Tell -- 14 Poems of Paul Muldoon


By Paul Muldoon

He opens the scullery door, and a sudden rush
of wind, as raw as raw,
brushes past him as he himself will brush
past the stacks of straw

that stood in earlier for Crow
or Comanche tepees hung with scalps
but tonight past muster, row upon row,
for the foothills of the Alps.

He opens the door of the peeling-shed
just as one of the apple-peelers
(one of almost a score
of red-cheeked men who pare

and core
the red-cheeked apples for a few spare
shillings) mutters something about “bloodshed”
and the “peelers.”

The red-cheeked men put down their knives
at one and the same
moment. All but his father, who somehow connives
to close one eye as if taking aim

or holding back a tear,
and shoots him a glance
he might take, as it whizzes past his ear,
for a Crow, or a Comanche, lance

hurled through the Tilley-lit
gloom of the peeling-shed,
when he hears what must be an apple split
above his head.



By Paul Muldoon

Even as we speak, there’s a smoker’s cough
from behind the whitethorn hedge: we stop dead in our tracks;
a distant tingle of water into a trough.

In the past half-hour—since a cattle truck
all but sent us shuffling off this mortal coil—
we’ve consoled ourselves with the dregs

of a bottle of Redbreast. Had Hawthorne been a Gael,
I insist, the scarlet A on Hester Prynne
would have stood for “Alcohol.”

This must be the same truck whose taillights burn
so dimly, as if caked with dirt,
three or four hundred yards along the boreen

(a diminutive form of the Gaelic bóthar, “a road,”
from bó, “a cow,” and thar
meaning, in this case, something like “athwart,”

“boreen” has entered English “through the air”
despite the protestations of the O.E.D.):
why, though, should one taillight flash and flare

then flicker-fade
to an afterimage of tourmaline
set in a dark part-jet, part-jasper or -jade?

That smoker’s cough again: it triggers off from drumlin
to drumlin an emphysemantiphon
of cows. They hoist themselves onto their trampoline

and steady themselves and straight away divine
water in some far-flung spot
to which they then gravely incline. This is no Devon

cow-coterie, by the way, whey-faced, with Spode
hooves and horns: nor are they the metaphysicattle of Japan
that have merely to anticipate

scoring a bull’s-eye and, lo, it happens;
these are earth-flesh, earth-blood, salt of the earth,
whose talismans are their own jawbones

buried under threshold and hearth.
For though they trace themselves to the kith and kine
that presided over the birth

of Christ (so carry their calves a full nine
months and boast liquorice
cachous on their tongues), they belong more to the line

that’s tramped these cwms and corries
since Cuchulainn tramped Aoife.
Again the flash. Again the fade. However I might allegorize

some oscaraboscarabinary bevy
of cattle there’s no getting round this cattle truck,
one light on the blink, laden with what? Microwaves? Hi-fis?

Oscaraboscarabinary: a twin, entwined, a tree, a Tuareg;
a double dung-beetle; a plain
and simple hi-firing party; an off-the-back-of-a-lorry drogue?

Enough of Colette and Céline, Céline and Paul Celan:
enough of whether Nabokov
taught at Wellesley or Wesleyan.

Now let us talk of slaughter and the slain,
the helicopter gunship, the mighty Kalashnikov:
let’s rest for a while in a place where a cow has lain.



By Paul Muldoon

In her white muslin evening dress.
`Who the hell do you think you are
Running out to dances in next to nothing?
As though we hadn't enough bother
With the world at war, if not at an end.'
My father was pounding the breakfast-table.

`Those Yankees were touch and go as it was —
If you'd heard Patton in Armagh —
But this Kennedy's nearly an Irishman
So he's not much better than ourselves.
And him with only to say the word.
If you've got anything on your mind
Maybe you should make your peace with God.'

I could hear May from beyond the curtain.
`Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.
I told a lie once, I was disobedient once.
And, Father, a boy touched me once.'
`Tell me, child. Was this touch immodest?
Did he touch your breasts, for example?'
`He brushed against me, Father. Very gently.'


Holy Thursday

By Paul Muldoon

They're kindly here, to let us linger so late,
Long after the shutters are up.
A waiter glides from the kitchen with a plate
Of stew, or some thick soup,

And settles himself at the next table but one.
We know, you and I, that it's over,
That something or other has come between
Us, whatever we are, or were.

The waiter swabs his plate with bread
And drains what's left of his wine,
Then rearranges, one by one,
The knife, the fork, the spoon, the napkin,
The table itself, the chair he's simply borrowed,
And smiles, and bows to his own absence.



