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One Thousand Things Worth Knowing by Paul Muldoon review – an intricate tour de force

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Poems that are the textual equivalent of a high-wire act, with juggling. No one does it better

I’m at once full of dread / and in complete denial,” writes Muldoon in the opening poem to this, his 12th collection. “I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead.” The lines are dropped like a stone into the 27-stanza “Cuthbert and the Otters” a poem commissioned for the Durham book festival in 2013, and read there only a matter of weeks after Heaney’s funeral, where Muldoon was both eulogist and pall-bearer. “Thole”: to bear, to suffer. It’s a dialect word familiar from both poets’ childhoods, and the word (tholian) which gives Heaney “a little passport”, as he termed it, from Co Derry to the Anglo-Saxon world of Beowulf. “Cuthbert and the Otters” weaves together multiple histories: Vikings and Celts jostle for space with “the 82nd Airborne” and “Montgomery of Alamein”; the “coalfields of South Shields” with south Derry. The story of “Cuthbert of Lindisfarne / whose body will be carried aloft by monks fleeing those same Danes” finds its parallel with the cortege winding its way from Dublin to Bellaghy. The north-east of England is saturated with the language of Heaney’s north of Ireland soul-landscape: blackberries, cattle, the “peat stain”, the Viking traces. Muldoon closes with “Refulgent all. From fulgere, ‘to flash’” – evocative of Heaney’s own sensuous language, and the “lightning” strike of inspiration affirmed in the elder poet’s early essay “Feeling into Words”.

No one can do this kind of involved poetic narrative better than Muldoon. The connections made are apparently serendipitous, and all the more compelling for that. His technical and linguistic brilliance is probably second to none; the poems are the textual equivalent of a high-wire act, with juggling. So expected now, indeed, may be his virtuoso handling of the unexpected, that the moments which genuinely shock can be those slightly jarring lines where the poet chooses to expose himself at ground level, without the tricks of the trade. If arcane language puts some barriers between the self and a truth he doesn’t want to face, at other times the straight-talking, tonally less familiar Muldoon also intrudes – almost involuntarily it seems – on his own complex poetic structures: “We come together again in the hope of staving off // our pangs of grief”; “As for actually learning to grieve / it seems to be a nonstarter”.

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