Paul Muldoon’s Things

Author: Guinn Batten (Washington University in St. Louis)

He was living in the open,

In a secret camp

On the other side of the mountain.

He was fighting for Ireland,

Making things happen

—Paul Muldoon, “Anseo”[1]


Something I never but once let on

—“The Firing Squad”[2] 


[S]omething made me want to persevere

 —“Bangle (Slight Return)”[3]


All present, and correct.



Perhaps the most powerful figure in all of Paul Muldoon’s poetry is a mother, a figure we may presume is related to, but is not identical to, the schoolmistress mother Brigid Regan to whom The Annals of Chile is dedicated, and who is elegized in his longest poem, “Yarrow.” This figure is only one of the professional academics Muldoon has employed in poems where—under the auspices of, or claiming affiliation with, republican nationalism—they behave, particularly towards those who are weaker, in ways inconsistent with their ideals. Taking pleasure in the punishment of subordinates, or in their own “fondness for the crop,”[5] they are easy targets for the ironic narrators of the poems in which they appear, who themselves seem to enjoy taking punitive aim at the fallibility of these holdover adherents to a lost cause misrepresented in institutions where British authority, in absentia, nonetheless remains present. Indeed, the moral outrage of such Muldoon narrators is never greater than when that authority is mirrored in Irish (and other national) institutions that claim, in the name of the ideals of a republican Enlightenment and of a sovereign Ireland, to turn the victim into his own master.


Muldoon’s poetry has been spurred, even nourished, by an emotion that registers in his poems as righteous indignation, and in that emotional register lurks a passion, enhanced because the voice is sardonic and the tone bitter, as forceful as any found in the poems of the aisling school of an end-of-the-line poetry of courtly love. Even in poems such as “Anseo” where there is no woman present, nonetheless the problems that ensue from—that romantically idealize or demonize even while lamenting the elusiveness of—an imagined feminine presence as the cause and cure of what troubles Ireland, haunt the reflexive dynamics of power these Muldoon poems recreate. As such, we may find it helpful to read these poems in relation to what Jacques Lacan termed “the Thing,” a troubling presence that idealism eschews but nonetheless summons, acknowledging that Muldoon himself in these poems, while he is certainly not using Lacanian psychoanalysis as any kind of paradigm, nonetheless shares with Lacan, particularly in Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, a concern not simply with the hypocrisy of an idealism that knows no limits but with the cruelty of the vicious pleasure it provokes. In Lacan’s account, the idealism we associate with republican virtue, and more generally with Kant’s philosophy, was first seen in the forms (and avoidances) of the courtly love tradition of the troubadours. It became, Lacan argues, the basis for modern ethics in the Enlightenment tradition of Kant and in the Romantic tradition of republican politics according to what it shuns but also seeks: a sexual object figured in feminine embodiment who is effaced within, and by, the forms of discipline.


While readers of this special issue of Breac may not be familiar with the ways Lacan’s “Thing” has shaped cultural theory from Althusser to Žižek, they may be more conversant with two other (and more recent) readings in psychoanalytic theory that bear reading in relation to Muldoon’s concerns: Judith Butler’s The Psychic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection (with Adam Phillips) and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” which responds in part to Butler’s work.


Butler observes how discipline, or perseverance, in and beyond an Enlightenment tradition that moves from Hegel’s response to Kant to Foucault, Althusser, and Lacan, may become a relentless, redundant cycle of self-mastery that internalizes in the subject intent on freeing himself from authority the same master whose subjection of others he seeks to expose. Not only does The Psychic Life of Power remain a persuasive contribution to psychoanalytic theory’s understanding of melancholia, it also wields that understanding on behalf of a desire to mobilize political change, and more specifically to realize the possibilities (through the term she had already made central to gender and sexuality studies, “performativity”) of making the lability of gender and sexuality a dimension of political and social agency. It is not insignificant that Butler’s work was taking this form in the same years that Muldoon was writing and publishing “Yarrow,” and indeed his 1994 The Annals of Chile was acknowledged by reviewers as a collection in which the work of mourning was being disciplined into new forms.


These are the themes on which this essay focuses, in part because they recur even in Muldoon’s most recent poems: a seeking to expose the forms of power that are repeated in the very (Irish) agents who institutionalize their opposition to it; hints that a female figure is present whose significance the terms, and the forms, of the poem cannot account for; and the presence of an outrage that may seem excessive to the conditions and events narrated. To know the work of Lacan, Sedgwick, Butler, and Phillips is to enhance the reading of these insistent themes in Muldoon’s poems, and for that reason I begin by elaborating these theorists’ important contributions to topics on which my reading of Muldoon’s poems focuses.