By Paul Muldoon

I, too, have trailed my father's spirit
From the mud-walled cabin behind the mountain
Where he was born and bred,
TB and scarletina,

The farm where he was first hired out,
To Wigan, to Crewe junction,
A building-site from which he disappeared
And took passage, almost, for Argentina.

The mountain is coming down with hazel,
The building-site a slum,
While he has gone no further than Brazil.

That's him on the verandah, drinking rum
With a man who might be a Nazi,
His children asleep under their mosquito-nets.


Promises, Promises

By Paul Muldoon

I am stretched out under the lean-to
Of an old tobacco-shed
On a farm in North Carolina.
A cardinal sings from the dogwood
For the love of marijuana.
His song goes over my head.
There is such splendour in the grass
I might be the picture of happiness.
Yet I am utterly bereft
Of the low hills, the open-ended sky,
The wave upon wave of pasture
Rolling in, and just as surely
Falling short of my bare feet.
Whatever is passing is passing me by.

I am with Raleigh, near the Atlantic,
Where we have built a stockade
Around our little colony.
Give him his scallop-shell of quiet,
His staff of faith to walk upon,
His scrip of joy, immortal diet —
We are some eighty souls
On whom Raleigh will hoist his sails.
He will return, years afterwards,
To wonder where and why
We might have altogether disappeared,
Only to glimpse us here and there
As one fair strand in her braid,
The blue in an Indian girl's dead eye.

I am stretched out under the lean-to
Of an old tobacco-shed
On a farm in North Carolina,
When someone or other, warm, naked,
Stirs within my own skeleton
And stands on tip-toe to look out
Over the horizon,
Through the zones, across the Ocean.
The cardinal sings from a redbud
For the love of one slender and shy,
The flight after flight of stairs
To her room in Bayswater,
The damson freckle on her throat
That I kissed when we kissed Goodbye.


The Avenue

By Paul Muldoon

Now that we've come to the end
I've been trying to piece it together,
Not that distance makes anything clearer.
It began in the half-light
While we walked through the dawn chorus
After a party that lasted all night,
With the blackbird, the wood-pigeon,
The song-thrush taking a bludgeon
To a snail, our taking each other's hand
As if the whole world lay before us.


"The Sightseers"

By Paul Muldoon

My father and mother, my brother and sister
and I, with uncle Pat, our dour best-loved uncle,
had set out that Sunday afternoon in July
in his broken-down Ford

not to visit some graveyard -- one died of shingles,
one of fever, another's knees turned to jelly --
but the brand-new roundabout at Ballygawley,
the first in mid-Ulster.

Uncle Pat was telling us how the B-Specials
had stopped him one night somewhere near Ballygawley
and smashed his bicycle

and made him sing the Sash and curse the Pope of Rome.
They held a pistol so hard against his forehead
there was still the mark of an O when he got home.


The Coyote

By Paul Muldoon

Veering down the track like a girl veering down a cobbled street
in the meat-packing district,
high heels from the night before, black shawl of black-tipped hairs,

steering clear of that fluorescent ring
spray-painted on an even stretch of blacktop
like a ring in which we might once have played keepsies,

veering down the track without the slightest acknowledgement from Angus,
the dog lying in a heap on our porch
like a heap of clothes lying beside a bed,

Angus who had himself been found wandering by the highway
somewhere on the far side of Lake Champlain,
slubber-furred, slammerkin, backbone showing through,

and, though we didn't know it when we brought him home,
blind in one eye, the right one,
the one between him and the coyote,

the cloudy, flaw-fleckered marble of that eye
now turning on you and me,
taking in the spray-painted ring where you and I knuckle down.



By Paul Muldoon

This much I know. Just as I'm about to make that right turn
off Province Line Road
I meet another beat-up Volvo
carrying a load

of hay. (More accurately, a bale of Lucerne
on the roof rack,
a bale of Lucerne or fescue or alfalfa.)
My hands are raw. I'm itching to cut the twine, to unpack

that hay-accordion, that hay-concertina.
It must be ten o'clock. There's still enough light
(not least from the glow

of the bales themselves) for a body to ascertain
that when one bursts, as now, something takes flight
from those hot and heavy box-pleats. This much, at least, I know.


The Frog

By Paul Muldoon

Comes to mind as another small
amongst the rubble.
His eye matches exactly the bubble
in my spirit-level.
I set aside hammer and chisel
and take him on the trowel.

