Paul Muldoon’s Frolic and Detour reviewed by Glen Wilson
Frolic and Detour by Paul Muldoon. £14.99. Faber & Faber. Hardback. ISBN: 978-0-571-35449-8
Muldoon’s thirteenth book is definitely not a book by a poet resting on his laurels following on from the excellent A Thousand Things Worth Knowing (2015), Muldoon keeps up his prolific output with this new work. From the cover painting A Place for you by Diarmuid Breen, this collection invites you in, confident that there will be something or some piece that will draw you in and find you well.
‘The Great Horse of the World’ is a sparse but apt opening for this collection as the author as much as the reader, only has so much control over its subject matter, tentatively approaches the horse, it shows where power lies;
The first thing I remember is being stepped on by a horse
while it paused to stale,
paying me no more heed
than it would an upset pail…
It gives you a chance to saddle up before you are taken forward by the tour de force that is ‘Encheiresin Naturae’ (manipulating nature). Originally a creative collaboration with celebrated engraver Barry Moser, Muldoon presents us here with his crown of sonnets sans the engravings that prompted them. Thankfully the poems don’t need the engravings to shed their light, what follows is a sequence that whilst tangential maintains its narrative thrust.
With much of this collection it is the sidelong glances that I found the most rewarding for example;
…No scythesman was a match
for its mobility any more than a woman who gleaned
the field was fit to parley
with the blue tit, the bullfinch, or the nuthatch.
I particularly enjoyed the call and response structure of ‘Corncrake and Curlew’ where Muldoon gives these two analogised birds fresh purpose and heft;
The corncrake marvels at the land being green
although the hays been saved.
The curlew knows the lands so green
because it’s a mass grave.
‘Belfast Hymn’ gives Muldoon a chance to showcase his prosody and lyrical wit, using local idiom in novel ways as he charts a way through the city and its turbulent history.
Although we have much on our plate
we take it as a badge
of honour to eat twice our weight
in wheaten farls and fadge
‘At Tuam’ divines a familial connection to the babies buried, managing to convey their absence in the world but give them some sort of eulogy, to reclaim some sort of connection.
Muldoon weaves these poems not only through his native country but through various locations, adeptly tackling the Easter Rising and the Somme, taking in Reykjavik, Mongolia before returning to his home since the late eighties in America.
Here Muldoon tips his hat to both Springsteen (‘At the River’) and Leonard Cohen (‘Superior Aloeswood’) but for me ‘Wave’ written in memory of C.K. Williams is the most striking;
…You were so tall I could no more reach you
for a farewell hug than scale the Heights of Machu Picchu.
Muldoon also has time to weigh in on Trump and the President’s continued mangling of language and all things decent in ‘Position Paper’.
Loose lips tie knots.
Don’t put the cart before the storm.
Don’t wash your dirty linen in a watched pot.
The leopard can’t change horses in midstream.
Frolic and Detour delivers not only for its many technical exploits, we get the full gamut of Muldoon’s abilities in this collection, but as a tactile piece of work that left vivid images in my mind long after the reading with enough intriguing lines that will keep drawing me back.
Glen Wilson lives in Portadown with his wife and children. He is a civil servant and Worship Leader at St Mark’s Church of Ireland Portadown. He studied English/Politics at Queens University Belfast and has a Post-Grad Diploma in Journalism from the University of Ulster. He has been widely published having work in The Honest Ulsterman, Iota, The Paperclip amongst others. He won the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing in 2017, the Jonathan Swift Creative Writing Award in 2018 and The Trim Poetry competition in 2019. His first collection of poetry An Experience on the Tongue with Doire Press is out now.
Lavinia Greenlaw’s The Built Moment reviewed by Beth McDonough
The Built Moment by Lavinia Greenlaw. £14.99. Faber & Faber. Hardback. ISBN: 978-0571347100
Famously and brilliantly, Elizabeth Bishop subverted the opening line of her poem ‘One Art’: ‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master.’ Arguably, the diagnosis of dementia heralds the ultimate ‘art of losing’ for both the sufferer and attendant family. Lavinia Greenlaw’s remarkable collection, The Built Moment, examines how she, as a daughter, tried to understand, or more accurately contemplate the times of her father’s loss, including, and beyond the resultant bereavement. More unusually perhaps, her poems work hard to uncover and meditate upon her father’s experience in tandem with her own, as he is forced to descend into ‘his disappearance into the present tense’.