Over a decade before the peace agreement was signed in Ireland in 1998, sometime around 1980 when Paul Muldoon published “Anseo” and the major poems of mourning for his father in Why Brownlee Left, a brief story was making the rounds in Irish conversation. The storyteller, or an acquaintance of the storyteller, is driving along a desolate road in rural Ireland and must stop to make a phone call. A phone box, occupied, appears by the road. Inside is a man frantically gesticulating as he shouts into the receiver: “Dis is it, dis is da ting, dis is what we’re up against.” What seems on the face of it to be a story about paranoia, or what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in “Paranoid Reading” called, “strong theory,”[6] is in fact a story about wanting to label something that provokes a claustrophobic, one might even say closeted, anxiety, even as it also spurs a need to talk, or to write, about it with others. Like Sedgwick’s “strong theory,” which leaves no room for threats that cannot be accounted for in advance, it is a story that cannot cease to be repeated lest the threat take the insufficiently vigilant speaker or writer, or auditor or reader. The “Thing” in this story is also, however, so immediately recognizable to the auditor or reader as her own fear, that the story in itself is a perfect rendition of the reflexivity not only of ideology, as it is in Butler’s account, but also (as Sedgwick herself says in her critique of Butler) of ideology theory, the “strongest” of which is not only a theory of “paranoia” but which is itself paranoid.


As Sedgwick writes, “it takes one to know one.”[7] Sedgwick’s alternative to paranoid theory (a “strong” theory with “negative” affect) isn’t simply “weak” theory but an approach that (like her own) produces “positive” affect, and she produces that affect with recourse to object-relations psychoanalysis, and more particularly Melanie Klein’s mother-centered psychoanalytic school, directed as it is to the reparative, or depressive, relationship to the maternal object that is, one might say, a positive engagement with the task of grieving, and of coming into one’s own as an individual. Lacan, in only one seminar—the seventh—puts the mother fully at the center of his theory (however well-known his essay “The Mirror Stage,” where the mother serves a different function). He does so implicitly (rather than explicitly) in relation to paranoia, conducting this seminar in the age of science-driven nuclear stockpiling. He suggests the paranoia of mutually assured destruction is a collateral malaise of a culture where, as in Antigone, the forms of grief have been suspended in the name of a new master, the state, which is mastered in fact by its servant—the university and, more particularly, science—who believes there are no limits to what knowledge may know, or do.


The dynamic in that story about the phone box—one of the pursuit of, and flight from, an authority who is feared, a master that must be mastered—makes “Real” but not “real” the “Thing” that Lacan explored in another time of political paranoia three decades earlier in his 1957 seminar on ethics, the aesthetic, and psychoanalysis, and that not only makes the Thing communicable but, indeed, the imaginary (to use another term from Lacan) basis of even ordinary communication. (It would be another decade before Slavoj Žižek, popularized this term, and others, from Lacan in universities in Great Britain, Ireland, and North America, with Frederic Jameson—another keen reader of Lacan—effectively jumpstarting the “high theory,” or “strong theory,” wing of cultural theory.) For Lacan, “the Thing” puts a psychoanalytic spin on what Kant termed the “categorical imperative” (the thing in itself), personified in the drive to know (It), combined with a moral injunction that one must fulfill the demands of the highest Good that we seek, and approach, the highest Good. An unconscious belief in the Thing as what must be known may lead to absolute and mutual annihilation, but it is also what drives the discipline that gets us up in the morning. The Thing, to stay with the terms of Kantian ethics, is both formal and end cause, and it is also—reflexively—the object of that cause, including the “cause” that is political. For Lacan, the final and ineluctable duty represented by das Ding is neither reasonable nor enlightened; contrary to Kant’s insistence, the effect of das Ding (and here it is crucial to acknowledge that this is not to say that the actuality of das Ding) is seductive, urgent, and violent.


To recapitulate, Das Ding, in Lacan’s terminology, is neither imaginary nor symbolic but “real,” not “the Mother” but a foundational event of separation that coincides with a demand associated with that primary loss which we seek to figure in a “Mother” beyond all mothers. The demand for such a figure exceeds basic bodily need. It continues to be what insists—what perseveres—within the individual inaugurated as a human subject by that event, an individual who not only feels but speaks of loss, and who idealizes what is imagined to have been lost, without ever consciously acknowledging the demand that, in effect, generates (and regenerates) the loss, in effect making the loss interminable. The interesting twist that Lacan gives to Kant’s Ding is to suggest that “the Thing,” as the impossible mother, is never shorn of an association with the annihilation that is the yearning of the death drive, and as such it is the mother of all beauty.


Das Ding is at once stubborn, becoming calcified in bodily symptoms, and a source of restless fluency, driving the order of signification, or the “symbolic,” and hence is the silent, invisible, but nonetheless felt presence that moves language from one signifier to another. Its force is felt in that phone caller’s sentence: “Dis is what we’re up against,” because it is up against “us,” the very idea of a couple or a community or a nation. Indeed, Žižek, somewhat later in 2001, more openly labeled Lacan’s das Ding as not only the “Mother Thing” but also the “Nation Thing.” The Thing unites even as it isolates us all as troubled subjects who are incapable of knowing our sources, our deepest formal and end “causes,” even if few of us manifest our troubles as expressively, or as single-mindedly, as the man shouting in the isolation of his phone box.


