Monday, February 26, 2007

Paul Muldoon, "Ma"

Old photographs would have her bookish, sitting
Under a willow. I take that to be a croquet
Lawn. She reads aloud, no doubt from Rupert Brooke.
The month is always May or June.

Or with the stranger on the motor-bike.
Not my father, no. This one's all crew-cut
And polished brass buttons.
An American soldier, perhaps.
_______________________And the full moon
Swaying over Keenaghan, the orchards and the cannery,
Thins to a last yellow-hammer, and goes.
The neighbours gather, all Keenaghan and Collegelands.
There is story-telling. Old miners at Coalisland
Going into the ground. Swinging, for fear of the gas,
The soft flame of a canary.


From Mules (1977)

This week we take a few of my favorite examples of one of my favorite forms—the elegy. I've decided to put TPQ on indefinite hiatus—though I love doing it, it takes up rather a large portion of time and energy which I feel the need of for the furthering of my own reading and the pursuit of my own writing. I'll probably still post a little something from time to time, and maybe take up regular updates when I go back to a student's schedule in another year or two... but, for now, a week of poems on death to sing the current incarnation of TPQ to a close.
To start this week (and to continue it, as you'll see tomorrow) I've chosen this poem by Paul Muldoon, his first certifiable parental elegy, arguably one of the major genres in his body of work. Here we have an example of an oblique approach to elegy: Muldoon's lost mother is hardly mentioned, her death only implied. The first eight lines of the sonnet portray the lost beloved's presence-in-absence, invoking objects that provoke memories, but in doing so fall short of the real life of the lost. The fact that the time 'recalled' here is in fact from before the speaker's own life and context—he can hardly say who she was before she was his mother—further dramatizes the objective separation of the other from the subject, as irretrievable as the past itself, or some idealized, impossible place out of time, that "is always May or June."
The sonnet's sestet shifts to enacting the beloved's disappearance through a delicate modulation of images that resonate with traditional tropes of death. First there is the diminishing of the waning moon. Muldoon then alludes to communal traditions of commemoration of the dead: "There is story-telling" and the poem stretches from the Irish parish of Coalisland to the Classical underworld of Hades, though at the same time implicitly referencing burial: "Old miners ... / Going into the ground." The final image of the canary-flame unites the diminishing light of the moon, the Classical movement underground of the miners, and an oblique allusion to death in the practical use miners made of the canary. In this case, the mother becomes a tender protector once more, as the first to cross over into death, a soft comfort lighting the way, a way which all must follow. This transformation is likewise embodied in the transformation-by-metaphor of the physical canary into the immaterial flame. At the same time, the the poem's pararhymes, approaching but never reaching a perfect chime, undercut any sense of closure, reflecting the way that possession of the dead beloved continually and inevitably escapes the elegist's attempts to make her present through the poem.

1 comment:

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