Monday, May 30, 2005

Poem of the Week 5/30/2005: Homesickness


The lion stretched like a sandstone lion on a sandstone slab
of a bridge with one fixture, a gaslight,
looks up from his nicotine-worried forepaw
with the very same air my father, Patrick,
had when the results came back from the lab, that air of anguish-awe
that comes with the realization of just how slight
the chances are of anything doing the trick

as the sun goes down over Ballyknick and Ballymacnab
and a black-winged angel takes flight.

The black-winged angel leaning over the sandstone parapet
of the bridge wears a business suit, dark gray. His hair is slick with pomade.
He turns away as my mother, Brigid,
turned away from not only her sandstone pet
but any concession being made.
The black-winged angel sets her face to the unbending last ray
of evening and meets rigid with rigid

as the sun goes down over Lisnagat and Listamlet
and Clonmore and Clintyclay.

Feckless as he was feckless, as likely as her to be in a foofaraw,
I have it in me to absolutely rant and rail while, for fear of the backlash,
absolutely renounce
the idea of holding anything that might be construed as an opinion.
The lion still looks back to his raw
knuckle and sighs for the possibility that an ounce
of Walnut Plug might shape up from the ash
The angel still threatens to abandon us with a single flick of her pinion

as the sun goes down over Lislasly and Lissaraw
and Derrytrasna and Derrymacash.

Paul Muldoon 2002

Good Evening friends and family! Before I go into this Poem of the Week, I again have something extra to say. Three things, actually. The first is an appreciation; thanks to Steve Fisher for alerting me to see Paul Muldoon talk at the University of Denver, for taking me to see him, and for the book! The second is the story about seeing Muldoon. He was a funny, jolly sort of man: completely friendly (when some people walked in late, he just invited them up to the front and he offered one lady water when she coughed). Afterwards, he signed books for us and I got to ask him a question! I will go into the details when it is relevant in the poem. Finally, I have to say that I am tired and that this poem of the week may be less complete than those of late. I am just going to include things that I noticed and then I am crashing into my bed. So there you go. Happy Memorial Day!

This poem is, to me, quite confusing. The angel changes genders, there are many ambiguous geographical references (though they are probably all places around Muldoon's birthplace in Ireland), we have no idea what Muldoon's mother doesn't concede to, and the last stanza is a hodge podge of old images and lost antecedents. So, I thought that I would start with a little extra information. Adam Newey writes in the New Statesman that Muldoon's poems have no core. They stack images "like a heap of discarded road signs all pointing in different directions." Another difficulty, he notes, is that we are never sure where Muldoon sits within his work; there are overt autobiographical components that end up expanding into something wild or fantastic. This poem is a solid example of this. The parents are certainly Muldoon's parents, and yet their story deals with angels, lions, and ambiguous actions and beliefs. After all, the phrase "feckless as he was feckless" does not help in the least. It reminds me of T.S. Eliot's notes which tend to confuse the reader more rather than elucidating the text. But anyway - the point is that Muldoon tends to blend poet and speaker.

Somewhat luckily, this is nearly precisely the question I asked Muldoon. When talking about a poem in Moy Sand and Gravel, his latest book, he expounded upon the personal experience that helped shape one of the poems he was reading but used "the speaker" once or twice in discussing the text itself. Like "Homesickness," this poem uses his family members' names and has *very* specific biographical notes. So I asked him why he still called him "the speaker" when he seemed to be Muldoon. He answered that the poem is just a representation of a person; it is never quite the whole speaker. Actually, he said something very interesting about it simply being a pastiche of the person he was at that specific time, that moment, and (implicitly) since this has changed, he can no longer claim to be the speaker. So, for this poem, while Muldoon's life may have informed the poem, it by no means holds the key.

Alright: some informal, general thoughts I have about the poem (I do apologise for being so tired - I hope that you will all excuse me. I don't like leaving the poem tangled up. You see, part of what me simply leaving notes here means is that I haven't spent enough time with the poem yet and am too exhausted to do it. And Muldoon is not very accessible. So these are, as Louis Althusser might write, simply "notes towards an investigation.") Notice how Muldoon immediately throws us off in the first line, writing that "the lion sits like a sandstone lion." This is a real lion that is simply acting like a stone one. As for its purpose, I think that the lion is a reflection of the father. This is somewhat blatant, seen in their shared anguish-awe at realizing that nothing is going to really work. Work to do what? For the lion we know - he wants the ash to reform into the tobacco from whence it came. This may illuminate what the father wishes; just as the lion wants the ash to heal into tobacco, the father perhaps wants his body to heal.

The ambiguity that Muldoon leaves concerning Patrick is characteristic of the poem, however. To begin, there are a number of things that the black-winged angel could be. Death? Guardian-angel? Something completely and totally different? So, the fact that the angel changes gender from the second to the third (and possibly even within the second - who is the antecedent for "her"?) stanza is actually consistent with the confusion that runs amok throughout "Homesickness." Why is the title "Homesickness" at all? Is this the father's disease? Why Muldoon wrote it? Perhaps the title explains all of the Irish towns' references in the couplets. Hmm - because night keeps falling over Ireland, the poem's action happens as Muldoon's home memories are fading away. He is homesick, and feels the anguish-awe about the fact that nothing is quite going to heal that. This may be what he is showing in the poem. After all, there is certainly a measure of loss. His father is dying and his mother turned away, stubborn and rigid. The speaker (a version of Muldoon) shows that he opposes this blind insistence, saying that he will "rant and rail" without ever harboring and opinion. He is completely flexible.

But this thought about homesickness doesn't help with the last stanza; the lion's piece is clear, but why would the angel leave? How does the final stanza's first sentence make sense at all? Actually, does it seem at all cohesive? That sentence and the angel still lie knotted beneath the poem for me. Ah well. Just as a magician doesn't alwaysd telll his secrets, I can occasionally leave some statements as mere questions, I guess. If any of you have ideas, let me know! I would love to discuss it with you (in email, voice, or person), and this concludes my notes towards an investigation! Good night!


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