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Volume 36.2
Summer 2005

book review:

Sixty Instant Messages to Tom Moore
by Paul Muldoon

 

reviewed by David Burleigh

Sixty Instant Messages to Tom Moore, by Paul Muldoon (Lincoln, Ill.: Modern Haiku Press, 2005). ISBN 0-9741894-1-3. 32 pages. Hand set and bound by Swamp Press. 5 x 8, colored inks & paper, hand tied. $20.00 postpaid from Modern Haiku, PO Box 68, Lincoln, IL 60656.

I can still remember my first encounter with the work of Paul Muldoon, in an Irish newspaper about 1970. It was a short poem, but one which delivered a memorable frisson. It was clear at once that here was a poet who knew exactly what he was about, and who almost certainly would
“make it new.” In the three and a half decades since then, Muldoon has engaged and entertained a growing audience of readers. Yet for many of those readers, his work has proved baffling and exciting in nearly equal measure.

Muldoon’s employment of the haiku form is a relatively recent feature of his writing. He has always been attracted to formal patterns, but the haiku only appears in his later work, the poetry he has written since he settled in the United States, and is perhaps a reflection of the life he now enjoys there. A sequence of ninety verses, called “Hopewell Haiku,” after the place that he
was then living in New Jersey, appeared as a chapbook, with seasonal illustrations, in 1997, and was incorporated into his next collection, Hay (1998). The sequence can be read, therefore, either independently, or as part of a larger collection, since various references to “hay” connect it to the other poems in the longer volume. A shorter sequence, of nineteen verses, called “News Headlines from the Homer Noble Farm,” appeared in The New Yorker before
it was collected in the poet’s next volume, Moy Sand and Gravel (2002), which received a Pulitzer Prize. These humorous “headlines” originate from the summer home of Robert Frost, an important early influence on the poet. The new sequence, Sixty Instant Messages for Tom Moore, published by Modern Haiku, is Muldoon’s third venture in this form. The singular feature of Muldoon’s haiku is that they rhyme, both individually and as part of a complex pattern within the sequence as a whole. They are also composed, fairly strictly, in 5–7–5.

One’s first impression of the sixty messages inscribed in these syllabic verses, is that they record a holiday in Bermuda. But since Muldoon’s poetry is not only abstruse, but highly self-reflexive too, it is not surprising to find an earlier adumbration of the material. Thomas Moore (1779–1852), the hugely popular romantic Irish poet, turns up in Madoc: A Mystery (1990), where:

all London hails
the self-evidently angel-voiced
Tom Moore as the new Anacreon

[More]

Odes of Anacreon (1800), a collection of translations from the Greek, was Moore’s first volume, and Muldoon refers to him in the poem as a “leprechaun” because The Poetical Works of the Late Thomas Little Esq. (1801) was his second. Each section of Muldoon’s long poem carries the name of a philosopher, and in a later one:

The Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary
of His Britannic Majesty,

one Anthony Merry
(though ‘merry’ is hardly le mot juste) juste

laboriously
presents Tom Moore, late of Bermuda,

to Jefferson …

[Burke]

Here we have the connection, for Moore, a close friend of Lord Byron (a selection of whose work Muldoon has edited), was appointed Registrar to the Admiralty Prize Court in Bermuda in 1803, and spent some time there before appointing a deputy (who robbed him), and going back to London. Moore’s impressions of his time there, and of his travels in the United States, were
recorded in Epistles, Odes, and Other Poems (1806), from which Muldoon also quotes in Madoc. The short segments of Muldoon’s long poem are in turn an
imaginary exploration of a plan by two English Romantic poets to set up a utopian community in the New World. It is not necessary to study all this in order to read Sixty Instant Messages, but it is helpful to be aware that the earlier
Irish poet’s experience of Bermuda lies behind Paul Muldoon’s own (real or imaginary) sojourn there two hundred years on.

What, then, are the pleasures that this little volume has to offer? This is the
opening verse:

Hamilton. Tweeds? Tux?
Baloney? Abalone?
Flux, Tom. Constant flux.

