Paul Muldoon’s latest collection—his 32nd, if you include cahiers, chapbooks, collaborations, selected, and collected—contains a smorgasbord of trivia: “The wax moth […] can detect sound / frequencies up 300 kHz”; “Che Guevara’s father was one of the Galway Lynches.” Since 1990 Muldoon has grown increasingly allusive, and OTTWK is typically wide-ranging. Themes recur (surveillance, revolution), but for the most part it is a lively grab-bag of arcana, flitting from Buddy Holly to Stonewall Jackson, via Anwar al-Awlaki.
Given that so many of these poems are occasional pieces or commissions, it’s unsurprising to find the book in dialogue with absent sources. Six poems draw their titles from artworks, while another half-dozen respond to earlier literature, including an excellent—and uncharacteristically restrained—version of “Mardan and Guaire,” freely adapted from the medieval Irish. Muldoon’s hermit speaks in rhyming six-line stanzas, praising the simple life to King Guaire (whose quatrains bookend their dialogue). The relaxed, sing-song register and occasional full rhymes offer a departure from his regular pyrotechnics. “A Dent” and “Pelt” strike a similar note.
Three consecutive poems form a loose trilogy of travel-writing. In “Dromedaries and Dung Beetles,” Muldoon urinates in a “piss-poor urinal” in Morocco. In “Some Pitfalls,” he defecates in North Dakota. Each incident acts as a catalyst for historical rumination. Despite their broad scope (Gallipoli, Lewis & Clark), however, both are overshadowed by the third piece, “Cuba (2).” Here, a breezy account of a family holiday (“hanging with my daughter in downtown Havana”) inspires a tragi-comic comparison of the political climate in Cuba, Ireland and the US (“Maybe a diminished seventh isn’t the note / a half-decent revolution should end on?”). It includes this collection’s manifesto:
The best baseball bats are turned from hibiscus.
They’re good against people who get in your way.
The best poems, meanwhile, give the answers
to questions only they have raised.
In Muldoon’s best work, learned humour is built around an emotional core. Without it, his musical virtuosity can descend into baroque showmanship. Luckily, “St Cuthbert and the Otters” strikes that balance exactly. In this moving elegy (his finest since “Incantata”) six otters carrying a fish morph into Seamus Heaney’s funeral procession, with Muldoon as a pallbearer. Drawing on Heaney’s own preoccupations (saints, bogs, etymology), the accumulated trivia here acts not only as a tribute, but as a coping mechanism, a distraction from the task at hand. “In 832, by most tallies, the Vikings did a number / on Armagh not once but thrice. I want that coffin to cut a notch // in my clavicle.” We can learn about Viking invasions, but “as for actually learning to grieve, / it seems to be a nonstarter.”