Tuesday, November 23, 2010

One simple wish

Let me share a poem, an early work of the Irish poet Paul Muldoon, called "Our Lady of Ardboe." I would post it here in its entirety, but that may not be legit. You can find it on the web, or, better, buy the whole shebang. Muldoon was in his mid-twenties when he wrote the poem, in 1977, making his way in a craft that would eventually take him to the very top of the game.

The poem has three parts. The first, in six lines, evokes a moment both secular and holy. A girl at the half-door of an Irish cottage looks out upon a field of thistles, gorse and cattle. "She stood there as in Bethlehem/ One night in nineteen fifty-three or four." Perhaps it is his mother the poet imagines, or perhaps his friend Seamus Heaney's wife who came from Ardboe; at the very least the date provides a rhyme. The cattle kneel, a characteristic behavior that seems to have had a prayerful significance in Irish Catholic lore, evoking the reverence that even dumb animals expressed in the stable on the first Christmas. Watching the cattle, the girl kneels too, an act of apparently spontaneous piety.

Both secular and holy. In the rural Catholic environment in which Muldoon grew up I would suppose that there was not much space between secular and holy. Everything, even kneeling cattle, possessed a sacramental significance, a transparency that let the divine shine through. The whole of the natural world was charged with the ancient drama of sin and salvation.

In the second part of the poem, a sonnet, the poet gives the girl her due. "Who's to know what's knowable?" he asks. "Milk from the Virgin Mother's breast,/ A feather off the Holy Ghost?/ The fairy thorn? The holy well?" Catholicism, fairy faith: Who's to say? We all wish that there be more to life than "a job, a car, a house, a wife --/ The fixity of running water." The girl at the door makes her poetry out of what she has been given, those intimations of transcendence that reason calls superstition.

The third part of the poem, again a sestet, begins with a partial recital of the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, something familiar to all of us of a certain age who grew up in the Catholic faith. "Mother of our Creator, Mother of our Saviour, Mother most amiable, etc." Here, I think, the poet is evoking both the young woman at the door and the Catholicism of his youth. Then, the final cryptic couplet:
And I walk waist-deep among the purple and golds
With one arm as long as the other.
The purple and gold are easy enough; we are back -- waist deep -- in the thistle and gorse. "One arm as long as the other"? What can the poet mean? I suspect he is walking away from the mumbled litany and bent knee of rural Catholic Ireland into his own university world of secular poetry in the language of Homer and Heaney, a new kind of litany in which kneeling cattle evoke not Bethlehem but the girl at the door who thinks of Bethlehem and who might, "as well as the next" -- one arm as long as the other -- "unravel/ The winding road to Christ's navel."