“Perseverance” has its roots in the Latin word for “abide by strictly,” derived from the words for “thorough” and “severe.” Both qualities are required to maintain loyalty to something so powerful that it leads one to return—moved by a force as if beyond the will it takes to persevere—to the same situation over and over again without necessarily arriving at the object sought. These definitions also suggest the dimension of hard work required not to work through grieving, as Butler writes in The Psychic Life of Power, by punishing and disciplining one’s self: “To perform tasks ‘conscientiously’ is to reproduce those skills, and in reproducing them, to acquire mastery” as a “confession of innocence.”[8] Such perseverance, however, only exacerbates an “aggression toward the ideal and its unfulfillability is turned inward,” the “self-aggression that becomes the primary structure of conscience.”[9] For Butler, the end result is what she calls “sublimation,” the subordination of the body to the superego (or, as Lacan would have it, the categorical imperative of the Thing).[10] But, as Phillips in his reply to Butler suggests, other work may be accomplished through perseverance, which may lead to something unintended, and which may not always be (so to speak) a bad thing. Perseverance to a cause is what he characterizes not so much as “paranoia” but rather as the obdurance of the “symptom” that limits the range of performativity in the making of individual and communal forms of identity, and of solidarity: “[A]ll symptoms […] are states of conviction,” Philips writes, “the terror informing […] desperate measures. […] In Freud’s view, we become what we cannot have, we desire (and punish) what we are compelled to disown.”[11] In the symptom the Thing makes itself at home. As Phillips observes also in that same essay, referring particularly to Butler’s understanding of gender performativity as an expression of melancholy, “We can no more imagine a world without bereavement than we can imagine a world without punishment.”[12] Whereas for Butler “sublimation” is synonymous with the victory of the law-abiding superego, or conscience, for Phillips it is what happens when we allow “unforbidden pleasure” to lead perseverance astray, allowing “the books we read in adolescence” to revive what was even then “an attempt at regime change.”[13] To allow for the fact that change will, in any case, happen without presuming it will inevitably be a threatening change for the worse is, Phillips holds, in itself a change for the good that is not, as Lacan would have it, an insistence that only the Good will suffice.


In rare moments in Muldoon’s poems, for example in “Incantata,” the speaker’s rage against the mourned beloved’s resignation to fate generates—as though by sheer counter-force—a rich horn of plenty, auguring the promise of sheer, ongoing life. (Muldoon himself imitates the forms of “A Prayer for My Daughter” in “At the Sign of the Black Horse,” another poem of mourning that engenders an acknowledgement of unexpected, and ongoing, gain, in the very sign of loss). As such, the poem’s mirror rhyme scheme scatters, or even shatters, in moments of surprised joy, into a proliferation of things to be celebrated and treasured, however transient their existence, however terminal the device that renders them. Yet even in these celebratory poems, forms that turn back on themselves exploit, but also reinforce, the ideas of eternal return, fated endings, and of repetition, which signify the presence of the Thing as it performs its secret ministry. It does that work, Lacan argues in Seminar VII, in much the same way as do the dark, female figures of romance, and more particularly the courtly love tradition. While Lacan suggests that the work of making art may (in ways suggestively close to the work of mourning) give to das Ding an encircling enclosure that recognizes, even sustains, but also encloses and contains it, Muldoon’s forms—even at their strictest—seem to exacerbate rather than contain the violence provoked by Its presence. For the most part in Muldoon’s poems, hidden dangers haunt the act of writing and the act of reading. The poems’ ominous tone is enhanced by narratives in which a child’s wish to love and be loved, even the bookish child for whom his schoolmistress mother is never without a malapropic lesson in the right ideals, is a wish soured by the inheritance of a hollow or perverted form of duty that coexists with an unfocused rage indistinguishable from sexual arousal. All of this is also, of course, the territory of the elegiac tradition and its expression of bereavement with its roots, as Freud has suggested, in the pure culture of the death drive. Will the dead be forever returning in Muldoon’s poem, as one Muldoon speaker suggests in a poem where his father (yet once more) returns, “Bangle (Slight Return)”?


Muldoon, like Freud, claims that even the act of invention is governed by the workings of fate. In an interview with Krista Tippett in 2016 he made the following comment:


[T]he word for a poem is dán […]. And there’s another word in Irish, dán, which means fate. And it could be that there’s a connection between those two, […] [t]hat sense that we have when we read a poem that there’s something inevitable about it, that it was fated to be like this. It was never meant to be any other way. This is the only way it can be. […] We can’t really describe it in terms other than its own. It was always meant to be. It came to us through a poet, and it’s like this. And so that sense of the fatedness, the inevitability, and perhaps even the eternity of the poem.[14]


I am tempted to add to that penultimate sentence, “it’s like this, and this is the Thing.”