First, the location is specific, the capital of Bermuda. Second, the poet is in a quandary, unsure whether to be formal or informal, or even rural or urban. Third is the possibility that none of it matters anyway. Fourth is a frivolous sound-association, raising another question. Last comes a shaking of the head, or a sigh of resignation. All this is characteristic of the poet, from the casual way that one thing drifts into another, to the strict enclosure of a form. It is the exact quality of contemporary living.

Life may be lived in the present, but it is freighted, as we ourselves are, with the past. The third verse alludes to the historical past, as well as obliquely to a more personal one:

The Big House, you see,
still stands, though now the tenants
are the absentees.

The Big House was a marked feature of the Irish landscape during the colonial period. It was usually the property of landowners resident in England, and these “absentee” landlords were the bane of the native tenants’ lives. In a second sense, the British government residence in Bermuda, which is still a colonial possession, may be the same one as that occupied by the “absent” Registrar Tom Moore. In a third sense, more tentatively, this large residence may be the home of Irish poetry, or poets, from which Muldoon himself is absent, but to which he casts a backward glance over the Atlantic. The hint of nostalgia is very faint, but is echoed in verse V,
by a mention of “the auld sod.” Though one of the islands of Bermuda is called Ireland, it is notable that the poet here locates himself on neither side of the Atlantic.

In verse IV, meanwhile, the time of the visit is set clearly:

Good Friday. We fly
a kite over Bermuda.
Our cross in the sky.

A number of the poems celebrate, in the naming of things, a new and unfamiliar place. Thus we have references to tree-frog and albatross, to longtail and barracuda. The local flora and fauna are not just named, but carefully observed (XI):

Matted twigs and moss.
Herons turn copper-blue eggs.
Boys play pitch and toss.

The image is suddenly vivid, only to be laid aside for something else. Yet the verse before this wryly states that not everything is new (X):

What we knew as scutch
back home is “Bermudagrass”.
A crutch is a crutch.

This feeling of uncertainty is part of the experience of travel, and there is a suggestion that the language itself is somehow a kind of “crutch.” The collecting of souvenirs produces further ambiguity and doubt (XIX):

Wasp-nest on the shelf?
Or a papier-mâché
maquette of itself?

How can we know? The ambiguity is teasing. The poet’s playful language can whimsically express the most ordinary travel hazard (XXIX):

The worm that attacks
my large intestine has cut
me a little slack.

The droll humor in Muldoon makes him one of the most enjoyable poets to read, even when one doesn’t understand him.

Numerous historical and sea-going allusions in the poems, are mixed with observations of the young on holiday, of romance and rock music, mingling the many elements that a tourist might experience. Muldoon can sometimes be wistfully erotic (XXXI):

Once a lichened breast
turning from lake to lilac
was the litmus test.

The colors here may have been deliberately chosen to blend with those in other verses. But Muldoon can also beautifully time a joke about the past, before it brings us to the present (LIII):

A pre-dawn volley
of shots, bottoms up, chin-chin,
from the drinks trolley.

Here the “shots” remind initially us of Tom Moore challenging a critical reviewer to a duel that ended good-naturedly, much as the poem ends when we realize the “shots” are of another kind. At the end of the sequence, the bibulous poet finds himself “[c]ompletely at odds” with his companion. So what are we to make of all of this?

Muldoon’s first exercise in writing 17-syllable poems produced a degree of consternation among haiku aficionados. On the one hand, the strict adherence to 5–7–5 and the use of end-rhyme, drawn apparently from the work of Harold G. Henderson and Kenneth Yasuda, seemed old-fashioned. Most practitioners now eschew this pattern, and prefer a freer form. And on the other hand, the poet’s use of word-play, and a whole bag of other literary tricks like personification, seemed to belie the pure directness advocated by the most prominent promoters of the form in English. Reviews of the work were sometimes tinged with hostility or indignation, in perhaps another echo of Tom Moore. But there are undoubtedly well-observed moments in the new
sequence (XXIV):

The sput-sputter-sput
where the idling fish-torcher
lights on halibut.

