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The Pulitzer Prize–winning poet delivers a sharp wake-up call with his fourteenth collection.
A “howdie-skelp” is the slap in the face a midwife gives a newborn. It’s a wake-up call. A call to action.
The poems in Howdie-Skelp, Paul Muldoon’s new collection, include a nightmarish remake of The Waste Land, an elegy for his fellow Northern Irish poet Ciaran Carson, a heroic crown of sonnets that responds to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, a translation from the ninth-century Irish, and a Yeatsian sequence of ekphrastic poems that call into question the very idea of an “affront” to good taste. Muldoon is a poet who continues not only to capture but to command our attention.
Muldoon's energetic 14th collection brims with the poet's characteristic wit, employing a seemingly endless array of cultural references and allusions to illuminate the troubled present. In a long poem titled "American Standard" (a reference to the toilet brand), Muldoon recasts T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land into a commentary on America's continuing moral and political backsliding: "Through fire and flood we rode towards Paradise/ where every disaster's a natural disaster/ and every word a word of advice/ from the ringleted Buffalo Bill, our ringmaster." In "Salonica," a Mediterranean city becomes a symbol for how layers of contested history make it difficult to find common ground, when "in the Archaeological Museum there's at least one artifact/ from a past we simply cannot reenact." Muldoon comes close to a statement of intent in a poem referencing space junk: "It's the artist's job to collect detritus and guide it back towards earth's atmosphere/ since it's in that flash, the flash/ of reentry, that something may be made clear." Whether appraising Brexit or the pandemic, Muldoon's acerbic yet thoughtful poems demonstrate his ear for lyric and eye for detail.