Muldoon’s language here brings to mind the moving final paragraphs of Sedgwick’s essay on “paranoid theory,” where she suggests that it is precisely a boy such as the speaker of “Yarrow” describes himself as having been, a bookish child who is fearful of punishment, who feels not only unloved but humiliated by the daily injustices a minority subject feels in his community. He is likely to cherish the joy, and solace—a little bit of beauty, however homely—may offer in a world of sudden violence. “In a world full of loss, pain, and oppression,” Sedgwick writes, both an “epistemology” of negative affects (such as paranoia) and its alternative, one of positive affects (such as Klein’s reparative relationship to the lost, and loathed, maternal object),


are likely to be based on deep pessimism: the reparative motive of seeking pleasure [as she goes on to write, through the making, enjoyment, and collecting of cherished works of art], after all arrives, by Klein’s account, only with the achievement of the depressive position. But what each looks for—which is again to say, the motive each has for—looking—is bound to differ widely. Of the two, however, it is only paranoid knowledge that has so thorough a practice of disavowing its affective motive and force and masquerading as the very stuff of truth.[15]


Sedgwick acknowledges, in this sense, that the making of a thing of beauty may be particularly urgent for those who suffer most in (because they are the ones internally scapegoated or blamed for) states of emergency, almost ensuring the provocation of paranoia—because the fear that the traumatic repetition of violence and scapegoating is, at some moment in one’s future, inevitable. In such times of crisis, a loss older than the exigencies or even the successes and pleasures of the present resurfaces in a single life, or in a community of lives. An event in an unclaimed history, as Cathy Caruth has described it,[16] insists on making a claim on behalf of what has not yet fully happened, and therefore could not have been claimed in itself, despite its ongoing, transformative, unrecognized effects on both individuals and the communities they form. Whatever spurs perseverance to the unclaimed event is likely to be also what continues to give consistency, or identity, to communities as to individuals even as they have changed over time. This is also to say “in time,” for the event that failed to happen remains stuck. Such a cause, notably when it is politically a lost cause, may grow to become so significant or pervasive—or, to use Muldoon’s strategic translation of the Irish word anseo, “all present”—that it might be considered both the cause, and the object, that drives an individual or community to its fulfillment, or its destruction. It becomes omnipresent in its presence, an element of blockage, unignorable in its troubling, insistent presence. Simply returning to it, simply repeating it, reinforces rather than removes the Thing’s imperative and could hardly bring any kind of unforced “reparation.”


While Muldoon has continued to write important elegies after “At the Sign of the Black Horse,” a poem that does seem to offer something close to this notion of reparation, even an elegy such as “Cuthbert and the Otters,” from his 2015 One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, where the object of mourning is perhaps Muldoon’s most important mentor, Seamus Heaney, contains little pleasure or sweetness to outweigh the burden (guilt, rivalry, resentment, hypocrisy) of what the pallbearers in the poem are carrying. In this the poem is close to “Yarrow,” the centerpiece of The Annals of Chile, wherein he offers his most sustained engagement with bereavement. “Yarrow” is carried by the force of the burdens that recur in “Cuthbert and the Otters,” and is similar in tone to Muldoon’s earlier poem “Anseo” and the more recent “The Firing Squad,” where he muses on death, punishment, and one’s accountability to causes even when neither their sources nor their ends can be known. “The Firing Squad” brings back the Joseph Mary Plunkett whose heroic sacrifice to the cause “Anseo” invoked in the name of its protagonist (Joseph Mary Plunkett Ward).


“Anseo” was published in Why Brownlee Left, in 1980, and has, to my knowledge, been introduced by Muldoon into most of his public readings for close to four decades. In the final stanza of “Anseo,” the speaker recounts a meeting in a pub that lies suggestively “on the other side of the mountain:” “I last met Joseph Mary Plunkett Ward | In a pub just over the Irish border. | He was living in the open, | In a secret camp | On the other side of the mountain. | He was fighting for Ireland.[17] “Anseo,” which the poet tells us takes its title from the Irish word “meaning here, here and now | All present and correct,” stages a meeting that is not only on “the other side” but also on the other side of not a but “the mountain.”[18] The poem presents, in sequence, two masters, opening in a schoolroom with “the Master […] calling the roll | At the primary school in Collegelands.”[19]You were meant to call back Anseo | And raise your hand | As your name occurred.” That schoolmaster’s calling is repeated in the final stanza in the roll-call of the “Quartermaster” that the speaker met with as an adult “on the other side of the mountain,” but whom we presume he knew also in that schoolroom in Collegelands. What once “occurred” in the schoolroom, the raising of hands, the saying of “Anseo,” recurs, with the former pupil and “little Ward-of-court,” Joseph Mary Plunkett Ward, now in charge of courts martial: “He was fighting for Ireland | Making things happen.”[20] We are told “How every morning at parade | His volunteers would call back Anseo | And raise their hands | As their names occurred.”


