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Esoteric pranks are, increasingly, the fuel for Paul Muldoon’s poems.

Bryan Bedder / Getty Images

In one of Aesop’s fables, an overambitious frog tries to puff himself up to the size of an ox, and explodes. Paul Muldoon mocked this type of moralizing animal tale in his poem “The Frog,” in 1983. Attempts to find a “moral for our times” in the frog’s story are naïve, and threaten to turn sour, as Muldoon suggests:

What if I put him to my head
and squeezed it out of him,
like the juice of freshly squeezed limes…

The animals in Muldoon’s poems do not tell us how we should act, but they do allow us to “glimpse the possibility of what we might become.” This is how Muldoon puts it in his introduction to The Faber Book of Beasts. Writing about animals, he insists, comes with its own responsibility, the moral obligation to help people live their lives. “Nowhere is that responsibility thrown into sharper relief than in our accounts of the parallel lives of ‘our little kinsmen.’” In “Horses” (1998), for instance, Muldoon put this into practice, brooding on the parallel life of Chuang Tzu, who famously wondered whether he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or vice versa.

Muldoon’s new collection might be considered another “book of beasts,” an experimental bestiary. Almost all of the poems here are in some sense animal poems. Some of them—“Geese,” “A Porcupine,” “A Hare at Aldergrove”—announce as much. In others, such as “The Adoration of the Magi,” the approach is subtler. “A plume / of ox breath” and the braying of a child suggest the ox and the ass of the nativity scene. Throughout the collection, Muldoon tries to reimagine the natural world, the “sym- / biotic relationship” between man and beast, and the beastly side of man. The few poems concerned solely with people show them acting ruthlessly and evasively, as they “abbreviate / [their] most promising rlshps.”

It is unnerving that Muldoon places the maggot, a creature that feeds on the corpses of other animals, at the center of his vision. Yet he sees the process of decomposition as a source of vitality in these poems: death and decay unite all forms of life, as organic matter is eventually recycled. In reasoning this way, Muldoon himself recycles Hamlet’s observation: “we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots.” Of course, this view makes no special claims for human life and says nothing of respect for the dead. For Muldoon, a body “beleaguered by pupae” does not bear thinking about in itself. Instead it prompts the breezy reflection: “Who knew that humus might lie beneath ‘humane’?” There is a maggot-like etymology here, as Muldoon makes connections between words, as well as creatures, by breaking them down into their smallest parts.

The wordplay in Maggot is rarely incidental. Many of the poems seem to take their lead from word associations and figures of speech: in “Plan B,” a “KGB garotte” makes Muldoon think of a Scythian torc bracelet, which reminds him of copper wire, and then of Thomas Edison, an elephant named Topsy and Edward VII. Likewise, in “Balls” he wonders whether a culture of litigious break-ups has anything to do with the shared Latin root of testify and testes. Muldoon attaches significance to these similarities, constructing Freud’s “‘verbal bridges’ … leading to the unconscious.” By associating freely, he tries to edit himself out of the cycle of poetic composition and decomposition:

All I had to go on was the pouring of sulfur
over a clog print in snow, which seemed to highlight
that the poem began to self-digest

The poems offer readings of themselves, foregrounding possible connotations and coincidences. They also digest parts of the other poems in the collection. The first line of “Maggot,” for instance, picks up the last line of the preceding poem, while “Loss of Separation” recycles the refrain used in “Maggot.” The effect is that one poem seems to evolve from another, as though independent of the author.

Muldoon’s conception of the poet is undoubtedly influenced by competing theories of evolution. In this, he draws on the work of Redmond O’Hanlon, a literary critic who found traces of Darwinism in Conrad’s novels, and who makes an appearance in “Quail.” Peter Kropotkin’s theory of “mutual aid” (referenced later in the collection) has perhaps an even greater impact on Muldoon’s thinking. A trio of mutual aid poems describe the cooperation of dolphins and fishermen; a dolphin who guided ships through the treacherous Cook Strait; and the myth of Arion riding to safety on a dolphin’s back.

For Muldoon, an all-encompassing, indifferent evolutionary process seems to offer “the continual extinction of personality” that T. S. Eliot famously called for in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Muldoon has expanded on Eliot’s phrase: “This is the selflessness we find in nature, whereby individual ‘selves’ in the ‘colony of our being’ so readily accept anonymity.” It is a revealing interpretation, especially as Muldoon goes on to read “colony” in “the zoological sense … as ‘an aggregate of individual animals or plants, forming a physiologically connected structure.’” Among his efforts to reconcile his own individual talent with colony-like tradition is “Capriccio in E Minor for Blowfly and Strings,” addressed to the “homegrown surrealist” John Ashbery. Although the title promises a virtuoso performance, the poem is an ode to the unassuming maggot, who, “content to be in a crowd scene,” does not always “want a speaking part / like an animal ‘of largest size.’”

There are important emotions, however, which cannot be conveyed in a crowd scene. When an “assembly of hares” takes a decision, it is only “as if they’d had a collective change of heart.” Muldoon chooses the cliché—the mass-market phrase “change of heart”—precisely because it is heartless. But we rarely see a contrast to this heartlessness: his mention of a friend suffering from cancer later in the poem does not convince us of “her pain rising above the collective pain.” Elsewhere, Muldoon even seems to delight in a sense of detachment. In “A Hummingbird,” he indulges the absurdly frivolous small talk at a party, rhyming “fidget,” “digit’s,” “midgets” and “widget.” The social group operates mechanically:

Like an engine rolling on after a crash,
long after whatever it was made a splash.

This is a criticism not just of the partygoers, but also of the lyrical momentum of the poem. Muldoon’s song does not pour forth sweetly from the “ruby-throated hummingbird,” as we might expect from the title. The poem actually takes its name from the Humming Bird, a train that ran on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad from the 1940s until its cancellation in the late 1960s. Once we are in on this joke, the poem “remakes / itself,” as it “rolls on” like its mechanical namesake.

Esoteric pranks are, increasingly, the fuel for Muldoon’s poems. He recasts Greek myth in “Arion on the Dolphin,” replacing the heroic dolphin with a ship named USS Dauphin. And the Medusa mentioned in the final canto? She once served in the fleet of the U.S. Navy too. “There’s a lot of clowning in these poems,” Muldoon explained in an interview, “A lot of acting the maggot, as we describe acting the buffoon.” If the animals in Maggot can remake themselves as engines and battleships, Muldoon suggests that we “remake ourselves as Frog Boy and Human Chimera,” the hybrid circus acts in “The Side Project.” To embrace the animal side of our nature is, apparently, to abandon the responsibilities of everyday life, and indulge in the “rank and file” tomfoolery of the big top. Imagining himself as a “satin-lined grizzly” in another poem, Muldoon wrestles with the notion that “we are slaves of duty,” which is—just about—for the best if it restrains “that selfsame man-eater.”

Muldoon’s method, then, is not all sleight of hand. And even a trick can tell us something about “what we might become.” The best moments in the collection bear out his claim that “it’s not an out-and-out hoax / when the Bearded Lady enters the blade box / to be sawn in half.” Yet Muldoon rarely gives us more than a hint of real consequences, of the limits of the illusion. Without these, even the most interesting subjects are little more than performing animals. This is what Yeats warned of in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”:

Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.

Muldoon’s own circus animals are not likely to desert him, as he finds more and more ingenious ways to set his stage. Their performances still have the power to captivate; but only as performances, not as the complex “parallel lives” that cast a light on human nature.