Moy Sand and Gravel, for which Muldoon won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize and the International Griffin Poetry Prize, is a complex, multi-layered collection that, again, returns to Muldoon's preoccupations: familial relationships; displacement (literal, metaphorical and linguistic) and its associated crises of identity; and the problems, for a poet who has been publishing material for a long time, of saying anything new. Muldoon in an interview acknowledged Yeats as the great reinventor, changing his engagement (but not his voice) when writing as a function of progression, as a way to avoid self-parody. Muldoon has been similarly successful. So has Heaney, but where Heaney's collections seem to follow a natural, organic progression (one critic remarked that Heaney's imagination has 'a five-year plan') Muldoon's collections collide with one another and riccochet in new directions, taking old themes on new and unfamiliar journeys. 'Unapproved Road', the second poem in the collection, seems to coincide with this pattern: a border-crossing in Ireland in 1956 is intercut with an encounter with a Tuareg in Rotterdam 1986, in which a surreal discussion on the etymology of Irish place-names elucidates a shared heritage that has resulted in radically different outcomes and offspring. This sense of divergence permeates the entire collection, making Moy Sand and Gravel simultaneously one of Muldoon's most grounded, rooted collections, and one of his most strikingly heady and intangible. The collection, as has become almost traditional, culminates in a long poem in which these facets come to an uneasy reconciliation: the surrealism is brought into contact with the concrete (almost literally) as flood-water races down Canal Road, past his house, and bears with it the meaningful detritus of past lives and the 'signs of the times'.
Why four stars? The collection is, as usual, brilliantly written, difficult but in the best way (some of the things he says are difficult TO say) but it may perhaps lack the personal immediacy of 'Quoof', in which he had important things to say not just about himself and his family but also about his immediate situation and the significance of it. Of course Muldoon can't go on writing about the Troubles; to ask him to do so would be to ask him to stagnate. But he is a poet for whom the pen IS 'snug as a gun', and he is at his best when he has something to write against. Mister, you deal in pencil-lead.
Oh this is just too awful for words. Utterly tedious subject matter embalmed in hiply snide erudition [lazy obscurity with just enough reference points to thrill the trainspotters] and about as poetic as the drivel one has come to expect from an earnest Creative Writing Seminar student. Why has someone like Muldoon been elevated to his present position in the Pantheon of Contemporary Poets ... It can't be true, but yes it is ... Poetry Editor of the New Yorker. Dear oh dear. It's amateur-hour for post-modernist kiddies who've attended a hundred too many Writers' Festivals. Watch out Charlie Simic and Adam Zagajewski. My beloved New Yorker will be exiling you soon for being readable, using apposite metaphors, and actually having something to write about. Gee, come to think of it, even John Ashbery with his flippantly surrealistic collage might be too disagreeably poetic for the new door nazis. Paul Muldoon is a professional poet in all the worst senses.