What led to the conversion into a republican paramilitary, a Quartermaster, and then Commandant of Joseph Mary Plunkett Ward, of a schoolchild and “little Ward-of-court” who, under the protection of the “court,” was beaten (no doubt with the excuse that it was for his own good) by a schoolmaster who is self-righteous and hypocritical in his republican nationalist pieties? The obvious, but not the entire, answer would be that his success in attaining such status in this particular cause was galvanized by a wish to master the painful, and shameful, experience of being punished by a master, by imitating as an adult the schoolmaster. To this end, he deploys in courts martial physical intimidation in the name of retributive justice, using “Ireland” as a cause. If the schoolmaster in this nationalist, Irish-speaking classroom, has made that cause narrow and self-serving in turn, so does Joseph Mary Plunkett Ward, whose own pleasure lies in naming, shaming, and demanding recognition by enforcing his victims’ “presence.” We could easily imagine that a poet such as Muldoon, during the most violent years of the Troubles, might repeat this anecdote-within-a-poem as a sign that the speaker (unlike Ward) is cosmopolitan (in other words, no longer only “Irish” or “nationalist” or “Catholic”), thereby offering an ironic commentary on how violence begets, or repeats, violence in native institutions no less than in the institutions of colonial administration. This would be an obvious reading, even without Muldoon’s calculated use of quotation: “living in the open,” “fighting for Ireland,” “the other side,” “Making things happen.”


Muldoon has called “Eriny” in To Ireland, I something like what this poem seems, on the face of it, to attempt: mischievously turning an Irish tradition soberly taught after 1922 in nationalist schools—dinnseanchas, the poetry of place that recognizes lost heroes—into a rhetorical strategy. (In “Eriny” Muldoon evokes the near-homonym “irenic” in “Eriny,” or the British “eirenic,” which is a theological term for the reconciliation of sects, leading to peace.) What “Eriny” is not, in To Ireland, I or any other Muldoon work, is “distant,” on the far side of the animosity of historic battles. For the heat of this writer’s irony is consistent, as present in his (self-)mocking prose assessments of literature as in his poems. We may presume from Muldoon that he believes that neither academic institutions nor “poetry” can wholly be, as he puts it in “Turkey Buzzards,” “above it all,” distant from atrocity.[21]


The 14-line stanzas of “Anseo” are of a sonnet, however unlikely the subject may at first seem to lend itself to the forms of love. What does Joseph Mary Plunkett Ward love in this poem, besides “Ireland?” That is, of course, a tautology in the Irish aisling tradition.


In “Anseo” Joe Ward seems at first only ironic that he shares his name with the republican. Nonetheless, over the course of the poem he makes his transition from abused victim and student to a strict master who will, by poem’s end, casually use the possessive “his” before the word “volunteers.” What enables this transition is his making of a whiplash into a thing of beauty that enforces order and discipline. With his whip, Ward puts distance, a “hedge,” not only of irony but also of craft, “style,” between the source of his humiliation (the master, the educational institution, parochial discipline), and himself, but only at the price of repeating their forms of governance. Knowing he will receive his routine beating from the schoolmaster when he fails to answer “anseo,” “all present,” to the Master’s call, he is told by the Master to “weigh up for himself and cut | A stick with which he would be beaten.”[22] And so Joe Ward leaves the official scene of instruction for the “hedges” (evoking the Penal Laws) where he chooses, as did Yeats’s wandering scholar, “the hazel wand.” This he


had whittled down to a whip-lash,
Its twist of red and yellow lacquers
Sanded and polished,
And altogether so delicately wrought
That he had engraved his initials on it.”[23]


As in “Song of Wandering Aengus,” in “Anseo” a youth is spurred by a cause unknown to him when he enters a hazel wood to make an object that, in turn, captures something that knows and “calls” his name. In the place of Yeats’s Thing—the “glimmering girl” who takes the place of the object (a trout)—in “Anseo” the hazel yields a “delicately wrought” thing of beauty, wrought that it might deliver, and master, a redundant violence. Such craft makes vocation, mastery, discipline, punishment, and devotion uncomfortably difficult to distinguish, “keeping that wound green,” to use Muldoon’s line from “Hard Drive,” in the very locus of the love poem no less than in the elegy.[24]


If Joe Ward is an artist with a vengeance, what happens in “Anseo” feels remote from the making of art as its own end that, in psychoanalysis, is sublimation. His cause has an end: “making things happen.” Indeed, in the reflexive self-discipline of Joe’s mastery, we encounter the form of Butler’s description of subjection, and Sedgwick’s of “strong theory.” So reflexive is this little narrative of mastery that, but for reference to the “hazel,” the aisling tradition—and in that tradition the Nation Thing lethally embodied as a beautiful young woman—would be invisible.


