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  • Playing Indian / Disintegrating Irishness:Globalization and Cross-Cultural Identity in Paul Muldoon's "Madoc: A Mystery"
  • Omaar Hena (bio)

At any moment now, the retina will disintegrate.

Paul Muldoon, "Madoc: AMystery"

It is, ironically, the disintegrative moment, even movemOmaar Hena nciation—that sudden disjunction of the present—that makes possible the rendering of culture's global reach.

Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture


Homi Bhabha's claims about global textuality offer a helpful starting point for unraveling Paul Muldoon's "Madoc: A Mystery" (1990), a strange, fantastic, and violent long poem that Muldoon wrote in the years immediately after his migration from Northern Ireland to the United States, and while traveling across the latter country.1 Read as a "global text"—that is, in Bhabha's view, a text that raises "the problem of signifying the interstitial passages and processes of cultural difference that are inscribed in the 'in-between'" (217)—"Madoc" crystallizes contemporary debates concerning postcoloniality and globalization, particularly through its many [End Page 232] intersections between European and American Indian cultures, in all of their conflict, fluidity, and interstitiality.2 Muldoon's poem thus forms a crucible for examining the perils and possibilities of globalization's uneven effects upon cultural identities.3

In addition to the questions it raises about contemporary poetry and cross-cultural identity formation, "Madoc" more largely draws upon the history of British Romanticism in order to speculate upon the aesthetic and political consequences of the transplantation of British literature into a global context. The main narrative of "Madoc," which takes place across nineteenth-century North America between 1798 and 1873, imagines what would have happened if British Romantic poet-philosophers Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey had carried out their real-life plan to leave England and settle along the banks of the Susquehanna River [End Page 233] in northern Pennsylvania, establishing a "pantisocracy," or utopian community, based on the Enlightenment ideals of "the equal government of all" (Muldoon, Poems 212).4 Muldoon takes his title from Southey's Madoc (1805, 1812), an epic poem celebrating British colonial discovery, exploration, and colonization and based on the legend that the Welsh prince Madoc "discovered" and settled in the New World three centuries before Columbus.5 Muldoon's "Madoc" ironically depicts how Coleridge and Southey's utopian dreams, when put into practice in nineteenth-century North America, turn into an imperialist nightmare of torture, violence, and genocide. In other words, "Madoc" returns to the Romantic era, a time before the consolidation of empire in the latter part of the nineteenth century, to critique its Orientalist valences, as well as to excavate Romanticism's insurgent impulses of rupture and revolt.

Thematically speaking, "Madoc" is about the visible and invisible consequences of contact between natives and strangers. Several of Muldoon's readers have established how the operations of imperialism subtend cross-cultural encounters throughout the poem.6 Robert Southey, for instance, builds his colony, "Southeyopolis," [End Page 234] through the enslavement of Cayuga Indians. Coleridge, in contrast, goes native, hoping to shed his white skin by losing himself through opiates while among various American Indian cultures, including the Seneca, Modoc, and Spokane tribes. Even other figures, who would seem to be members of the oppressed, cannot escape imperialist responses to cultural encounter. One such figure, Bucephalus, the talking Irish horse, ceaselessly projects Irish place-names onto his foreign surroundings while simultaneously engaging in sexual conquest before contracting and dying from syphilis.7 Another, Alexander Cinnamond, the Scots-Irish scout, whose villainous presence Muldoon signifies with the ominous repetition of "de dum, de dum," takes relish in his slaughter of American Indians. We first meet Cinnamond "fondl[ing] a tobacco-/ pouch made from the scrotal sac // of a Conestoga" (208); Cinnamond later sports breeches "made from the epiderms, de dum, / of at least four, maybe five, hapless Gros Ventre women" (293). Muldoon may include Cinnamond and Bucephalus to forestall the impulse to read the Irish as postcolonial, particularly in light of the historical reality of Ireland's participation in the imperial project.8 Cinnamond may also represent an exaggerated figure for Muldoon's anxieties about representing American Indian cultures. Cinnamond further embodies the imperialist machinations behind globalization: blind...


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