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Incantata

Incantata by Paul Muldoon is one of Ireland’s most popular poems. A major theme in the poem is about his friend and her strength of character in the way she deals with a major illness.

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To listen to Paul Muldoon read the poem click here.

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Incantata by Paul Muldoon. Image copyright Ireland Calling

Incantata

In memory of Mary Farl Powers

I thought of you tonight, a leanbh, lying there in your long barrow
Colder and dumber than a fish by Francisco de Herrera,
As I X-Actoed from a spud the Inca
Glyph for a mouth: thought of that first time I saw your pink
Spotted torso, distant-near as a nautilus,
When you undid your portfolio, yes indeedy,
And held the print of what looked like a cankered potato
At arm’s length—your arms being longer, it seemed, than Lugh’s.

Even Lugh of the Long (sometimes the Silver) Arm
Would have wanted some distance between himself and the army-worms
That so clouded the sky over St Cloud you’d have to seal
The doors and windows and steel
Yourself against their nightmarish déjeuner sur l’herbe:
Try as you might to run a foil
Across their tracks, it was to no avail;
The army-worms shinnied down the stove-pipe on an army-worm rope.

I can hardly believe that, when we met, my idea of ‘R and R’
Was to get smashed, almost every night, on sickly-sweet Demarara
Rum and Coke: as well as leaving you a grass widow
(remember how Krapp looks up ‘viduity’?),
After eight or ten or twelve of those dark rums
It might be eight or ten or twelve o’clock before I’d land
Back home in Landseer Street, deaf and blind
To the fact that not only was I all at sea, but in the doldrums.

Again and again you’d hold forth on your own version of Thomism,
Your own Summa Theologiae
That in everything there is an order,
That the things of the world sing out in a great oratorio:
It was Thomism, though, tempered by La Nausée,
By His Nibs Sam Bethicket,
And by that Dublin thing, that an artist must walk down Baggott
Street wearing a hair-shirt under the shirt of Nessus.

‘D’éirigh me ar maidin,’ I sang, ‘a tharraingt chun aoinigh mhóir’:
Our first night, you just had to let slip that your secret amour
For a friend of mine was such
That you’d ended up lying with him in a ditch
Under a bit of whin, or gorse, or furze,
Somewhere on the border of Leitrim, perhaps, or Roscommon:
‘Gamine,’ I wanted to say, ‘kimono’;
Even then it was clear I’d never be at the centre of your universe.

Nor should I have been, since you were there already, your own Ding
An sich, no less likely to take wing
Than the Christ you drew for a Christmas card as a pupa
In swaddling clothes: and how resolutely you would pooh-pooh
The idea I shared with Vladimir and Estragon,
With whom I’d been having a couple of jars,
That this image of the Christ-child swaddled and laid in the manger
Could be traced directly to those army-worm dragoons.

I thought of the night Vladimir was explaining to all and sundry
The difference between geantrai and suantrai
And you remarked on how you used to have a crush
On Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry, and Vladimir went to brush
The ash off his sleeve with a legerdemain
That meant only one thing—’Why does he put up with this crap?’—
And you weighed in with ‘To live in a dustbin, eating scrap,
Seemed to Nagg and Nell a most eminent domain.’

How little you were exercised by those tiresome literary intrigues,
How you urged me to have no more truck
Than the Thane of Calder,
With a fourth estate that professes itself to be ‘égalitaire’
But wants only blood on the sand: yet, irony of ironies,
You were the one who, in the end,
Got yourself up as a retiarius and, armed with net and trident,
Marched from Mount Street to the Merrion Square arena.

In the end, you were the one who went forth to beard the lion,
You who took the DART line
Every day from Jane’s flat in Dun Laoghaire, or Dalkey,
Dreaming your dream that the subterranean Dodder and Tolka
Might again be heard above the hoi polloi
For whom Irish ‘art’ means a High Cross at Carndonagh or Corofin
And The Book of Kells: not until the lion cried craven
Would the poor Tolka and the poor Dodder again sing out for joy.

I saw you again tonight, in your jump-suit, thin as a rake,
Your hand moving in such a deliberate arc
As you ground a lithographic stone
That your face and the stone blurred to one
And your face blurred into the face of your mother, Betty Wahl,
Who took your failing, ink-stained hand
In her failing, ink-stained hand
And together you ground down that stone by sheer force of will.

I remember you pooh-poohing, as we sat there on the Enterprise,
My theory that if your name is Powers
You grow into it or, at least,
Are less inclined to tremble before the likes of this bomb-blast
Further up the track: I myself was shaking like a leaf
As we wondered whether the I.R.A. or the Red
Hand Commandos or even the Red
Bridages had brought us to a standstill worthy of Hamm and Clov.

