York was indeed the city in which the floor teetered
at a ball thrown in 1860 in honor of Edward
(then Prince of Wales), the city in which even I may have put
myself above all those trampled underfoot,
given my perfect deportment all those years I'd skim
over the dying and the dead
looking up to me as if I might at any moment succumb
to the book balanced on my head.
Excerpted from Maggot by Paul Muldoon.
Copyright © 2010 by Paul Muldoon.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.