Paul Muldoon

You can't go home again (?)

The novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne served for four years as US consul in Liverpool. During his time in England he wrote the following:

The years, after all, have a kind of emptiness when we spend too many of them on a foreign shore. We defer the reality of life, in such cases, until a future moment when we shall again breathe our native air; but, by and by there are no future moments; or, if we do return, we find that the native air has lost its invigorating quality, and that life has shifted its reality to the spot where we have deemed ourselves only temporary residents. Thus, between two countries we have none at all, or only that little space of either in which we finally lay down our discontented bones.

My mother used to carry this quote inside her wallet, which is when I first came across it, long before I had myself become an expatriate. My mother would not have known when she cut it out of  ArtNews Annual in 1966 (where it was in turn quoted by John Ashbery in an article about American painters in Paris) that she was to spend the last five years of her life in London. But something attracted her to Hawthorne’s words, perhaps a sense that she was in some way an outsider, especially during her childhood in Newburgh, New York. She found the invigorating air Hawthorne talks about in Manhattan, a place (with a Native American name) that doesn’t really belong to America, international and cosmopolitan as it is. And I found that invigorating air in London, so I’ve never really believed Hawthorne’s assessment. For years now I’ve maintained that I become more foreign each time I return to the US, and to a certain degree this is true. My accent puzzles people, they can’t place me, can’t work out where I’m from. But in my 28th year as a Londoner, I feel as if Hawthorne’s words are pertinent, and I am going through an identity crisis.

This came to the fore during my visit to SUNY Fredonia, where I had been invited to give a talk and a reading of my work. The students seemed especially curious to know how I ended up in London (most of them were around the age I was when I left the US), if I found British words and expressions creeping into my work, if I thought I had a different view of London than those who’d been born there. During the reading I found myself darting between New York (I read a number of poems from my Jackson Pollock sequence) and London (characterised by Vici’s Formerly photographs). London is my home now, but there is something that continues to draw me to my birth country, especially now that the ties I have to it are increasingly diminishing.

My father would have been 100 earlier this month. I started my trip at his grave, with a copy of Christina Rossetti’s Selected Poems, a stone to lay, and some of my mother’s ashes to scatter. Rossetti has been a poet very much present for me over the last few months. If Rossetti has a ‘theme’ (and I believe most poets do) it is mortality and remembrance. It has struck me powerfully in recent days that once someone is permanently gone from your life, your memories are all you have left; selected and constructed from life, but still edited highlights, and therefore often unreliable. I have always loved this poem by Sheenagh Pugh, which for me captures perfectly this condition:

Times Like Places

There are times like places: there is weather
the shape of moments. Dark afternoons
by a fire are Craster in the rain
and a pub they happened on, unlooked-for
and welcoming, while a North Sea gale
spat spume at the rattling windows.

And most August middays can take him
to the village in Sachsen-Anhalt,
its windows shuttered against the sun
and a hen sleeping in the dusty road,
the day they picked cherries in a garden
so quiet, they could hear each other breathe.

Nor can he ever be on a ferry,
looking back at a boat’s wake, and not think
of the still, glassy morning off the Hook,
when it dawned on him they didn’t talk
in sentences any more: didn’t need to,
each knowing what the other would say.

The worst was Aberdeen, when they walked
the length of Union Street not speaking,
choking up, glancing sideways at each other,
but never at the same time. Black cats
and windy bridges bring it all back,
eyes stinging. Yet even this memory

is dear to him, now that no place or weather
or time of day can happen to them both.
On clear winter nights, he scans the sky
for Orion’s three-starred belt, remembering
whose arms warmed him, the cold night
he first saw it, who told him its name.

