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Monday, December 3, 2007

But it’s been out for more than a year. Look at this, the first section of the first (and title) poem of Paul Muldoon’s Horse Latitudes:

“Beijing”

I could still hear the musicians   A
cajoling those thousands of clay   b
horses and horsemen through the squeeze   c
when I woke beside Carlotta.   D
Life-size, also. Also terra cotta.   D
The sky was still a terra cotta-frieze   c
over which her grandfather still held sway   b
with the set square, fretsaw, stencil,   E
plumb line, and carpenter’s pencil   E
his grandfather brought from Roma.   F
Proud-fleshed Carlotta. Hypersarcoma.   F
For now our highest ambition   A
was simply to bear the light of day   b
we had once been planning to seize.   c

There are nineteen of these, each titled with a battle beginning with “B” (“Baghdad” is missing), each featuring the speaker, Carlotta, and Carlotta’s grandfather, and each using the same complicated rhyme-scheme (the capital letters above indicate feminine rhyme). Various reviewers (including Brian Phillips in the December Poetry) have called them sonnets, but they seem to me more akin to the Pushkin stanza—not just the mixed and fixed masculine and feminine rhyme, but the way the rhyme’s groupings allow the individual poems to turn in response to narrative, tone, argument, or what-have-you in a more flexible way than is possible in a sonnet. This is genuine and productive formal invention, and a hell of a lot of macabre fun.

The individual poems of “The Old Country“ are unambiguously a linked (last line to succeeding first line) Petrachan sonnet sequence and they acknowledge/defy/capsize/ and make new form by goosing—over and over again—every cliché of “Old Country” Irish life. The sequence ends

But every boy was still “one of the boys”
and every girl “ye girl ye”

for whom every dance was a last dance
and every chance was a last chance
and every letdown a terrible letdown

from the days when every list was a laundry list
in that old country where, we reminisced,
every town was a tidy town.

There are other formal tours de force and a few formal curiosities—well, “90 Text Messages to Tom Moore,” all axa rhyming haiku, is perhaps more than a few—but the book’s last poem, “Sillyhow Stride,” an elegy for Warren Zevon and for Muldoon’s sister, is by itself worth the price of admission.


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