Das Ding in “Anseo” and “Song of Wandering Angus” (and in the phone box) haunts, but also remains missing in the experience of paranoia, leaving something to be “found out,” or apples of the apocalypse to be plucked, or others to be mastered in its place. It is the end cause that has been lost, so to speak, in the means, and it heightens the fear of being captured (as in “Song”) by what one at once seeks and avoids, or even hides from, making an enemy of anything that threatens the story being told over and over again. These narratives operate according to “strong theory.” An individual within a community that has been (or that feels) justified in treating power with suspicion may well hear or read either the story or the poem with a pleasure that makes the auditor or reader uncomfortable, because it is sustained by a shared fear, by a fear of being shamed by that fear. It reflexively produces anger at whoever is manipulating this scene of shaming and of fear, sympathy once again for the victim, and confusion: where is the storyteller or the poet, and what is he feeling? All of these reactions grow from the forms of these narratives, engendering a shared sense that convenes a community. The survival of that community depends on irony: a feeling of familiarity with literary wordplay, in advance of the recurrence of such scenes in stories and poems, or with the overwrought detailing of a tool of punishment.


To be engaged in a sympathetic reading, in and of these works, is already to be involved in a symptomatic reading that is too close for comfort, even when we put the very idea of “symptomatic” or “suspicious” reading under critical scrutiny. We cannot help but read, because we already feel, the body’s symptoms in these two Irish stories of mastery, and we want to know why. Interpreting or judging what we are feeling while we are feeling (an interpretation or judgment that necessarily always fails to be complete, as Freud wrote in his early Project for a Scientific Psychology), is how the mind instinctively decides whether we are feeling pleasure or pain or both in the repetition of something that aims, in its unpleasurable fear but also in its pleasurable excitement, beyond the pleasure principle. To read “symptomatically” is in itself, in other words, to “repeat” something with which that very repetition reminds us we are all familiar (as Phillips suggests, it may be “terror”) but which we do not want to recognize. But is there a reading that is not “symptomatic” when we are reading with “feeling” and interpreting what that tells us? At this most basic level of “feeling” and “knowing,” such repetition—which may take place in the explication of a poem no less than in the telling of a shaggy dog tale—is the point.[25] Yet as Lacan writes in Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, “suspicion,” expressed in a questioning of self, others, and authority that is ceaseless, is never far from the hypertrophied judgment of Kant’s own study of judgment and the categorical imperative in his third critique. Sedgwick has called this, in the essay so-titled, an “epidemics of the will.”[26]                     


The final word in “Anseo,” a poem whose title means “presence,” or “present,” is repeated from the first stanza: “occurred.” Muldoon has written that “the end of the poem” is to repeat itself through our repetition, for ends that neither the poet nor the reader knows in advance.[27] “But you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong:” Muldoon cites this line from Heaney’s “Keeping Going” to make this final claim as he brings to a conclusion The End of the Poem, the lectures he delivered to a university audience ten years ago. That end, Muldoon writes, is “to carry itself forward in the world” by repeating itself in time, “testing itself, and us, against a sense of how it itself ‘was | In the beginning, is now and shall be.’”[28] What it repeats, he suggests, is a “foretime,” a “foreknowledge,” “the ‘problem’ to which the poem is a ‘solution.’” How is this “solution,” as Muldoon calls it, really different from a repetition of the “problem?” His answer: “the problem” might be indeed an effort to preserve this “cause” that might otherwise be “lost.” Still, a difference in the employment of an article—as Muldoon would have learned from his reading of Frost's "The Mountain" for The End of the Poem—can make all the difference, between “that” and “a”: “That thing takes up all the room,” but nonetheless “all the fun’s in how you say a thing.”[29] “Anseo” might be read as providing a thinly disguised commentary on the close ties between a scene of pedagogy and one of court martial, even as “The Firing Squad” might be read as those between the execution of a poem’s sentence and the May 5, 1916 scene of a state execution.


“The Firing Squad” is a knowing little poem, like so many of Muldoon’s poems over the decades that have concerned sanctioned violence and its reprisals. And it leads us to ask what we know after reading “The Firing Squad” in 2015 (and after the centennial celebrations of 2016) about Ireland, repressive republican nationalism, a brutal, pedophilic clerisy, and perhaps even the sexual silences that produced orphaned “Wards-of-court” that we didn’t already know when “Anseo” was published in the 1980s. In his words, what do we know now about “the whole kit and caboodle | of empire” (American or British) and “a priest of padre || laying about him with his holy-water sprinkler”?[30] The word “feudal” in this poem, and the word “weed” (suggestive of foreign invasion and plantation), stand out in a volume where “feud” and “Freud” are likewise suggestively planted: “Like many of my race, | I’ve come to see English plantain as a flatfooted | weed” that


tends to establish itself in the least likely place,
exercising a feudal
droit du seigneur on pavements, parking lots where battery
acid and diesel have bled
into the soil, drive-ins where we’re wooed by, and wed
to, the whole kit and caboodle
of empire.[31]


