Reading: Anseo by Paul Muldoon

Today Paul Muldoon (19 ). Seamus Heaney has called him one of the greatest poets. I read a poem called Anseo. It’s the Irish way to say ‘present, sir, yes, sir’:

When the Master was calling the roll
At the primary school in Collegelands,
You were meant to call back Anseo
And raise your hand
As your name occurred.
Anseo, meaning here, here and now,
All present and correct,
Was the first word of Irish I spoke.
The last name on the ledger
Belonged to Joseph Mary Plunkett Ward
And was followed, as often as not,
By silence, knowing looks,
A nod and a wink, the Master’s droll
‘And where’s our little Ward-of-court?’

I remember the first time he came back
The Master had sent him out
Along the hedges
To weigh up for himself and cut
A stick with which he would be beaten.
After a while, nothing was spoken;
He would arrive as a matter of course
With an ash-plant, a salley-rod.
Or, finally, the hazel-wand
He had whittled down to a whip-lash,
Its twist of red and yellow lacquers
Sanded and polished,
And altogether so delicately wrought
That he had engraved his initials on it.

I last met Joseph Mary Plunkett Ward
In a pub just over the Irish border.
He was living in the open,
In a secret camp
On the other side of the mountain.
He was fighting for Ireland,
Making things happen.
And he told me, Joe Ward,
Of how he had risen through the ranks
To Quartermaster, Commandant:
How every morning at parade
His volunteers would call back Anseo
And raise their hands
As their names occurred.

I find the poetry of Muldoon a bit overwhelming. Like Joyce, he uses lots of difficult words (yes, he has been called notoriously hard and Joycean by critics) and some of his poems are very long and tough. This one tells her story succinctly and it sounds more gripping with every time you read it again.

Not only ‘professional’ readers are signaled by the name of Joseph Mary Plunkett Ward. The bullied boy in the poem who grows up to rise through the ranks and of course become a authoritarian figure himself, has the name of Jesus-God’s inofficial parents. So, yes, what we are passing on, generation after generation, is authoritarianism.

The boy with the surname Ward appears last on the list and is laughed at because a ward-of-court is a minor (often an orphan) who has been appointed a guardian by a court. That boy has to carve his own flagellation stick and makes it into a work of art that he signs: JMPW. He could as well write INRI because that stick is Jesus’ cross. Normally I don’t like the thick gooey Christian meaning, but in Ireland it has of course a different dimension.

The dimension of meeting your childhood friend in a pub and that eerie atmosphere spawned by religious conflict.

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