It is that idea that place, as much as the people who occupy it, also vanishes with time. With this in mind, my husband and I took a drive through Colts Neck, the small township in New Jersey where I spent the first seventeen years of my life. My mother had a framed picture of our house on her wall in London; the house is still standing, but it is much altered, and I found myself wondering if we had come to the right house, even though I knew for certain it was the one. I would have stayed in the car, but Andrew, curious about the place I’d talked about for years, got out and rang the bell. And someone was home, a woman who had lived in the house for the past 26 years, which immediately cheered me – someone loved it enough to invest a good portion of her life there. She asked if I wanted to have a walk around the grounds, and I said yes, even though part of me wanted to drive away immediately. What was strange was the sense of confusion I had in a place I thought I would always be able to navigate, as I knew every blade of grass. But that is because my childhood home has been sealed in memory, and in the land of memory, nothing ever changes. But the memory bank for the house closed thirty years ago, and in real time, much has happened, people have got on with their lives. I found the only way I could really navigate the familiar alien terrain was by certain trees that were still standing; many had gone. But I came away thinking that as much as I remembered, I was not remembered. The house was not sentimental, it would hold whoever occupied it, the same floorboards would creek under different feet. The windowsill in my old room where I’d carved my initials had been certainly painted over years ago.

In her years in London she missed America terribly, the familiar air. As much as she always loved London, her memory of the city stretches back to the early 50s, and the many years she came with my father. The London I live in was sometimes difficult for her, as most cities are when you are older. She used to love the towpath along the Delaware and Raritan Canal, where she walked for many years. As I walked the towpath for the first time in many years, I thought about why we love places, why they become important to us. Canals are interesting places, a man-made intervention in the landscape  created to connect one body of water to another. Longtime Hopewell resident Paul Muldoon has written about the canal, making the connection between himself, the Irish poet living in America, and the Irish navvies who dug the canal (many losing their lives in the process) nearly 150 years ago.

My mother just thought it was a pretty place to walk. And it is – the long towpath separating canal from river, so you feel as if you are on a island, isolated from the busy world around you. But it is also a place of connections: land to water, water to water. She didn’t know she’d be making the long journey over the ocean so late in life. I realised as I scattered more of her ashes on the towpath that I was bringing her home, to her invigorating air.

Where all sounds count

I start the new year enjoying the sound of poems (always in tandem with thinking about how they look on the page, of course), how they enter ear and brain through being spoken and received. This consideration of the music of words comes from a pleasant conflation of events – my recent performances of Formerly with musician Douglas Benford; a great evening with the visiting American poet DA Powell (with equally terrific turns from Amy Key and John McCullough); a fabulous reading in Dorset, participating with fellow poets Tim Cumming, Annie Freud and Bethany Pope; and my attendance at last night’s TS Eliot Prize event. These readings and performances have coincided with a recording session of my first workshop as MP3 download: watch this space for more on that in the next few weeks.

Listening to other poets read their work is always a valuable experience – there are issues of pace and voice and cadence that can only be understood by hearing a poem in its composer’s voice. I was thinking of that the last time I heard Paul Muldoon – I find his work is best read aloud to get the extraordinary richness of his word play, but my flat American vowels can never quite do justice to his Irish lilt. We are lucky to have resources such as the Poetry Archive, which brings together recordings of some of the best living poets, but also those who are no longer with us. I regret never seeing Ted Hughes read his work, but his poems come to life for me in being able to hear him.

Someone asked me if performing with Douglas, who has created an urban soundscape for the Formerly poems, alters the way I read. Invariably, Douglas’s rhythms change my own, and I find myself falling into the patterns of the soundtrack, but the soundtrack has also been created from listening to the poems, so the two complement each other.

I’m sure working with him has made me bolder as a performer; I think of people like Patti Smith or Laurie Anderson who are constantly working in the space between music and words – I wish I were as amazing as either one of them, but they are certainly inspirational in showing me how it can be done. Then there are those extraordinary poets such as Paul Dutton, for whom the boundary between music and word merges, and an orchestra can be created from a human mouth.

Over the years, I’ve given much thought to how to present poems to an audience. A live reading is inevitably a very different experience than reading from a book or composing, as both of those are intimate and largely silent (although, as I’ve said above, sometimes speaking poems aloud helps me hear and comprehend, both in reading the work of others and composing my own). An audience is a dynamic structure, sometimes responding back to what a poet gives them; there’s such a thing as a poetry hum or sigh, which an audience emits if a poem pleases them. The beats many years ago used to click or snap their fingers, and sometimes if a poem is a real show-stopper, a round of applause is in order (although I feel poetry readings are like classical concerts, and it never feels quite right to me to applaud between poems!). There is also the vexed question as to whether poets should provide a bit of talk or banter or explanation between poems. As long as it doesn’t overpower or interrupt the actual work, I like it when a poet ‘talks’ to the audience. As a writer, I have always thought that I am a split personality – my writing isn’t necessarily like my speaking, and the way I order my words is a different experience than the way I tell a story when I’m just talking casually. Talking between poems is a way of connecting, a way of introducing not just the poems by oneself to an audience, and so an integral part of a reading, just as choosing what poems to read for each occasion (and selecting a pair of earrings of course. The American poet Tess Gallagher once said to me that it is crucial to wear ‘statement’ jewellery when doing a reading – I think she was wearing a stunning Native American necklace of silver and turquoise at the time – so that the audience has something to look at apart from face and book).