That “weed” is likely to be—for this is a Muldoon poem—a repetition of the eponymous foreign growth in “Yarrow.” In “The Firing Squad,” “weed” now finds a slant rhyme in “wed,” a rhyme that connects the themes of the two poems: as we recall, the source of shame in “Yarrow” seems to have been based on a confusion of “marrow” (the vegetable) for “yarrow” (the flower) that only a precocious child reader of Wordsworth’s “lonesome marrow” (and other such romances, in poetry and in prose, high- and middle- and low-brow) would have made. But we repeat, and digress—or do we? This is how reading Muldoon works, associatively, one thing leading to another and back again (and of course it is the very stuff of psychoanalytic theory, put into day-to-day clinical practice). Implied in “Yarrow” is also, one could argue, a fairly large ambition: it repeats, revises, and perhaps even revives the Romantic meditative and elegiac landscape poem that M. H. Abrams once called “the Greater Romantic Lyric.” That “greater” landscape lyric after all is dependent on what the poem frames as a transcendent perspective, the all-powerful survey that both does and does not see (and therefore encounters the view at least twice), the perspective that seeks but fails—or refuses—to see. Muldoon repeats this lyric tradition in reviving (through an error with disastrous consequences for a Northern Irish Catholic family farm) a poem in Wordsworth’s “Yarrow” sequence (itself concerning repetitions that begin with the danger of reading romances and end in the deaths of loved ones). In 2016, however, the importance of such essays as Abrams’, and indeed the stature of Wordsworth, are less assured, and so the ambition of “Yarrow” might well be subject to revision. What (as One Thousand Things Worth Knowing doesn’t reassure us that it knows) may be worth knowing as a Good in itself? What are these “things” to which the title alludes, how do they acquire worth, and are they things we are willing to own, or even things that we want? These are the kinds of question raised for longtime readers of a poet who repeats himself, and in doing so at once questions and returns to earlier questions.


The final three lines of “The Firing Squad” situate a scene of expected execution, and (if this scene could perhaps be imagined as a Creative Writing program at a university) the carrying out of sentences, not in a schoolroom in “Collegelands” Northern Ireland but in an unnamed “Institute”: “As I stride out now across the Institute lawn | I look all the more dapper | for the white handkerchief so firmly lodged in my breast pocket.”[32] This returns us to the poem’s opening situation—or manifesto?—set out in what has become a standard form for Muldoon (as it was for Yeats), the octave:


Something I never before but once let on
is that I am as ready to be hanged, drawn,
and quartered as the Blessed Oliver, as ready as his sober-suited
descendant, Joseph Mary Plunkett,
to be shot—all the more so if I’ve married my beloved Grace
only hours before.[33]


The octave is also, of course, the opening component of the Petrarchan sonnet, such a sonnet without an ending sestet.


Muldoon shares a not quite unrepeatable intimacy (“Something I never but once let on”), his resignation to his fate. In his case, we might surmise that his is the fate of a poet who is a reluctant native informant, even perhaps (as an “institutionalized” poet) a participant in, “the whole kit and caboodle | of empire.” This, after all, is a confession that the speaker has already made once, and so it, too, is a repetition. Being united with “Grace” isn’t the condition of his readiness to face the firing squad and his resignation to having his body disjoined afterward; the ceremonial marriage is only what makes him “all the more” ready to die, if to do so would—what?—uproot, or clear out, that weed, the “flatfooted” “English plantain?” Not likely. Concerning the reward, or end—to have “Grace,” with or without the romance that ends in marriage—makes no difference to the fate that Plunkett, or the speaker, will face in the morning, the encounter that gets the speaker of this poem up at dawn, and he knows in advance it may make nothing happen.


But to own “grace” as one’s own (“my beloved Grace”), perhaps acknowledging the paradox of owning, or owning up to, unearned beneficence, may be at least the poem’s offering of an opening, a clearance, a lee, that keeps the cause, now become one’s duty, from taking all the room. That possessive isn’t final. No more could there could be a final, absolute reparation with the absolute and eternal “Thing,” a marriage ceremony with “Sovereignty,” say, or “Mother Ireland,” that, far from being a revival that promises to “save,” would return to one’s original “end:” the end of life is death.


If marriage offers a secular form of grace, it is only the grace of the day-to-day reclamation of the beloved, or so “The Firing Squad” might lead us to imagine, with a mortal man or woman repeating what Muldoon in another poem calls “the adult thing” in order to revive love in human, rather than inhuman, attachment. One might say something similar about writing, or reading, “poetry,” including the poems of a single author over a period of decades, for which reading is, after all, a day-to-day encounter with one poem after another, each calling differently but in ways similar enough to make an encounter possible, that between the “poet” and the “reader.” Part of the tragedy of a political martyrdom that openly imitates, repeats, the passion of Christ is the willing sacrifice of such unheroic pleasures to a cause that exalts the martyr (a cause that, reflexively, the martyr exalts) beyond the finite immanence of such human and quotidian pleasures.


