The Unique Historical Beauty in One Thousand Things Worth Knowing by Paul Muldoon

March 3, 2016 - Poetry, Reviews
Author: Paul Muldoon
Publisher: Farrrar
Publisher: Straus and Giroux

One Thousand Things Worth Knowing by Paul Muldoon effortlessly waves historical references like Alexander, Cleopatra (from Saffron) and juxtaposes them with scenes of Irishmen at war while keeping the overarching theme of loss intact throughout the poem. This motif is spelled out in the first poem, Cuthbert and the Otter, when Muldoon writes “I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead”. Muldoon sets many poems within the geography of the British Islands, such as Cuthbert and the Otter, which refers to many locations in North England and the rest of the book, which is filled with scenes of Ireland.
At first glance, One Thousand Things Worth Knowing by Paul Muldoon rambles between references to grief, historical references such as “… Like the Oracle at Delphi” from Cuthbert and the Otters, “Sometimes I’d happen on Alexander and Cleopatra / -and several of their collaborators tucking into a paella” from Saffron but with additional readings and some research, we see that all these historical connections are somewhat related, by a common theme of loss and being disjointed.

Through research, we connect the author and Heaney, as we find out that Seamus Heaney is an Irish playwright, artist and writer who influenced Muldoon and that Muldoon was a pallbearer at his funeral, an image that he revisits later on in the 8th stanza of the poem Cuthbert and the Otter “… I straighten my black tie as the pallbearer”.
The cover is a collage of a picture at the Irish border, a setting and people that continue to be a motif through the book. For example, in Civil War Suite (page 38) Muldoon successfully brings all castes of the Irish people together on the battlefield as he writes:
“Wasn’t it, after all, Irish riffraff
from the docks of New Orleans,
Irish ‘wharf rats’,
louts and longshoremen

Irish troughs and roughs
(any of whom would gleefully drive a lance
through the heart
of William Tecumseh Sherman)

Irish rogues and rapscallions,
culchies and munchies
who’d make up the 1st Louisana Special Battalion…”
In the same poem Muldoon goes on to discuss Daguerreotypes, Keats, Eleanor of Aquitaine (one of the most powerful women of the High Middle Ages in Southern France), Tennyson and Whitman, showing how easily and masterfully he weaves historical references together while never losing sight of his overall theme, loss. Not all of this is physical loss, but displacement and war, as Muldoon writes “… Sometimes it’s only by a crowded pier / we recognize what we hold dear” in Civil War Suite, discussing soldiers’ deaths, captured in the beautiful line “and our flag draped coffins secretly airlifted home.”
Formally, what is striking is the uniformity in stanzas as well as the dictatorial tone at which Muldoon tells us different histories. An example of the uniformity is in the poem, Anonymous: From “Marban and Guaire”, every stanza except the first and last is a sestet, with the first and last stanza being quatrains. This format is repeated throughout most of the collection. For example in A Pillar, there are 7 stanzas of 6 lines, in Saffron, 9 stanzas of 6 lines, in Pompeii, 18 stanzas of 2 lines each, and in Camille Pissarro: Apple Picking At Eragny-Sur-Epte, 5 stanzas of 6 lines each. This makes the poems easier to follow visually especially because the poems often lose the reader amidst far-reaching historical references and vague references to the patron Saint of Northern England (Cuthbert of Lindisfarne referenced in Cuthbert and the Otters).
In this collection, Muldoon not only easily weaves historical narratives together but also takes on a new, modern perspective to older poems. For example, Hermit and King is an older Irish colloquy written in the 10th century and in Anonymous: From “Marban and Guaire” mimics the older poem’s commentary on nature and being content in life through the lines “…The rowan or mountain ash / The blackthorn and the sloes / within the scope / Acorns in an acorn heap / A bunch of bare berry-sheep /dangling from bare mountain slopes”. Muldoon comments that even though a King, more specifically King Guaire referenced both in his work and Hermit and King written in the 10th century, maybe be materially wealthy, “Christ has left me no less rich”, because “Though you delight / in having treasures / than might have sufficed / I’m quite content / with what is lent / me by that self-same Christ”. Muldoon, reflecting on other poets’ love of nature (for example, Thoreau), concluded in Anonymous: From “Marban and Guaire” that the greatest treasure is nature gifted to man by God.
I think that Muldoon makes his poetry for aficionados of history, with countless references that would be lost if not for the internet. For example, in the first poem of the collection, the titular Cuthbert is Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, the patron saint of England, which when put into context gives the poem a whole new dimension. However, there are pieces that are not solely written around obscure historical references, such as Pelt, the second poem of the collection, beautifully describes the feeling of feeling fleece or a pelt with the lines “to a contentment / I’d not felt in years / not since that winter / I’d worn the world / against my skin / worn it fur side in.” Such poems, along with A Giraffe and Pip and Magwitch, show scenes that by are standalone without the trademark historical references.
Just like the title states, One Thousand Things Worth Knowing is filled with countless mentions of obscure history, with mentions of loss, fur, unexpected but welcome comparisons (see: Recalculating, Federico Garcia Lorca: “Death”) that leaves you curious and tied to the book as you learn more and more from its intricate references.

Reviewed by: DongWon Oh


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