Divided in two parts, the collection’s first sequence of poems, entitled ‘The Sea is an Edge and an Ending’, deals with that time of illness. A short film based on the work shares the title. From the Contents page onwards, the litany of loss is established in the titles alone, and it is a journey that will be familiar to many. ‘My father’s weakness’, ‘He scares me’, ‘I have put my father in another room’, ‘If I cannot find him then he must be lost’, ‘My father’s loss of feeling’, ‘My father leaving’ and more.
These poems are almost all fragmentary in scale, which is not to say that they are insignificant. On the page, these compact, contained stanzas are almost overwhelmed, and immediately, those shapes signal the pattern of suffering. These are deceptively accessible poems, written in the uncomplicated language which delivers depth without artifice; the kind of packed and precise phrasing that every poet knows is very hard to achieve.
my father is freeing himself of any obligation to the past.
And so he keeps arriving
in loose parcels he wraps as a gift:
Is this the easiest way to let go?
Not to do it yourself but to pass the act on?
Throughout the collection, there is an understated way with rhyme, a quiet pulse of assonance, and an ability to tell this pain with clarity, which can imply without reliance on the needlessly graphic.
He is doing things that are just frightening enough.
(He scares me)
Greenlaw recounts those early false reassurances. There are the unanswerable questions, and undercurrents of justifiable anger, as well as waves of sadness and fear. Two well-placed prose poems punctuate the section: in the first, ‘His diagnosis’, the lines flicker through the device of cinema, splicing the real and the reeling to find ‘the message had been cut from another film—the one he lived in.’ The second prose poem makes an equally convincing use of the form to evoke ‘The finishing line’:
If I weren’t here, my brother said on the third of the four
days we sat by our father, I’d be running a race dressed as
Right to the ending, where the strangeness of that fancy dress suit finds its metaphorical parallel, there is that loaded, seemingly never-ending, claustrophobic, bleakly strange, and sometimes funny truth of these vigils. That bizarre time is seldom drawn as succinctly as it is here, including the irreverent slip of gallows’ humour. These times, after all, are odd indeed as dying and living overlap. There is something of the unflinching, but also dignified, sharing of privacy in these poems, offered with a grace akin to that in Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap.
In building these considered moments, endings meet beginnings and vice versa. The final poem, ‘My father leaving’ moves to the time just beyond his death, and asks the questions which the second section ‘The Bluebell Horizontal’ develops, and probes. These questions elicit other questions, and there are not always answers. Fittingly, that colour-intense image opens with the titular poem, haiku-like in its clarity and intensity.
That second section is reflective indeed, and in one of its most important questions it wonders at a universal inability to drop suffering even when the opportunity to do so arrives. A very painful realisation in terms of the human condition. There is that post-bereavement need to revisit, to try to understand the incomprehensible, and again, the form of the poems shapes these problems, long before they are read closely:
and let me be good as I am good in my heart
and let it not hurt to remember
and let it stop and let me leave behind
all that has built itself into my heart
and let me find the words and let there be time
(Men I have heard in the night)
There is a significant kind of unanswerable prayerfulness threaded through this sequence, a pondering of the universality of grief. In an examination of the natural word there is a sense growing that the poet is clinging on to the living, and taking nature’s signs close.
We try to accommodate our dead
and make space in ourselves which they do not enter
(Slowly and from within)
The collection’s final poem is a challenge to both her reader and presumably to Greenlaw herself. Recently, Nick Cave responded to a query, about whether AI ‘will ever be able to write a good song’. The musician gave a measured answer. He sounded out ‘human imagination, the last piece of wilderness’ and concluded that the good was possible, but not the great. ‘It lacks the nerve.’ Assuming that must hold true for any art form, in The Built Moment, the poet’s nerve holds, to wire the entirety in a way which is both visceral, and graceful. This is a significant collection, and yes, a great one.
Beth McDonough studied Silversmithing at Glasgow School of Art. After an M.litt at Dundee University, she was Writer in Residence at Dundee Contemporary Arts. Her work connects strongly with place, and particularly to the Tay, where she swims year round. Her poetry is published in Gutter, Stand, Magma and elsewhere. In Handfast (with Ruth Aylett) she explored experiences of autism, as Aylett examined dementia. McDonough’s solo pamphlet, Lamping for pickled fish, is published by 4Word.