Hamm and Clov; Nagg and Nell; Watt and Knott;
The fact is that we’d been at a standstill long before the night
Things came to a head,
Long before we’d sat for half the day in the sweltering heat
Somewhere just south of Killnasaggart
And I let slip a name—her name—off my tongue
And you turned away (I see it now) the better to deliver the sting
In your own tail, to let slip your own little secret.

I thought of you again tonight, thin as a rake, as you bent
Over the copper plate of ‘Emblements’,
Its tidal wave of army-worms into which you all but disappeared:
I wanted to catch something of its spirit
And yours, to body out your disembodied vox
Clamantis in deserto, to let this all-too-cumbersomen device
Of a potato-mouth in a potato-face
Speak out, unencumbered, from its long, low, mould-filled box.

I wanted it to speak to what seems always true of the truly great,
That you had a winningly inaccurate
Sense of your own worth, that you would second-guess
Yourself too readily by far, that you would rally to any cause
Before your own, mine even,
Though you detected in me a tendency to put
On too much artificiality, both as man and poet,
Which is why you called me ‘Polyester’ or ‘Polyurethane’.

That last time in Dublin, I copied with a quill dipped in oak-gall
Onto a sheet of vellum, or maybe a human caul,
A poem for The Great Book of Ireland: as I watched the low
Swoop over the lawn today of a swallow
I thought of your animated talk of Camille Pissarro
And André Derain’s The Turning Road, L’Estaque:
When I saw in that swallow’s nest a face in a mud-pack
From that muddy road I was filled again with a profound sorrow.

You must have known already, as we moved from the ‘Hurly Burly’
To McDaid’s or Riley’s,
That something was amiss: I think you even mentioned a homeopath
As you showed off the great new acid-bath
In the Graphic Studio, and again undid your portfolio
To lay out your latest works; I try to imagine the strain
You must have been under, pretending to be as right as rain
While hearing the bells of a church from some long-flooded valley.

From the Quabbin reservoir, maybe, where the banks and bakeries
Of a dozen little submerged Pompeii reliquaries
Still do a roaring trade: as clearly as I saw your death-mask
In that swallow’s nest, you must have heard the music
Rise from the muddy ground between
Your breasts as a nocturne, maybe, by John Field;
To think that you thought yourself so invulnerable, so inviolate,
That a little cancer could be beaten.

You must have known, as we walked through the ankle-deep clabber
With Katherine and Jean and the long-winded Quintus Calaber,
That cancer had already made such a breach
That you would almost surely perish:
You must have thought, as we walked through the woods
Along the edge of the Quabbin,
That rather than let some doctor cut you open
You’d rely on infusions of hardock, hemlock, all the idle weeds.

I thought again of how art may be made, as it was by André Derain,
Of nothing more than a turn
In the road where a swallow dips into the mire
Or plucks a strand of bloody wool from a strand of barbed wire
In the aftermath of Chickamauga or Culloden
And builds from pain, from misery, from a deep-seated hurt,
A monument to the human heart
That shines like a golden dome among roofs rain-glazed and leaden.

I wanted the mouth in this potato-cut
To be heard far beyond the leaden, rain-glazed roofs of Quito,
To be heard all the way from the southern hemisphere
To Clontarf or Clondalkin, to wherever your sweet-severe
Spirit might still find a toe-hold
In this world: it struck me then how you would be aghast
At the thought of my thinking you were some kind of ghost
Who might still roam the earth in search of an earthly delight.

You’d be aghast at the idea of your spirit hanging over this vale
Of tears like a jump-suited jump-jet whose vapour-trail
Unravels a sky: for there’s nothing, you’d say nothing over
And above the sky itself, nothing but cloud-cover
Reflected in the thousand lakes; it seems that Minne-
Sota itself means ‘sky-tinted water’, that the sky is a great slab
Of granite or iron ore that might at any moment slip
Back into the work-out sky-quarry, into the worked-out sky-mines.

To use the word ‘might’ is to betray you once too often, to betray
Your notion that nothing’s random, nothing arbitrary:
The gelignite weeps, the hands fly by on the alarm clock,
The ‘Enterprise’ goes clackety-clack
As they all must; even the car hijacked that morning in the Cross,
That was preordained, its owner spread on the bonnet
Before being gagged and bound or bound
And gagged, that was fixed like the stars in the Southern Cross.

The fact that you were determined to cut yourself off in your prime
Because it was pre-determined has my eyes abrim:
I crouch with Belacqua
And Lucky and Pozzo in the Acacacac-
ademy of Anthropopopometry, trying to make sense of the ‘quaquaqua’
Of that potato-mouth; that mouth as prim
And proper as it’s full of self-opprobrium,
With its ‘quaquaqua’, with its ‘Quoiquoiquoiquoiquoiquoiquoiq’.

