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Cancer and the Ethics of Representation in Paul Muldoon's Horse Latitudes

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 16, Number 4, Geimhreadh/Winter 2012
pp. 18-36 | 10.1353/nhr.2012.0058

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In a 1999 interview, Paul Muldoon asserted that if a poem "has no obvious destination, there's a chance we'll be setting out on an interesting ride," even if that endpoint is back where the poem began. In "The Sightseers," from Quoof (1983), for instance, Muldoon's family venture out to see the new roundabout at Ballygawley, "the first in mid-Ulster," and listen on the way to Uncle Pat's story of being accosted by the B-Specials, who made him denounce his Catholicism: "They held a pistol so hard against his forehead / there was still the mark of an O when he got home." The destination the sightseers have in mind remains elusive, and the progress figured by the new roundabout circles back to the same old restrictions—but although the poem returns to its beginning, the reader, like the participants, is not quite the same for the journey.

Muldoon's work often displays a tension between linearity and circularity, where a poem's progressive elucidation is circular. Circularity is both a thematic and an aesthetic principle, even when it comes to the writing of elegy. More than any other genre, the elegy requires the poet to get somewhere, to make emotional progress. The Annals of Chile (1994) confirmed Muldoon as the most technically brilliant poet of his generation. In that volume, in "Yarrow" and "Incantata," he first deployed the large-scale circular structures, with repeated rhyme words, that have reappeared in subsequent collections. Those constructions were formed in response to the deaths from cancer of Muldoon's mother, and a former girlfriend, the artist Mary Farl Powers. The structural principles of the disease—replication, invasion, and metastasis—elicited mimetic correlatives.

The 360 lines of the circular poem "Incantata" replicate from a central stanza or cell, where the rhymes of the first cell are bound to those of the last, the rhymes of the second are shared by the second-last, and so on, as they assess predestination and whether art can redeem amongst the wreckage of death. "Yarrow" is a "great wheel" (P 391), made up of "twelve intercut, exploded sestinas," whose rhymes demonstrate the variety of combinations possible with a limited number of base units; these cancerous cells combine and spread through the body of the poet's mother, the landscape of his childhood and his memory, countering the poem's attempt to construct a consoling memorial. Circularity can serve the tactfulness required in elegy, but elegy may also need a clear sense of linearity, of process, in which the dead can be given up and established as a memorial presence, with the poet's life-instinct reasserted, or an ordered worldview restored. In this way, circular structures represent both control and a lack of control over death, mourning, and the functioning of the elegy.

Recent critics of elegy, like Sandra M. Gilbert and Jahan Ramazani, have suggested that modern and contemporary elegies are characterized by the absence of such traditional consolation as a redemptive religious faith, a beneficent conception of nature, and a notion of eternity; Ramazani argues that "the modern elegist tends not to achieve but resist consolation, not to override but to sustain anger, not to heal but to reopen the wounds of loss." Ramazani's words are perhaps a little too assertive, suggesting as they do that the absence of consolation is always a matter of choice, rather than of emotional limitation. Exceptions are easily found: Tennyson, for instance, took seventeen years getting over the death of Arthur Hallam, if he ever did, and many contemporary elegies, such as Seamus Heaney's sequence "Clearances," follow the redemptive pattern of pastoral elegy.

There is also a possibility that such traditional elements of consolation may actually pressurize—rather than seamlessly facilitate—the consoling capability of elegy. The distressed poet is faced with such questions as how a benign faith can be reconciled with premature death, and how a belief in eternity can fail to assuage transient grief; we see this restriction in section LIV of Tennyson's In Memoriam, when the master poet is reduced to the sounds of a crying infant. Paul Muldoon's cancer elegies are equivocal, supremely balanced between the...



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