“Making things happen”: psychoanalysis reaches its limits at the moment when an act must be taken to alter the consequences of recovering a history of injustice, whether such an act takes place in private or in a community. What we might admire in “The Firing Squad” is this thinly disguised version of “Paul Muldoon” declaring his frustration with the persistence, a century after the Easter Rising, of a foreign presence not simply in a country where his family’s home was swallowed by an invasive weed but wherever English is spoken and its cultural traditions taught (including through Irish writings) as a form of mastery. We may also glimpse here the speaker’s shame—almost but not quite masked by the anger—in contributing to that growth (through, perhaps, his own family romances with literature?), and also witness how he defies that shame, by repeating, day after day, the act up getting up and staging the romance once more. Even the clichéd “as it happens” in this poem, a synonym for the inconsequential or random event, prefaces a noun that is not innocent in the context of contemporary urban violence with its own forms of vicious reprisal (see the definition of “buckwheat” in an urban dictionary): “That’s why I get up from my pillow (filled, as it happens, with buckwheat) | to set my face against the dawn.”[34]


Muldoon is willing here, as he has been throughout his career, to claim that “traumaculture” is a real legacy, and if he largely makes that claim with irony, he does so knowing that irony is the form of repetition that seems most in need of being surprised again, as much by what hurts as by what gives joy, even when the ironist cannot help but incorporate that surprise, in turn, into the reassuring (if claustrophobic, and even—for his readers—perhaps by now infuriating) enclosure of his reflexive forms. Poetic revivals thrive—this poem tell us in much the same spirit as “Yarrow” or even the earlier “Act of Union”—in foreign places and their institutions of power, including in the leading institutions of education and culture in our own nation, where the Irish (or at least advocates of Irish culture) have transplanted “Irishness” as what might prove to be either an invigorative or invasive weed. In the descendants of Irish immigrants, and in those institutions where they have thrived (see “Loaf,” for example, and “At the Sign of the Black Horse”), Irish famines continue to have consequences not only because hunger and disease have led to such “synonyms for savagery” as “Muldoons” cannibalizing the mother who still returns to haunt, and to goad, them (as in “Moryson’s Fancy”), but also because the long history of famine in Ireland after the Plantation of Ulster was not an isolated, or by any means the last, devastation of human beings sacrificed to the biopolitics of “bare life.” Ethics becomes political, but so does poetry when it acknowledges these events and their consequences, and it may do so by stirring rage, as well as irony. Yet the greater risk, we might imagine today, may be an ethics, a poetry, and a politics that also enlarges to imagine the possibility that (as Sedgwick writes in “Paranoid Reading”) events did not have to occur, much less occur twice, and that “fate” doesn’t suffice as a form of knowledge.



[1] Paul Muldoon, “Anseo,” Poems 1968-1998 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), 84.

[2] Paul Muldoon, “The Firing Squad,” One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 81.

[3] Paul Muldoon, “Bangle (Slight Return),” Poems 1968-1998 (NY: FSG, 2001), 466.

[4] Muldoon, “Anseo,” 83.

[5] Paul Muldoon, “Yarrow,” Poems 1968-1998 (NY: FSG, 2001), 379.

[6] See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, I Bet You Think This Essay is about You,” Touching Feeling (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 123-151.

[7] Ibid., 127.

[8] Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 118.

[9] Ibid., 142.

[10] Ibid., 93.

[11] Phillips, Adam. "Melancholy Gender/Refused Identification: Keeping It Moving” in Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, 155.

[12] Ibid., 153.

[13] Adam Phillips, “Against Self-Criticism,” London Review of Books 37, no. 5 (March 5, 2015),

[14] Paul Muldoon, in conversation with Krista Tippet, “A Conversation on Verse,” On Being, December 22, 2015,

[15] Eve Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading,” 138.

[16] See Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

[17] Muldoon, “Anseo,” 84.

[18] Ibid., 83, 84.

[19] Ibid., 83.

[20] Ibid., 84.

[21] Paul Muldoon, “Turkey Buzzards,” Horse Latitudes (NY: FSG, 2006), 78, 81.

[22] Muldoon, “Anseo,” 83.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Paul Muldoon, “Hard Drive,” Moy Sand and Gravel (New York: Farrar Straus, 2006), 3.

[25] See Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, trans. Denis Savage (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 67. In Freud and Philosophy, Ricoeur is specifically concerned with how a psychoanalyst knows, and judges, someone else's pleasure, being particularly concerned to listen for what in the analysand’s associative narration seems to hint at the presence of a “suspicious” pleasure in that it produces an enjoyment of suffering. Ricoeur writes of “the possibility of moving from force to language,” in the psychoanalytic encounter, but also “the impossibility of completely integrating force within language,” the signal (and the stakes) for which “lies in the positing or emergence of desire.”

[26] See Sedgwick, “Epidemics of the Will,” Tendencies (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993), 130-42.

[27] See Muldoon, The End of the Poem (NY: FSG, 2006).

[28] Ibid., 395.

[29] See Robert Frost, "The Mountain," The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. Edward Connery Lathem (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1969), 41.

[30] Muldoon, “Firing Squad,” 81.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., 82.

[33] Ibid. This octave concludes with “…Like many of my race, | I’ve come to see English plantain as a flatfooted | weed terminating in an oblongoid…” and continuing into the next stanza.

[34] Muldoon, “The Firing Squad, 82.