POEMS 1968-1998



Copyright © 2001 Paul Muldoon. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-374-12543-0

Chapter One


The early electric people had domesticated the wild ass.
They knew all about falling off.
Occasionally, they would have fallen out of the trees.
Climbing again, they had something to prove
To their neighbours. And they did have neighbours.
The electric people lived in villages
Out of their need of security and their constant hunger.
Together they would divert their energies

To neutral places. Anger to the banging door,
Passion to the kiss.
And electricity to earth. Having stolen his thunder
From an angry god, through the trees
They had learned to string his lightning.
The women gathered random sparks into their aprons,
A child discovered the swing
Among the electric poles. Taking everything as given,

The electric people were confident, hardly proud.
They kept fire in a bucket,
Boiled water and dry leaves in a kettle, watched the lid
By the blue steam lifted and lifted.
So that, where one of the electric people happened to fall,
It was accepted as an occupational hazard.
There was something necessary about the thing. The North Wall

Of the Eiger was notorious for blizzards,
If one fell there his neighbour might remark, Bloody fool.
All that would have been inappropriate,
Applied to the experienced climber of electric poles.
I have achieved this great height?
No electric person could have been that proud,
Thirty or forty feet. Perhaps not that,
If the fall happened to be broken by the roof of a shed.
The belt would burst, the call be made,

The ambulance arrive and carry the faller away
To hospital with a scream.
There and then the electric people might invent the railway,
Just watching the lid lifted by the steam.
Or decide that all laws should be based on that of gravity,
Just thinking of the faller fallen.
Even then they were running out of things to do and see.
Gradually, they introduced legislation

Whereby they nailed a plaque to every last electric pole.
They would prosecute any trespassers.
The high up, singing and live fruit liable to shock or kill
Were forbidden. Deciding that their neighbours
And their neighbours' innocent children ought to be stopped
For their own good, they threw a fence
Of barbed wire round the electric poles. None could describe
Electrocution, falling, the age of innocence.


In the way that the most of the wind
Happens where there are trees,

Most of the world is centred
About ourselves.

Often where the wind has gathered
The trees together and together,

One tree will take
Another in her arms and hold.

Their branches that are grinding
Madly together and together,

It is no real fire.
They are breaking each other.

Often I think I should be like
The single tree, going nowhere,

Since my own arm could not and would not
Break the other. Yet by my broken bones

    I tell new weather.


This is not the nest
That has been pulling itself together
In the hedge's intestine.
It is the cup of a boy's hands,

Whereby something is lost
More than the necessary heat gone forever
And death only after beginning.
There is more to this pale blue flint

In this careful fist
Than a bird's nest having been discovered
And a bird not sitting again.
This is the start of the underhand,

The way that he has crossed
These four or five delicate fields of clover
To hunker by this crooked railing.
This is the breathless and the intent

Puncturing of the waste
And isolate egg and this the clean delivery

Of little yolk and albumen.
These his wrists, surprised and stained.


I guessed the letter
      Must be yours. I recognized
The cuttle ink,
      The serif on
The P. I read the postmark and the date,
      Impatience held
By a paperweight.
      I took your letter at eleven
To the garden
      With my tea.
And suddenly the yellow gum secreted
The damson bush
      Had grown a shell.
I let those scentless pages fall
      And took it
In my feckless hand. I turned it over
      On its back
To watch your mouth
      Withdraw. Making a lean white fist
Out of my freckled hand.


Bored by Ascham and Zeno
In private conversation on the longbow,

I went out onto the lawn.
Taking the crooked bow of yellow cane,

I shot an arrow over
The house and wounded my brother.

He cried those huge dark tears
Till they had blackened half his hair.

Zeno could have had no real
Notion of the flying arrow being still,

Not blessed with the hindsight
Of photography and the suddenly frozen shot,

Yet that obstinate one
Eye inveigled me to a standing stone.

Evil eyes have always burned
Corn black and people have never churned

Again after their blink.
That eye was deeper than the Lake of the Young,

Outstared the sun in the sky.
Could look without commitment into another eye.


Every year they have driven stake after stake after stake
Deeper into the cold heart of the hill.
Their arrowheads are more deadly than snowflakes,
Their spearheads sharper than icicles,

Yet stilled by snowflake, icicle.
They are already broken by their need of wintering,
These archers taller than any snowfall
Having to admit their broken shafts and broken strings,

Whittling the dead branches to the girls they like.
That they have hearts is visible,
The nests of birds, these obvious concentrations of black.
Yet where the soldiers will later put on mail,

The archers their soft green, nothing will tell
Of the heart of the mailed soldier seeing the spear he flung,
Of the green archer seeing his shaft kill.
Only his deliberate hand, a bird pretending a broken wing.


Macha, the Ice Age
Held you down,
Heavy as a man.
As he dragged

Himself away,
You sprang up
Big as half a county,

Drumlin country.
Now at war
With men,
Leading them against

Each other,
You had to prove
Your permanence.
You scored the ground

With a sharp brooch,
Mapped your first
The day you fell,

At the hands of men,
You fell
Back over half a county.
Clutching a town

To your breasts.


My father and I are catching spricklies
Out of the Oona river.
They have us feeling righteous,
The way we have thrown them back.
Our benevolence is astounding.

When my father stood out in the shallows
It occurred to me that
The spricklies might have been piranhas,
The river a red carpet
Rolling out from where he had just stood,

Or I wonder now if he is dead or sleeping.
For if he is dead I would have his grave
Secret and safe,
I would turn the river out of its course,
Lay him in its bed, bring it round again.

No one would question
That he had treasures or his being a king,
Telling now of the real fish farther down.


This Italian square
And circling plain
Black once with mares
And their stallions,
The flat Blackwater
Turning its stones

Over hour after hour
As their hooves shone
And lifted together
Under the black rain,
One or other Greek war
Now coloured the town

Blacker than ever before
With hungry stallions
And their hungry mares
Like hammocks of skin,
The flat Blackwater
Unable to contain

Itself as horses poured
Over acres of grain
In a black and gold river.
No band of Athenians
Arrived at the Moy fair
To buy for their campaign,

Peace having been declared
And a treaty signed.
The black and gold river
Ended as a trickle of brown
Where those horses tore
At briars and whins,

Ate the flesh of each other
Like people in famine.
The flat Blackwater
Hobbled on its stones
With a wild stagger
And sag in its backbone,

The local people gathered
Up the white skeletons.
Horses buried for years
Under the foundations
Give their earthen floors
The ease of trampolines.