The entire population of Ireland
springs from a pair left to stand
overnight in a pond
in the gardens of Trinity College,
two bottle of wine left there to chill
after the Act of Union.

There is, surely, in this story
a moral. A moral for our times.
What if I put him to my head
and squeezed it out of him,
like the juice of freshly squeezed limes,
or a lemon sorbet?


Meeting the British

Paul Muldoon

We met the British in the dead of winter.
The sky was lavender

and the snow lavender-blue.
I could hear, far below,

the sound of two streams coming together
(both were frozen over)

and, no less strange,
myself calling out in French

across that forest-
clearing. Neither General Jeffrey Amherst

nor Colonel Henry Bouquet
could stomach our willow-tobacco.

As for the unusual
scent when the Colonel shook out his hand-

kerchief: C'est la lavande,
une fleur mauve comme le ciel.

They gave us six fishhooks
and two blankets embroidered with smallpox.


The Mirror

By Paul Muldoon

in memory of my father


He was no longer my father

but I was still his son;

I would get to grips with that cold paradox,

the remote figure in his Sunday best

who was buried the next day.

A great day for tears, snifters of sherry,

whiskey, beef sandwiches, tea.

An old mate of his was recounting

their day excursion

to Youghal in the Thirties,

how he was his first partner

on the Cork/Skibbereen route

in the late Forties.

There was a splay of Mass cards

on the sitting-room mantelpiece

which formed a crescent round a glass vase,

his retirement present from C.I.E.


I didn’t realize till two days later

it was the mirror took his breath away.

The monstrous old Victorian mirror

with the ornate gilt frame

we had found in the three-storey house

when we moved in from the country.

I was afraid it would sneak

down from the wall and swallow me up

in one gulp in the middle of the night.

While he was decorating the bedroom

he had taken down the mirror

without asking for help;

soon he turned the color of terracotta

and his heart broke that night.


There was nothing for it

but to set about finishing the job,

papering over the cracks,

painting the high window,

stripping the door, like the door of a crypt.

When I took hold of the mirror

I had a fright. I imagined him breathing through it.

I heard him say in a reassuring whisper:

I’ll give you a hand, here.

And we lifted the mirror back in position

above the fireplace,

my father holding it steady

while I drove home the two nails.

- From the Irish of Michael Davitt


Our Lady of Ardboe

By Paul Muldoon


Just there, in a corner of the whin-field,

Just where the thistles bloom.

She stood there as in Bethlehem

One night in nineteen fifty-three or four.

The girl leaning over the half-door

Saw the cattle kneel, and herself knelt.


I suppose that a farmer’s youngest daughter

Might, as well as the next, unravel

The winding road to Christ’s navel.

Who’s to know what’s knowable?

Milk from the Virgin Mother’s breast,

A feather off the Holy Ghost?

The fair thorn? The holy well?

Our simple wish for there being more to life

Than a job, a car, a house, a wife —

The fixity of running water.

For I like to think, as I step these acres,

That a holy well is no more shallow

Nor plummetless than the pools of Shiloh,

the fairy thorn no less true than the Cross.


Mother of our Creator, Mother of our Savior,

Mother most amiable, Mother most admirable.

Virgin most prudent, Virgin most venerable,

Mother inviolate, Mother undefiled.

And I walk waist-deep among purples and golds

With one arm as long as the other.

A Brief Biography of the Poet

Paul Mauldoon

Paul Muldoon was born in 1951 in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, and educated in Armagh and at the Queen's University of Belfast. From 1973 to 1986 he worked in Belfast as a radio and television producer for the British Broadcasting Corporation. Since 1987 he has lived in the United States, where he is now Howard G. B. Clark '21 Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University. Between 1999 and 2004 he was Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford. Paul Muldoon's main collections of poetry are New Weather (1973), Mules (1977), Why Brownlee Left (1980), Quoof (1983), Meeting The British (1987), Madoc: A Mystery (1990), The Annals of Chile (1994), Hay (1998), Poems 1968-1998 (2001) and Moy Sand and Gravel (2002), for which he won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize.
A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Paul Muldoon was given an American Academy of Arts and Letters award in literature for 1996. Other recent awards are the 1994 T. S. Eliot Prize, the 1997 Irish Times Poetry Prize, the 2003 Griffin International Prize for Excellence in Poetry, the 2004 American Ireland Fund Literary Award, and the 2004 Shakespeare Prize. He has been described by The Times Literary Supplement as "the most significant English-language poet born since the second World War."


  1. Lyrical and profound in his words I hear the land of Eire sound


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