William J. Higginson, who contributes a foreword, has already written here (Modern Haiku 35.2 [summer 2004]) about Muldoon the haiku poet. In that essay he took certain verses from the “Hopewell” sequence and set them against haiku in Japanese that they seemed to recall. In a similar fashion, referring to the verse above, one might say that cormorant-fishing (ukai), using ukai torches to attract the fish, is an ancient custom in Japan, that evokes a mood and season, and is thus a season word. In Muldoon’s verse, however, it is the sputtering of the boat engine that we register, in preparation for the rhyme.

Again, “lights on” in the final line produces a characteristically clever play on words (find / flame). The effect is quite different from the nostalgic loneliness evoked by the season word in Japanese. Higginson’s approach, while attractive for the haiku devotee, offers only a partial and limited reading of the work, since he entirely ignores the multiple references to other texts in the
“Hopewell Haiku.” These include obvious allusions to Robert Frost and Herman Melville, for example. The play on Yeats, and on medieval Irish poetry, may have been less familiar to him, but not to acknowledge the highly intertextual nature of the work, is to overlook much of what is actually there. Generally American haiku do not allude much to other kinds of poetry in English, let alone to other literary forms. There is an occasional play, or replay, of a well-known verse in Japanese, by Bashô or Issa usually, and little more. Yet it is important to remember that Bashô himself drew on other poetry before him, and that the full appreciation of his work depends on understanding such contexts and allusions. As Haruo Shirane explains in Traces of Dreams, each new play or replay, allusion or revision, contributes to the One Great Poem that every writer somehow takes part in composing. In that sense, Muldoon participates significantly in a collaborative literary composition, in the way that modern literary theory describes it.

The Higginson approach, while partial, has something to contribute under that general rubric.
Another reading of the “Hopewell Haiku,” this time by a Japanese scholar, Nobuaki Tochigi, attempted to understand the sequence as a solo renga, or linked-verse sequence, again pointing to precedents in Japanese. The practice of shared composition dates back further than the time of Bashô, and Tochigi, while fully aware of the Irish and other literary references, sought to discover a similarity in technique in terms of the shifting associations between the moments represented by the verses. Viewed this way, the sequence of fragments becomes a string of varied moods and moments, and this too is a valid approach. It is not clear, however, whether Muldoon consciously follows an established pattern of any kind in terms of content, though there are verses that refer to love, the moon, and so on in both that sequence and the new one, as there are in renga.

A further reading of the “Hopewell” sequence, by the Irish critic Edna Longley, sees it as expressing Muldoon’s adaptation to his new home in the United States, with certain wry references to pioneers. Longley’s is one of the most acute of all these readings, since she has long been familiar with the poet and his work. The new location, far west of Ireland, but still east of the United States, provides a whole new “take” on the poet’s situation. All of these approaches have something to offer, and there are signs that the work can submit to all of them at once. The preliminary chapbook presentation of the longer sequences appears to encourage a variety of readings, independently of their place in any larger schema.

The verses in Sixty Instant Messages to Tom Moore are printed three to a page, like many collections of English haiku. We are thus invited to see them as short rhyming verses, and may not fully register at first the complicated rhyme scheme. In each verse the first and third lines rhyme, while the second apparently does not. A closer look, however, shows that, as with the
“Hopewell Haiku,” each second line also rhymes with the first and third lines of a poem five verses on, VI picking up from I, VII from II, and so on. In Hay, the earlier sequence is printed five verses to a page, so that each verse is complemented by the one opposite on the facing page. The second line of each of the last five verses also rhymes with the first and third lines of each of the first five, pairing I with LVI, and so on, creating a circular effect. This is a much
more rigorous and complex pattern than the terza rima of the shorter “Homer Noble Farm” sequence. Muldoon’s handling of these elaborate patterns, like his earlier work with the sonnet and the sestina, forms which he has stretched and tested in extraordinary ways, clearly gives him technical satisfaction. The delayed rhymes and many intertextual allusions have sometimes been taken as unduly complex and abstruse, but the dexterity and brilliance is undeniable, and the pleasures of the text are consequently diverse.