That’s all that’s left of the voice of Enrico Caruso
From all that’s left of an opera-house somewhere in Matto Grosso,
All that’s left of the bogweed and horehound and cuckoo-pint,
Of the eighteen soldiers dead at Warrenpoint,
Of the Black Church clique and the Graphic Studio claque,
Of the many moons of glasses on a tray,
Of the brewer-carts drawn by moon-booted drays,
Of those jump-suits worn under your bottle-green worsted cloak.

Of the great big dishes of chicken lo mein and beef chow mein,
Of what’s mine is yours and what’s yours mine,
Of the oxlips and cowslips
On the banks of the Liffey at Leixlip
Where the salmon breaks through the either/or neither/nor nether
Reaches despite the temple-veil
Of itself being rent and the penny left out overnight on the rail
Is a sheet of copper when the mail-train has passed over.

Of the bride carried over the threshold, hey, only to alight
On the limestone slab of another threshold,
Of the swarm, the cast,
The colt, the spew of bees hanging like a bottle of Lucozade
From a branch the groom must sever,
Of Emily Post’s ruling, in Etiquette,
On how best to deal with the butler being in cahoots
With the cook when they’re both in cahoots with the chauffeur.

Of that poplar-flanked stretch of road between Leiden
And The Hague, of the road between Rathmullen and Ramelton,
Where we looked so long and hard
For some trace of Spinoza or Amelia Earhart,
Both of them going down with their engines on fire:
Of the stretch of road somewhere near Urney
Where Orpheus was again overwhelmed by that urge to turn
Back and lost not only Eurydice but his steel-strung lyre.

Of the sparrows and finches in their bell of suet,
Of the bitter-sweet
Bottle of Calvados we felt obliged to open
Somewhere near Falaise, so as to toast our new-found copains,
Of the priest of the parish
Who came enquiring about our ‘status’, of the hedge-clippers
I somehow had to hand, of him running like the clappers
Up Landseer Street, of my subsequent self-reproach.

Of the remnants of Airey Neave, of the remnants of Mountbatten,
Of the famous andouilles, of the famous boudins
Noirs et blancs, of the barrel-vault
Of the Cathedral at Rouen, of the flashlight, fat and roll of felt
On each of their sledges, of the music
Of Joseph Beuy’s pack of huskies, of that baldy little bugger
Mushing them all the way from Berncastel through Bacarrat
To Belfast, his head stuck with honey and gold-leaf like a mosque.

Of Benjamin Britten’s Lachrymae, with its gut-wrenching viola,
Of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, of Frankie Valli’s,
Of Braque’s great painting The Shower of Rain,
Of the fizzy, lemon or sherbet-green Renus
Renus plonked down in Trinity like a little Naugahyde pouffe,
Of eighteen soldiers dead in Oriel,
Of the weakness for a little fol-de-rol-de-rolly
Suggested by the gap between the front teeth of the Wife of Bath.

Of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, of Seurat’s
Piling of tesserae upon tesserae
To give us a monkey arching its back
And the smoke arching out from a smoke-stack,
Of Sunday afternoons in the Botanic Gardens, going with the flow
Of the burgers of Sandy Row and Donegal
Pass and Andersonstown and Rathcoole,
Of the army Landrover flaunt-flouncing by with its heavy furbelow.

Of Marlborough Park, of Notting Hill, of the Fitzroy Avenue
Immortalized by Van ‘His real name’s Ivan’
Morrison, ‘and him the dead spit
Of Padraic Fiacc’, of John Hewitt, the famous expat,
In whose memory they offer every year six of their best milch cows,
Of the Bard of Ballymacarrett,
Of every ungodly poet in his or her godly garret,
Of Medhbh and Michael and Frank and Ciaran and ‘wee’ John Qughes.

Of the Belfast school, so called, of the school of hard knocks,
Of your fervent eschewal of stockings and socks
As you set out to hunt down your foes
As implacably as the tóraidheacht through the Fews
Of Redmond O’Hanlon, of how that ‘d’ and that ‘c’ aspirate
In tóraidheacht make it sound like a last gasp in an oxygen-tent,
Of your refusal to open a vent
But to breathe in spirit of salt, the mordant salt-spirit.

Of how mordantly hydrochloric acid must have scored and scarred,
Of the claim that boiled skirrets
Can cure the spitting of blood, of that dank
Flat somewhere off Morehampton Road, of the unbelievable stink
Of valerian or feverfew simmering over a low heat,
Of your sitting there, pale and gaunt,
With that great prescriber of boiled skirrets, Dr John Arbuthnot,
Your face in a bowl of feverfew, a towel over your head.

