Cuthbert and the Otters: Review of Paul Muldoon at Durham Book Festival

Image courtesy of  summonedbyfells (Flickr)

Image courtesy of summonedbyfells (Flickr)

The Irish poet Paul Muldoon was Festival Laureate for Durham Book Festival 2013. Niall Hodson reviews his wide-ranging reading, which included a new poem especially commissioned for the occasion.

The 2013 Durham Book Festival concluded on the evening of 29th October with a reading from this year’s Festival Laureate, poet Paul Muldoon, in the Chapter House at Durham Cathedral. Muldoon read from both old and new poems before closing the event, and indeed the festival, with a new work written for the occasion.

Appropriately enough given the location, Muldoon’s opening poem was set in a church. In “Cuba,” from 1980’s Why Brownlee Left, the young Muldoon overhears his sister in confession. Set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the young girl has been instructed to “make [her] peace with God”:

I could hear May from beyond the curtain.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.
I told a lie once, I was disobedient once.
And, Father, a boy touched me once.”
“Tell me, child. Was this touch immodest?
Did he touch your breast, for example?”
“He brushed against me, Father. Very gently.”

Muldoon is an excellent and generous reader of his own work, and from the start of his reading, provided regular insights into the background of his poems, the words and allusions, and his poetic process. Reflecting on his method, Muldoon stated that he doesn’t necessarily know where his poems are going as he is writing them, and that he “gives [him]self over to a sense beyond oneself… that’s where something happens.” Muldoon’s descriptions of his practice of improvisation as motivation, and his firm feeling for the affinity of poetry and song, put me in mind of that other great Irish inspirational lyricist, Van Morrison; and in turn that other great Irish inspirational poet-songster, Paul Durcan. Incidentally, if you haven’t encountered the Morrison-Durcan collaboration, ‘In the Days Before Rock ‘n’ Roll’, it’s worth 8 minutes of anyone’s time; the song travels across time and space, all the while travelling across the airwaves. All three poetic champions compose with a passion for playful, chance allusions.

Muldoon’s second reading came from his latest collection The Word on the Street, a collection which directly engages with the poet’s lyrical impulse: the words are written for music, and many of them have been performed by the musical collective Wayside Shrines, of which Muldoon is a member. “Good Luck with That” also captures something of Muldoon’s wily mischievousness, and his surprising pool of reference:

When the Sumerians hit on the lyre
And the Egyptians the cat
And I told you my heart was on fire
You said good luck with that

When Biro sketched out the ballpoint
And Stetson the ten-gallon hat
And Charnley his replacement joint
You said good luck with that

Muldoon returned to Why Brownlee Left to read two further poems; the collection’s title poem, and “Anseo,” which recounts a meeting with an old schoolfriend who is now “fighting for Ireland, / Making things happen.” The two worlds of the poem united by ‘Anseo, meaning here, here and now, / All present and correct”; both the first word of Irish the poet spoke at school, now spoken by Republican soldiers on parade.

The USA, where Muldoon has resided since the mid 1980s, has also deeply coloured his poetic palette. Muldoon’s next reading was “Turkey Buzzards” from 2006’s Horse Latitudes. Whilst considering the buzzard, and the possible part played by Interstate roads in spreading the birds throughout the country, the poem gradually becomes a rather direct study of mortality, punctuated with the poet’s canny hand for rhyme and repetition. (Click here to hear Muldoon reading ‘Turkey Buzzards’ and other poems)

“Muldoon’s poem travelled over time and Tyne”

The evening’s final poem returned us to Durham Cathedral, the tomb of St Cuthbert, as Muldoon read a work commissioned for the Festival: “St Cuthbert and the Otters.” Though taking the Cuthbertic otter miracle as its title and initial point of reference, the historical landscape of Lindisfarne provided Muldoon with a rich source of imaginative material (as indeed it had for Iain Sinclair earlier in the Festival); Muldoon’s poem travelled over time and Tyne, as the beige Danes of the Viking invasion were juxtaposed with the carpet and mustard factories along the modern river.

Before bringing the evening to a close with an extended discussion with the audience, Muldoon promised the text of the new poem – “a work in progress” – would be made available to the community once finalized.

dbf-logoDurham Book Festival is the North East’s biggest annual celebration of books. Although it has now ended, the Festival team would love to have your feedback and comments on this year’s events. A number of other reviews and features relating to DBF 2013 are also available on READ.

centre-for-poetry-and-poetics-logo1If you enjoyed seeing or reading about Paul Muldoon, and want the first word on many more poetry events running in Durham throughout the year, follow the Durham University Centre for Poetry and Poetics on the web, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

4 responses to “Cuthbert and the Otters: Review of Paul Muldoon at Durham Book Festival

  1. Pingback: Cuthbert and the Otters: Review of Paul Muldoon...·

  2. Pingback: Cuthbert and the Otters: Review of Paul Muldoon at Durham Book Festival | Durham University Centre for Poetry and Poetics·

  3. thanks, trying to make sense of the wonderful Cuthbert and the Otters. So layered , so rhythmic, so balanced, but still need so much more, some insight, some direction, some words to steer, to hold firm in the storm of words, in the tempest of references, of illusions and allusions.
    paul come back, we need some light. as Claudius in Hamlet, cries out for “some light” so we too.

    Like this

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