Born in 1951 in Co. Armagh, Muldoon studied at Queens University, but moved to the US in 1980, where he is Howard G B Clark Professor in the Humanities at Princeton.
The collection opens with “Cuthbert and the Otters”, dedicated to his close friend and former teacher, Seamus Heaney. Dealing with the founding of Irish Christianity, its Celtic and Viking beginnings, Muldoon locates Heaney’s poetry within a hermitic tradition, suggesting that poetry can work both as a refuge from the world, and as a vehicle for engaging with it.
“Dodgems” considers a family holiday in Portrush in 1960, a typically bleak Ulster summer with
The Freemason’s Hall
boarded up for the whole month of August. The almost constant
Kitsch abounds in the B & B, but the hippie decade announces itself in the copy of Siddhartha on the bookshelf. The reader is directed back to the anticipation, and ultimate disillusionment, of the 60s. Meanwhile, nine-year old Muldoon takes refuge from the boredom at a funfair.
For now I’m joined on the rink by the dodgem boy, an
Our electric pick-up poles are the tails of chipmunks.
“Cuba (2)” recalls two early poems, ”Cuba” and “Anseo” (Irish for “here, present”), both published in Why Brownlee Left, (Faber, 1980). These relate to childhood memories, but in the new poem, Muldoon is
hanging with my daughter in downtown Havana.
She’s worried people think she’s my mail-order bride.
It might be the Anseo tattooed on her ankle…
So from “Cuba” to “Cuba (2)” Muldoon takes us from the threat of nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis to a family holiday in modern Cuba, now a benign destination for Health Tourism and a weakened Communist state..
“Rita Duffy: Watchtower II” refers to Duffy’s painting, used on this collection’s cover, of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The painting depicts a surveillance tower overlooking the patchwork fields of that disputed country. The tower itself has a form oddly suggestive of a human head and torso, at odds with its impersonal function. The poem deals with themes of Empire, colonialization, surveillance, and cross-border smuggling. Inevitably, Muldoon’s Catholic upbringing during the height of the Troubles lends weight to the oppression and danger in these lines.
“Anonymous: From ‘Marban and Guaire”’ is a new translation of a section of the 10th Century Irish Colloquy between King Guaire and Marban the Hermit. The Hermit describes his happiness living out in the forest, among Nature. He describes his outdoor dwelling place as if it were a building…
Heather stands in for its doorposts
and fragrant honeysuckle
binds its lintel fast.
For the benefit of pigs
beech trees let fall beech twigs
and pig-fattening mast.
The dimensions of my hut –
small but not too small –
make it easy enough to defend.
A woman in the guise of a blackbird
spreads the word
from its gable end.
This is Muldoon at his least satirical and most sincere. It could not be stylistically more different from another poem about colonisation and empire, “Dirty Data”, which attacks Northern Irish politicians and the UK government’s stance in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday:
Many of us remember Whitelaw’s speil
about there being no granting of the privy-
lege of ‘political status’ to the prisoners in Magilligan and Long
despite the acknowledgement of their being ‘special category…
One Thousand Things defies summary. It looks back to Muldoon’s childhood but it also looks forward from the present. Muldoon once remarked that a person lives their first five years, then spends the rest of their life trying to make sense of these five years. Something here addresses this conjecture. Its sheer variety of styles and subjects astonishes. From lyricism to excoriating political satire, this collection amply demonstrates Muldoon’s literary dexterity.
Read “Pelt” from From One Thousand Things Worth Knowing