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Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and Paul Muldoon

December 11th 1998

A reading of works by Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and Paul Muldoon with introductions by Oona Frawley.

Every language is its own world, and I find myself an immediate tourist in writing this introduction, in English, about Nuala ni Dhomhnaill’s Irish poetry, because the Irish that is Nuala’s is a world of quite different dimensions to the one we inhabit when we use English. Reading her poetry, then, even if in the translation that has made her work available to a larger, non-Irish reading public, is an Immram, a holy voyage of sorts, like those the Irish scribes recorded centuries ago.

In his essay “The Poet”, Emerson described language as fossil poetry, suggesting that, could we trace words back through time and place and millions of utterances, we would recover some primal utterance – each word a poem, in some way profoundly private and mystical. Emerson’s idea provides an appropriate way, for me, of thinking about Nuala’s poetry in Irish – the corpse that sits up and talks back, as she put in a New York Times Book Review article several years ago. Because of a peculiar set of historical events, Irish, Nuala points out in that same article, is a language that went untouched by major intellectual changes like the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Victorian prudery. Untouched by currents that influenced other European languages, and so in some way reflecting a pristine archive, Irish, in Nuala’s hands, becomes something those few steps closer to Emerson’s fossil poetry. Fossil poetry, but never fossilized: for this is poetic language that yanks the untouched Irish into the present, modernizes the myths, and, as her admirers have long pointed out, creates a voice for women in Irish that has been unique and has inspired other Irish women poets to search for a voice as well. To visit the world of Nuala’s language is to enter a sensual landscape in which description of nature verges on the primordial, a democracy where contemporary men and women, owners of such modern appliances as Black and Decker chain saws and sports cars, exist alongside mythological shape shifters and the heroes of the Celtic sagas and ghosts. The facility with which Nuala is able to move between the modern world of suburban Ireland and some Otherworld is extraordinary, so that a passage that might have seemed impossible is almost unnoticeable, for you accept it utterly. In The Lay of Loughadoon, Nuala writes of answering a request by her children for a story:

Tell us a yarn, Ma: don’t gloss over

our heritage, don’t draw a veil over those

who were our forebears.

Having lifted that veil, the poet writes,

And they believed me: far beyond them still

was the split between sense

and sentiment, prophecy and prophecy fulfilled,

the Subjunctive Mood and the Past Tense.

That split, that breach between the mythological world and the world of our day-to-day lives, is what the poet is able to heal, so that, like children who clamored for a story, we too end up believing – believing that the poet has just snatched her child back from the sidh, the fairy fort; that we might see the child wonder Cuchulain, hero of Ireland, left outside a pub by his thirsty foster parents; that if we continue on the road we might meet Queen Medbh and hear her complain of phone calls from the Badhbh, the vulture, telling her to come for breakfast, armed with a bottle of wine. Nuala’s poetry opens up the possibility of infinite worlds existing simultaneously, and insists on the relationship of myth to our lives – so that ultimately her poetry is not only a resuscitation of, but a creation of mythology. While there are many ways to discuss this creation, I would like to focus for a moment on the way it disrupts stereotypes of women, and of Irish women particularly, with a humor that is sudden and unapologetic. Cathleen ni Houlihan, that most perfect female representation of Ireland, is taken down from the pedestal, and not for a mere dusting:

even if every slubberdegullion once had a dream-vision

in which she appeared as his own true lover,

those days are just as truly over.

And I bet Old Gummy Granny

has taken none of this on board because of her uncanny

knack of hearing only what confirms

her own sense of herself, her honey-nubile form

and the red rose, proud rose or canker

tucked behind her ear, in the headband of her blinkers.

In collapsing the old ideal by showing the hollowness of the form, Nuala clears the slate for a new Irish woman, one who, rather than existing as a silent inspiration, is given a voice that restores to Irish literature a natural sensuality that for too long went missing, and, in doing so, has given new life to those strong women of ancient Ireland. In this way Nuala’s poetry establishes a continuum between past and present, the mythological and the mundane, mining the language in order to discover fossil poetry. It is my pleasure to introduce Nuala ni Dhomhnaill, who is currently the Burns Library Visiting Scholar at Boston College, and a visiting professor at NYU’s Ireland House.

***

The philosopher Gaston Bachelard once described what he called suspended reading, a state where the readers eyes stray not from the page but into it in some way, as the reader falls into a reverie, a word dream. To enter that state, Bachelard later suggests, it is necessary to be serious like a dreaming child — so quietly, utterly absorbed that the world becomes lost. With this in mind, I would like to begin by quoting out of context some lines from the first poem of Paul Muldoon’s most recent collection, Hay, a poem called The Mudroom, which is an epyllion, or mini-epic, of sorts, a dream-like transgression of time and place that moves between a suburban catch-all room and the far corners of the globe through an astonishing array of allusions that collapse several experiences in time. These lines, for me, serve as an appropriate description for the effect of his poetry:

it was hard to judge where the [poem] came to an end

and the world began, given how one would blend

imperceptibly into the other, given that there was no fine

blue-green line between them.

Paul Muldoon’s language seduces the reader into a faith that the poem is a world so that when the poem is finished, resting quietly on the pages of a book, the reader feels a soft, tremored confusion: the room in which one reads has become a private sonnet, the light by which one reads a lyric, so that one is caught on the threshold of the poem as world, the world as poem. Such moments, about the transgression of the real into something at once more subtle, softer, and too more jagged, more ironic, made sense within my struggle to define a body of work that is trailed by such praise as to resemble the train of a gown. Being caught on a horizon between the poem and the world I could not quite define, or reduce Paul Muldoon’s poetry, but could, instead, understand the lack of a blue-green seam – a seamlessness that creates a space in which the reader lives undivided from the language of the poem, like Bachelard’s dreaming child. Hay, the title poem in this collection, contains an image that has come, over the last while, to represent Paul Muldoon’s poetry for me:

This much I know. Just as I’m about to make that right turn

off Provine Line Road

I meet another bat-up Volvo

carrying a load

of hay. (More accurately, a bale of lucerne

on the roof rack,

a bale of lucerne or fescue or alfalfa.)

My hands are raw. I’m itching to cut the twine, to unpack

that hay-accordion, that hay-concertina.

It must be ten o’clock. There’s still enough light

(not least from the glow

of the bales themselves) for a body to ascertain

that when one bursts, as now, something takes flight

from those hot-and-heavy box pleats. This much, at least, I know.

Taken out of the context of the poem, the image of this radiant sun-glowing bale of hay, an image recalling the early poetry, atop a foreign car careening through suburban America, is almost surreal, almost funny, and somehow, for me, infinitely touching. The poetic persona of this collection word journeys through France, Chile, Japan, Ireland and America, through religious, mystic and poetic traditions, all the while bringing with him that glowing bale of hand the music – that hay-accordion, that hay-concertina – that such words and language provide. And so hay provides the poet with a recurring image linking the expanse of space, and time, the collection covers. The ability to conjoin seemingly disparate cultures and traditions leads to the creation of a subtle and revolving mythology that can be at once humorous and tender. Despite my attempts to reduce Paul Muldoon’s word voyages through different cultures and countries and the mysticisms of language itself to some completely comprehensive image, after each word reverie I arrive in a new place, my hands gloved around the book, thinking of lines from an early poem, Paris: –

The worlds less simple for being traveled, / Though.

What better way to finish a journey, than with such wonderment.

It is with great pleasure that I introduce Paul Muldoon, who is Howard G.B. Clark Professor at Princeton University.

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