Maggot by Paul MuldoonNearly every poem in Maggot, Paul Muldoon's brilliant new collection, rewards close reading and research. From the opening poem, “Plan B,” which makes us imagine “plan A”; to the images piled like presents under the tree in “A Christmas in the Fifties”; to exploring the relationship between effectiveness and truthfulness in images in “Moryson's Fancy”; right on through to the wayward shrines in “Wayward Shrines”; the poems invite and reward your concentration. This doesn't mean they are dense labors of profundity (though I would suggest reading with a dictionary), but they are works of rich images, and artifices of evocative language that imply much more than they state. A great poem is really an infinite number of poems; its significance transforms upon each reading. Only having read the poems a few times each, I can't say whether any of them are great, but I can say nearly all have the potential to be great. And I can say this is one of the best collections I've reviewed.
Maggot features of number of long poems that appropriate the techniques of novels, including foreshadowing, suspense, characters, and theme development, without actually telling prose stories. It's like Muldoon shined a spotlight on the novel and turned its shadow into a poem. These shadow novels invite the techniques one uses when reading a novel, without asking the reader to discard the techniques used when reading a poem. For example, in “The Side Project,” the recurrence of characters such as “Jumbo” and “Barnum” and other circus and side show images, combined with a refrain that sets all the sections, “Forty years,” from something, gives the poem the air of a fictionalized history of circuses and sideshows, while the enjambment, aural structure, and fluidity of images maximizes the effect of the grammar of poetry. The best of these shadow novels, and the best poem in the collection, and probably one of the best poems published in 2010, is “The Humors of Hakone.”
In it, Muldoon evokes the visuals and atmosphere of an arty anime noir detective movie. Every section seems to be a crime scene in some kind of serial affront to society, but the detective can't even be sure threads of evidence exist, let alone begin to weave them into an arrest. Often, even the nature or the fact of a crime is a mystery. Section II opens with, “It was now far too late to know if this was even the scene of the crime,” sustaining a major motif in the poem; “Too late.” The detective is constantly too late to detect; “Too late to determine how long the girl I'd also glimpsed at the hot spring / had been beleaguered by pupae”; “It was far too late to have forsworn / my ambition to eat globefish in an attempt to buck this tiresome trend / towards peace and calm”; and “It was far too late to reconstruct the train station bento box / she bought at Kyoto-eki the night before she took her vows / and threw up in the hollyhocks,” for example. This perpetual lateness feeds into another motif; the disintegration of forensic evidence. By the time the detective arrives, the tangible information contained in the body is gone: “Too late to establish by autolysis, not to speak of heat loss, / the precise time of death on the road to Edo.”
The opening stanza introduces the idea of poem as crime scene, “Now something was raising a stink. / A poem decomposing around what looked like an arrow. / Her stomach contents ink.” This idea is reintroduced much later in section VI: “Too late to insist that the body of a poem is no less sacred / than a temple with its banner gash”; and “Too late to divine / that what was now merely the air pocket of a capsized boat / had been a poem decomposing around a quill”; and then is consistently revisited in the concluding sections as the “poem” transforms into a “cadaver.” There is something attractive about the idea of poem as crime scene, that poems can be “solved” if intellect and rationale are applied to the evidence, that questions can be answered. But Muldoon is making a contradictory point. There is no solving the crimes in this poem. The detective arrives, catalogs what cannot be known and leaves. The poem can never be solved because the writing of it, the fixing of it in permanent words, inherently destroys the it that the poem might have been the evidence of. The poem as crime scene is not a moment of discovery; it is one of creation.
There is much more to “The Humors of Hakone,” including one of the defining characteristics of the collection. Many of the poems are exercises in image arrangement and image regurgitation. An image or series of images, like the “sticker-photo booth,” in “The Humors of Hakone,” or “Jumbo” in “The Side Project,” is bent, twisted, skewed, and reexamined as the poem progresses, bringing different facets of it into focus. In a way, it's not unlike how maggots “process” a corpse.
This processing of images is facilitated by the sophisticated use of structure. Rhyme schemes, half rhymes, balanced meters, enjambment, and other techniques of the craft of poetry all contribute to the significance of the placement of the images in the poems. However, the structural success of the poems goes beyond scansion. One does not need to write a sonnet to utilize sophisticated structure. Along with the sounds and syllables of the words, there is a rhythm to the images, a sense of volley and tiding that gives an artfulness to the repetition of phrases, making each appearance of, for example, “hedgehog” from “When the Pie Was Opened” a fresh occurrence.
Along with everything else going on, this collection has a real sense of joy, a palpable sense that, regardless of what Muldoon was writing, he was having fun writing it. Furthermore, this has a youthful feel to it, as if it's a first collection by a poet who thinks he's on to something. In a way, this might be the most impressive feat of the collection. Muldoon is the author of ten books of poetry, has won the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Irish Times Poetry Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the Griffin International Prize for Excellence in Poetry and others, and delivered fifteen lectures on poetry at Oxford University from 1999 to 2004, collected in the book The End of the Poem. 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 subtlety and sophistication of a master of the form.
Maggot by Paul Muldoon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux