Review by Christian Ward (email)
by Paul Muldoon
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
19 Union Square West
New York, NY 10003
107 pp., $22.00
The political poem clashes head on with the confessional in Paul Muldoon's Horse Latitudes. And it's a mix that doesn't work well, either. His focus on the subject but not the content makes for a dull read, as does the fondness for using traditional forms. Muldoon may be a considered a "significant English-language poet" to fans such as the Times Literary Supplement, but readers new to his work may wonder what the fuss is about.
Consider the titular sequence, for example. The blurb tells me that "the horse latitudes designate an area north and south of the equator in which ships tend to be becalmed, in which stasis if not stagnation is the order of the day, and where sailors traditionally threw horses overboard to conserved food and water." This has a lot of potential for exciting poetry, given that the horse latitudes are located in political hotspots and places of
Indeed, Muldoon's sequence brings the reader to locations such as Beijing, Basra, and Burma. Each of these politically themed sonnets is a scene with an unnamed speaker and his companion, Carlotta.
The problem is that Muldoon tries too hard to be clever in the sequence. And it fails miserably. Bannockburn, a poem about the 14th century Scottish war with England, is a good example of this. You need to have an encyclopaedia by your side when reading the following lines: "the Bruce / still managed to sidestep a spear / from Henry de Bohun and tax." Without knowing the historical context, the poem becomes vague and pretty
unenjoyable for the reader.
Equally unenjoyable are his attempts at humour. Bob Dylan at Princeton, November 2000, a ghazal about Dylan's visit to Princeton, tries to be funny with lines like "Now he's dressed up as some sort of cowboy dude." Alba, another attempt at being funny, had me cringing with lines like:
just as Carlotta
emerged from the duckweed
to announce her name was an anagram
of "oral fucking tact"
Muldoon's intimate poems such as The Treaty, a poem about his grandfather, and Eggs, about his grandmother, have a warm feeling of nostalgia in their imagery, but suffer from a constricting rhyme scheme and poor word choices. The last stanza in The Treaty is a good example of this:
hood when another broad-lapelled, swallowed-tailed swallow
comes at a clip through the dusk-blue serge
to make some last-minute alterations.
I found the overuse of hyphenations distracting when I read this, taking me away from the image of the swallow. Something simpler and to the point would have worked better.
Muldoon's love of rhyme can be seen with the sequence The Old Country. Each sonnet starts with the last line of its predecessor and uses a lot of repetition. There is nothing radically new being done with either the language or the imagery and it ends up being pretty dull. There is nothing for the reader to imagine or care about here. It feels like the poet has run out of steam at this point. An example:
Where every town was a tidy town
and every garden a hanging garden.
A half could be had for half a crown.
Every major artery would harden
since every meal was a square meal.
Every clothesline showed a line of undies
yet no house was in dishabille.
Every Sunday took a month of Sundays
The other major sequence in the book, 90 Instant Messages To Tom Moore, the 19th century Irish poet and entertainer, suffers from the same problems. Written in a whimsical style, each poem tries too hard to be funny but falls flat on its face. The reader ends up skipping on, not caring what is trying to come across. I ended up cringing when I read lines like "Jim-jams and whim-whams / where the whalers still heave to / for a grammy-gam..." The sequence has too much alliteration and hyphenation, which wears thin after a while.
Horse Latitudes is extremely disappointing for a tenth collection. Readers looking for something more engaging should look elsewhere.
Christian Ward is a 27 year old London based poet and student, currently finishing the third year of a degree in English Literature & Creative Writing at Roehampton University, London. A Pushcart Prize nominated poet, his work is forthcoming in The Warwick Review, Remark and Decanto.