I SPENT TWO MONTHS LAST SUMMER IN A SMALL, seaside town in Spain, hoping to make an unrealistic amount of headway into my second novel. Because of a postage snafu, the two dozen books that were supposed to meet me there were never heard from again, leaving me with the following English reading material: my passport, about 30 U.S. dollars, the label on my family-size bottle of multivitamins, the face of my Casio watch, my last name (sewn, by my mother, into my oldest socks) and Paul Muldoon's Poems: 1968-1998, a book I had stuffed into my carry-on at the last minute, in no small part because of my love of the dust jacket. Because the town was somewhat remote, and because I am the kind of person who believes that you must punish yourself severely for mistakes that are insignificant and not your fault to begin with, I decided I would make no efforts to have more books sent to me. It was going to be Muldoon and me in what I thought would be a staring contest, but turned out to be a conversation.
I've never read a book as many times, or with as much concentration, as I did the Muldoon that summer. I've never memorized as many phrases, never worn down an entire pencil with underlining (never underlined, for that matter), never actually freed the pages from the spine from so much handling. As it turns out, most snafus are fortuitous. This was no exception. Summers are exactly what one can't have back, but even if I could -- if I had the chance to ensure that those two dozen lost books would reach me this time -- I wouldn't. Which is to say: Neither Muldoon nor I blinked. Or rather: We talked and talked and talked.
Muldoon is an Irishman who seems to wish he were a Jew. Not only does he make what seems like an almost fetishistic number of allusions to Jewish history and culture, he makes them in a Jewish way -- with reverential irony. All of his jokes are inflating, rather than deflating; they point to symmetries and nuances, rather than shortcomings. His particular brand of humor is very close, in my mind, to prayer.
While he has become famous for being a master of the esoteric -- the word you have to look up, the reference you just don't get, the rhyme that depends on a pronunciation you've never been sure is correct -- what makes Muldoon so extraordinary is his power to engage and embrace. I imagine that many of his African-American readers feel as if he wished he ä42 were African-American. (A black friend of mine once observed that Muldoon's sense of rhythm is "so black.") And I bet that many of his women readers feel as if he wished he were a woman. Many of his transvestite readers, anyway.
And yet, there is also a palpable distancing, something like a withdrawal. His formal moves lead the reader away from the poems, as the rhythms and emotional thrust draw the reader in. This tension is where Muldoon's real originality and genius lie. He writes, in the heartbreaking "Longbones," of a woman who is "a mirror covered with a sheet." And this is exactly how we see the poem itself, and all of his poems: They are obscured reflections, entreating us, forbidding us.
The methods by which Muldoon entreats and forbids are as technically complex as anything being written today. I don't have the space, here, to delve into the maddening schemes in his books, and between his books. And I don't really want to. While the work begs for critical analysis -- it's too irresistibly fun not to try to break the poems down like chemical reactions -- that isn't, ultimately, the point. For all of the verbal hijinks, for all of the puns and cross-referencing, for all of the doctoral theses that have and will be written about them, the poems are about something very simple: compassion.
Which is probably why they served me so well in my Spanish solitude. I saw a Jew when I needed to see a Jew in myself. I saw the development of a young writer -- the first books included in the collection were written when Muldoon was in his early 20s -- when I needed to see the development of a young writer in myself. The poems were pliant enough to make room for me, like a tent for one that can fit two. But the story doesn't end there, because the recognitions Muldoon's work encourages aren't just between the poems and the reader.
SOMETHING STRANGE AND WONDERful happened a few months ago. On a first date with a girl I proceeded to fall very much in love with, the topic of Muldoon somewhat miraculously came up. (What's so amazing about Muldoon is how he has to do with everything, how every context is a fitting one in which to discuss his work.)
"I think he's the best poet writing in the English language," she said, as the 7 train took us under the East River.
"I'm so glad you said that," I told her. "I am so, so glad."
"Why?" she asked.
We talked and talked and talked. I told her about how I love Muldoon's "Hopewell Haiku," particularly the one about the passing funeral. She agreed. Or rather, she recited it from memory: "I lean to one side/To let a funeral pass./It leans to one side." What a woman! I thought, and then mentioned how little I understood of Madoc, Muldoon's book-length poem and his version of a mystery. I wasn't familiar with about half of the words, much less could I get a grasp on just what he was writing "about." And yet it became one of my favorite books.
"It's pure pleasure," she said, "in the exact same way that an Agatha Christie mystery is -- you want to see how it unfolds, and you want to participate in the unfolding. The difference being, though, that at the end of an Agatha Christie book you know what's happened, the potential is drained from the story, whereas at the end of Madoc, you know less than when you started, and it becomes something bigger. It's you that's unfolded."
I told her that Muldoon made me laugh.
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"Really?" she said. "He makes me cry."
She told me that she'd always thought that Muldoon was a kind of good pugilist, punching you with his words, giving you hickeys instead of bruises.
We talked more and more.
Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the novel Everything Is Illuminated, recently published by Houghton Mifflin.