Thursday, January 11, 2007

Paul Muldoon, "The Turn"

In those days when the sands
might shift at any moment, when his mother might at any moment lay
into him, he thought nothing of getting up half-way through a story about the Sahara,
the one about the tribesman following the scent
of water to a water hole, thought nothing of getting up and going out
while he was still half-way through a sentence, going out and taking a turn

about the house, sometimes not bothering to return
for an hour, two hours, a week, a year perhaps, perhaps not until the sands
of time had run out,
not until his favorite guinea hen had brought herself to lay
a double-yolked egg, or the double scent
of the sand-pile and the dunghill made a Sahara

of the yard through which Ned Skinner had moaned 'Saahaara, Saahaara',
the yard in which, after seeing The Four Feathers, he'd taken it upon himself to turn
a stack of pear boxes still redolent of the scent
of pears into a bolster-humped camel that carried him across the endless sands
to where Harry Feversham and himself lay
in wait in a gully for the last of those out-and-out

cowards and scoundrels, the yard in which he'd not only learned to spout
most, if not all, of the main languages of the Sahara
but had such a grasp of the lay
of the land, every twist and turn
of the ergs and regs which looked for all the world like featureless sands,
had so mastered following the scent

of water to a water hole, shielding his eyes from the hen house's flourescent
strip of light, under which he could make out a couple making out
in a featureless room in the old Sands,
or a featureless room in the Sahara,
a light by which he could make out every twist and turn
in what would have seemed to a lay

person a featureless hotel room, a room which offered him an instant replay
of the old bolster and pear-box scent
rising from the camel under him, a scent powerful enough to turn
him around, reminding him that he'd already been out
for an hour, two hours, a week, a year perhaps, having him turn back through the Sahara
in which so many had perished, back through the sands

on which lay the bones of thousands
of his countrymen, through the sand-pile that was not at all reminiscent of the Sahara,
having him turn back inside to pick up his own sentence, to hear himself out.


From Moy Sand and Gravel (2002)

I've heard tell that Muldoon, who teaches creative writing at Princeton, gave the sestina as the class' assignment for one of his workshops and, the next week, this was his own contribution. Of course, that story may be apocryphal, or its events a misleading feint, as Muldoon has also talked about working for years to get a poem to seem as if it was written in five minutes. "The Turn" certainly does strike one, in many ways, as a "workshop poem," in that its whole point seems to be to meet the demands of the form. Muldoon, of course, also plays with those demands — this is a one sentence sestina. It also provides meta-commentary on its form, specifically repetition. One of the narratives I find in this poem is a consideration of cyclic violence, which Muldoon, having lived through the Troubles in Northern Ireland, was very well acquainted with. There are allusions to his abusive and oppressive mother, to the necessary violence of farming (Ned Skinner castrates a litter of swine in a much earlier poem), the connections between sex and violence, and also violence from The Arabian Nights to the British and other imperial campaigns in Africa. Apropos of The Ceasefire Agreement in Northern Ireland, perhaps, the envoi imagines the possibility of escape from these cycles, the chance, as another poem in the volume puts it, of "parley", and understanding.

(Paul Muldoon homepage, including a recording of him reading "The Turn":

1 comment:

Jeni said...

I never knew The Turn was a sestina because I had always heard it read aloud by Paul. He didn't mention that it was a sestina in his introduction. So, it's interesting that you said it has the feel of a workshop poem. Maybe that's because you knew it was a sestina -- because your interaction with the poem was on the page from the start. Never having seen it, I only had Paul's voice on which to rely and he never made it sound like a sestina. He's such a great reader that he didn't give it away. This is all very ironic since the sestina is my favorite form to use. Anyhow, thanks for posting this.