It is possible, really, to take each sequence simply as a triple-striped stick of candy, consumed in little bites, there being quite enough to enjoy simply from the use of language, the sound patterns and unusual words, the jokes and lewd asides. Despite the Joycean rigors of the pattern, which is as intricate and demanding as Ulysses, the tone throughout is conversational. Muldoon himself is often present in the poems, but as a bemused persona rather than a thrusting ego. Lee Gurga suggests in an afterword that the verbal tricks in the poems sometimes say “look at me,” rather than “look at this.” But it seems to me that what the word-play foregrounds is language itself, in all of its uncertainty and strangeness. Surely words, as
much as objects, form the texture of our living in the world today?

Tim Kendall, one of Muldoon’s most detailed interpreters, traces through his work an attempt to resolve a putative division in the poet’s background, between his mother’s bookishness and his father’s closeness to the earth. We find this in Sixty Instant Messages as well (XLIV):

Nostalgie de la
boue la boue la boue la boue:
an all-Ireland fleadh.

This is a humorous aside, directed at other Irish poets, including Seamus Heaney. “Nostalgie de la boue” is a longing for low-life or the soil, while a “fleadh” (pronounced flah) is an Irish festival of dancing, which the drumbeat of the second line prepares us for. From this verse I then skip forward, to the verse that is opposite or complementary, the one that picks up the chain of rhyme (XLIX):

Orange overshoes
make the puffin less nimble
on dry land, it’s true.

Ostensibly, this is an amusing portrait of a seabird, yet in Ireland (because of the “orange”), I might read this as a reference to the gracelessness or awkwardness of Ulster Protestants, out of their element somehow. In a like manner, too, I might read the earlier “Big House” as the British Broadcasting Corporation that Muldoon, himself a Catholic, worked for formerly in Belfast. The whole text is fraught with such ambiguities, barely contained in the tightly patterned format. The very ambiguities enable and allow such varied or uncertain
readings.

Returning to the renga parallel, I notice that there is an Irish reference in the third verse of the both “Hopewell” sequence and the new one, and there are certainly other references (to frogs and scythes and so on) repeated from one to the other, though I could not discern any overall pattern in terms of content. Yet undoubtedly the formal constraints that Muldoon has set himself
to work within help to produce the accidental felicities of rhyme and meaning that enrich his work, just as the framework of a shared renga composition forces the participants to work within a binding set of rules with comparable results.

The strict syllabics of Sixty Instant Messages to Tom Moore both contain and evoke the richly associative encounters and collisions that we make in contemporary living. The range of reference in these verses, drawn from the poet’s formidable reading, may be broader than we expect from English haiku, yet there are haiku poets in Japan who are just as playful and as complex as Muldoon. Again, the “great quotidian” is something that the poet, writing to celebrate a birth or elegize a death, or just to record the ordinary events of daily life, has
always been deeply interested in: it is mentioned specifically in both of the collections that he published in 1994, for one of which it provides the title. This very attractively designed and printed little volume adds a new terrain. It does seem time for us to widen our conception of what a haiku may or can be when we encounter a poet as singular as Paul Muldoon.

 

WORKS CITED

Kendall, Tim. Paul Muldoon. Bridgend, Mid Glamorgan: Seren, 1996.

Longley, Edna. “Irish Bards and American Audiences.” Poetry & Posterity. Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2000.

Muldoon, Paul. The Annals of Chile. London: Faber & Faber, 1994.

———, Hay. London: Faber & Faber, 1998.

———, Madoc. London: Faber & Faber, 1990.

———, Moy Sand and Gravel. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002. Gravel

———, The Prince of the Quotidian. Loughcrew, County Meath: The Gallery Press, 1994.

Shirane, Haruo. Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory and the Poetry of Bashô.
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Tochigi, Nobuaki. “Paul Muldoon’s ‘whimful game’ in ‘Hopewell Haiku’” in Journal of Irish Studies
XIX. IASIL Japan 2004.

 

 

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