I often wonder if the reading the finalists give the night before has any bearing on the results of the Eliot prize. There were some fine readings last night (and a few jokes between poems too), so I’ll be interested to see what the result is when they award the prize this evening.

Picture is from Janet Cardiff’s installation Forty Part Motet.

Nature morte

On the cover of Paul Muldoon’s most recent collection, Maggot, is a photograph of a dead bird. The bird is not pretty or peaceful in death, like those Victorian depictions of Cock Robin (thinking particularly of the amazing tableaux created by the taxidermist Walter Potter for his Museum of Curiosities). The bird is in the process of decomposition, and we can see through its feathers and flesh, straight to its bones, the contents of its stomach – the plastic detritus of beaches and garbage dumps which probably aided its death. The bird is a dull brown (apart from the brightly-coloured plastic exposed once again to the elements) to match the earth it lies on; eventually it will merge with the earth.  The earth is as parched and dead as the bird.

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but the poems in this book are about the body in its slow crawl to disintegration. In an interview in the Economist, where it was suggested that the subject matter explores the ‘grotesque’, Muldoon said:

I don’t know where the grotesque begins and ends. It first refers, as you know, to paintings seen in grottoes or the basements of ancient buildings in which there were murals that represented animals and human figures that were seen as being somehow distorted or exaggerated. I think the business of making metaphors almost inevitably involves distortion or exaggeration. My love is like a red red rose only in a very specific sense. I tend to see the canker in the rose, I guess, which may account for your sense of the grotesque. A grotesque is also a term for a clown or a fool and there’s a lot of clowning in these poems. A lot of acting the maggot, as we describe acting the buffoon. The clown’s face is a death mask, I suppose.

But my purpose is not to discuss Muldoon’s book, as many critics have done that already, really more to think why death continues to be so attractive a subject for poets, as it has been for many years (reading Muldoon’s recent poems took me back to Marvell’s ‘To his Coy Mistress’ and Donne’s ‘The Funerall’, those dead poets we still carry with us as living poets). The most obvious reason must be the inevitable truth of death; the poet’s need to explore the notion of his/her own mortality (not to mention the desire to leave something of oneself for posterity, even if what you leave behind is a few slim volumes).

But there is more to it than that. Poets like to get below the surface of things, to dig deep, and once you’ve described the sweet soft flesh of a lover, it is only natural to want to get under the skin; so that the poet is a kind of maggot too, not just in the sense of the clown as Muldoon has suggested, but as a seeker of deeper meanings. Poets are parasitical, in that they steal from each other, feeding off those poets of the past that they love, but also feeding off their loved ones for their stories and their emotions. Anything for a good poem.

Also, a lot of poets live in a continual state of greyness. By that I mean they (and here, as throughout, I really mean ‘I’) see both sides of every situation, and often there is a chink of blackness within the light. But that doesn’t mean they are depressing, just realistic. There is not a lot of joy in our current world, and any joy we make comes from human contact and communication. As Muldoon reminds us, the rose will wither and die. The point is that it is beautiful for a moment. The moment is important, but so is what comes after.

In my recent reading of nature poems for my upcoming workshops, I have been struck by the amount of ‘dead nature’ I’ve encountered. Perhaps a chance for the poet to view up close a creature that was in life too fast to capture. Perhaps an opportunity for comparison as well as reflection. Muldoon reminds us, after all, that the poet is in the business of making metaphors. Death presents us with a way of saying a few final words on what finality really means.


More dead birds, and other creatures here, courtesy of poet Karen McCarthy Woolf, whose poem ‘Wing’ was featured in the Winter issue of Poetry Review :

Full Muldoon interview here:

Image is Cezanne’s Nature Morte, 1866-67