- By Gregory A. Schirmer
- Gregory Schirmer teachers Irish literature at Notre Dame University. Paul Muldoon is one of the youngest of the Ulster poets who have emerged in the past 15 years, amid Northern Ireland's sectarian war. These represent perhaps the most significant movement in Irish writing since the literary revival at the turn of the century. And like all the poets in this group - Seamus Heaney, John Montague, Derek Mahon, and Michael Longley, among others - Muldoon has had to wrestle with the question of how to respond in his art to the violence and destruction that have characterized life in Ulster since the late 1960s. Partly because of the precocious playfulness and opacity of his style, and partly because of the intensely if often obliquely personal nature of his interests, Muldoon has seemed particularly resistant to the view that the poet has a responsibility to write about political and social reality. ''Quoof,'' Muldoon's fourth collection, retains many of the technical idiosyncrasies and private concerns of his earlier work. But it also takes note of the devastating public life of Northern Ireland in a more pervasive and overt way than was evident in his first three books. Muldoon has always been interested in the underside of society, the world of drug-pushers, drinkers, and drifters. In the long, partly fantastic, partly realistic poem that concludes ''Quoof,'' entitled ''The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants,'' he conveys the futility of Ulster's sectarian warfare by drawing parallels between the province's senseless political and religious violence and the aimless criminal behavior of his protagonist, a man named Gallogly, who bears a frightening resemblance to Anthony Burgess's Alex in ''A Clockwork Orange.'' In this poem, and others, Muldoon also manipulates a disarmingly casual tone to reduce the atrocities that he describes to events with shock value but no human significance, as in this image of a man blown up in his car by a booby trap: ''Once they collect his smithereens/ he doesn't quite add up./ They're shy of a foot, and a calf/ Which stems/ from his left shoe like a severely/ pruned-back shrub.'' A number of the less public concerns that inform Muldoon's first three volumes, including an obsession with father-figures, literary and otherwise, and a fascination with language, also surface in ''Quoof.'' ''The Mirror,'' a translation from the Irish, ends with a striking image of the narrator's dead father speaking to him from the other side of the mirror while helping him hang it. The title poem (''Quoof,'' Muldoon says, is the family name for a hot-water bottle) suggests a parallel that's fairly common in Muldoon's work between sexual potency and the creative power of language. Seamus Heaney once said that every poet, but especially one living in a highly politicized landscape like that of Northern Ireland, must ''deal with public crisis by making your own terrain take the color of it.'' Although ''Quoof'' is far from being a perfect book - it is marred, for example, by the same hallucinogenic quality that obscures so many of Muldoon's earlier poems - it does demonstrate that the poet is capable of doing precisely this, of absorbing, with considerable power and effect, the destructive disorder of life in Northern Ireland into the constructive order of his art.
Quoof, by Paul Muldoon. Winston-Salem, N.C.: Wake Forest University Press. 64 pp. $4.98 (paperback)