Of the great roll of paper like a bolt of cloth
Running out again and again like a road at the edge of a cliff,
Of how you called a Red Admiral a Red
Admirable, of how you were never in the red
On either the first or the last
Of the month, of your habit of loosing the drawstring of your purse
And finding one scrunched-up, obstreperous
Note and smoothing it out and holding it up, pristine and pellucid.

Of how you spent your whole life with your back to the wall,
Of your generosity when all the while
You yourself lived from hand
To mouth, of Joseph Beuy’s pack of hounds
Crying out from their felt and fat ‘Atone, atone, atone’,
Of Watt remembering the ‘Krak! Krek! Krik!’
Of those three frogs’ karaoke
Like the still, sad basso continuo of the great quotidian.

Of a ground bass of sadness, yes, but also a sennet of hautboys
As the fat and felt hounds of Beuys O’Beuys
Bayed at the moon over a caravan
In Dunmore East, I’m pretty sure it was, or Dungarvan:
Of my guest appearance in your self-portrait not as a hidalgo
From a long line
Of hidalgos but a hound-dog, a leanbh,
A dog that skulks in the background, a dog that skulks and stalks.

Of that self-portrait, of the self-portraits by Rembrandt van Rijn,
Of all that’s revelation, all that’s rune,
Of all that’s composed, all composed of odds and ends,
Of that daft urge to make amends
When it’s far too late, too late even to make sense of the clutter
Of false trails and reversed horseshoe tracks
And the aniseed we took it in turn to drag
Across each other’s scents, when only a fish is dumber and colder.

Of your avoidance of canned goods, in the main,
On account of the exceeeeeeeeeeeeeeeedingly high risk of ptomaine,
Of corned beef in particular being full of crap,
Of your delight, so, in eating a banana as ceremoniously as Krapp
But flinging the skin over your shoulder like a thrush
Flinging off a shell from which it’s only just managed to disinter
A snail, like a stone-faced, twelfth-century
FitzKrapp eating his banana by the mellow yellow light of a rush.

Of the ‘Yes, let’s go’ spoken by Monsieur Tarragon,
Of the early-ripening jargonelle, the tumorous jardon, the jargon
Of jays, the jars
Of tomato relish and the jars
Of Victoria plums, absolutely de rigeur for a passable plum baba,
Of the drawers full of balls of twine and butcher’s string,
Of Dire Straits playing ‘The Sultans of Swing’,
Of the horse’s hock suddenly erupting in those boils and buboes.

Of the Greek figurine of a pig, of the pig on a terracotta frieze,
Of the sow dropping dead from some mysterious virus,
Of your predilection for gammon
Served with a sauce of coriander or cumin,
Of the slippery elm, or the hornbeam or witch-, or even wych-,
Hazel that’s good for stopping a haemor-
rhage in mid-flow, of the merest of mere
Hints of elderberry curing everything from sciatica to a stitch.

Of the decree condemnator, the decree absolvitor, the decree nisi,
Of Aosdána, of an chraobh cnuais,
Of the fields of buckwheat
Taken over by garget, inkberry, scoke—all names for pokeweed—
Of Mother Courage, of Arturo Ui,
Of those Sunday mornings spent picking at sesame
Noodles and all sorts and conditions of dim sum,
Of tea and ham sandwiches in the Nesbitt Arms Hotel in Ardara.

Of the day your father came to call, of your leaving your sick-room
In what can only have been a state of delirium,
Of how you simply wouldn’t relent
From your vision of a blind
Watch-maker, of your fatal belief that fate
Governs everything from the honey-rust of your father’s terrier’s
Eyebrows to the horse that rusts and rears
In the furrow, of the furrows from which we can no more deviate

Than they can from themselves, no more than the map of Europe
Can be redrawn, than that Hermes might make a harp from his harpe,
Than that we must live in a vale
Of tears on the banks of the Lagan or the Foyle,
Than that what we have is a done deal,
Than that the Irish Hermes,
Lugh, might have leafed through his vast herbarium
For the leaf that had it within it, Mary, to anoint and anneal,

Than that Lugh of the Long Arm might have found in the midst of lus
Na leac or lus na treatha or Frannc-lus,
In the midst of eyebright, or speedwell, or tansy, an antidote,
Than that this Incantata
Might have you look up from your plate of copper or zinc
On which you’ve etched the row upon row
Of army-worms, than that you might reach out, arrah,
And take in your ink-stained hands my own hands stained with ink.

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Incantata by Paul Muldoon. Image copyright Ireland Calling

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