Songs and Sonnets
Stephanie Alexander

Paul Muldoon, Songs and Sonnets (Enitharm Press, 2013; 80 pp.; $18)

Like the John Donne collection of the same name, Muldoon is concerned here with the slippery, shifting distinctions between song and sonnet—and, indeed, readers should check their preconceptions of what either form should do at the door. With eighteen songs and only seven sonnets, however, Muldoon might have titled this book Songs (and a Few Sonnets Thrown in for Good Measure). This is not a poetry collection, and readers looking for such will be disappointed. Instead, indulgence is the name of the game in this slim volume—both in terms of the collection itself and its subject matter. In Muldoon’s deft hands, however, his indulgences will become yours, as well. I devoured this book like a particularly rich dessert, running through it from cover to cover at a clip and then wondering where it had gone so quickly.

If Muldoon’s poems, typically, are intricate puzzles, dense with allusion and riddle and wink-wink-nudge-nudge-aren’t-we-clever references, then his songs are quick, breathless larks, meant to be performed with tongue firmly in cheek. (And we imagine that when Muldoon does play them with Ratchett, his band made up of other likeminded Princeton professors, a certain gleeful irony carries the day.) In “3-Car Garage,” for instance, Muldoon acknowledges the absurdity of himself, sixty-two-year-old Pulitzer winner, academic, and poetry editor of the New Yorker, playing at rock and roll:

We dropped some amino acid
like ancient hippies do
By the time we got to Woodstock
It was time for a massage
It may be garage rock
But it’s a 3-car garage.

And yet, beneath the veneer of joyful self-deprecation, Muldoon acknowledges that these 3-car garages are “where our wives / Caught us thinking our lives / Might be knockoffs of the real thing.”

By and large, the songs collected here are about the foibles of privileged middle age—adultery and divorce, chatting up bored diner waitresses, reminiscences of times past. There is a hint of melancholy shot through everything, even the so-called love songs. In “One Hit Wonder,” for instance, Muldoon memorializes a relationship among the likes of Stoker’s Dracula and Shelley’s Frankenstein, Harper Lee and Joseph Hellerman, as:

Like a flash of lightning
Stealing its own thunder
Our love’s a one-off thing
We’re a one hit wonder.

Like most of the songs in the collection, “One Hit Wonder” is weighted heavily with literary references, authors and poets piling up on one another until each song seems destined to collapse under the weight of Muldoon’s own allusive debts. It is, frankly, a joy to behold such dizzying, almost frenetic name-dropping.

Amongst these wry odes to rocky relationships and the turmoil of living through “The Adult Thing” (another song title), we find a few gems that harken back to a more traditional and staid definition of poetry, such as the sonnet “A Dent,” written for Michael Allen. Moving from an Irish farm to an editor’s office and back again, “A Dent” acknowledges:

The depth of a dent in the flank of your grandfather’s cow
From his having leaned his brow
Against it morning and night

For twenty years of milking by hand
Gave but little sense of how distant is the land
On which you had us set her sights.

It is a beautiful interlude between rock songs, a reminder that we are, in indulging Muldoon the opportunity to write rock and roll songs, watching a masterful poet at play.

The collection ends with “11 O’Clock,” a song about a pilot careening through time and space without realizing his own inevitable last stop. He soars from WWI “dogfights with Biggles” to baling out “near the Belgian border,” moving ever closing to the point when “closing time / was 11 o’clock / 11 o’clock 11 o’clock.”  There is:

no time since we boarded the airport bus
Till it’s dawned on us
We’ve flown our final mission…
Now all we hear at the aerodome
is clocks
Always Algie for the funeral home
at 11 o’clock/ 11 o’clock 11 o’clock
The funeral home at 11 o’clock.

Throughout Songs and Sonnets, Muldoon grapples with an increasing awareness of his own age and mortality.  He pokes fun at it, mocks it, but ultimately ends the collection at the funeral home. However, it would be a mistake to read this as a swan song. Muldoon might be aware of where the ride ends, but he gives no indication that he intends to stop the car just yet. Rather, he seems to intend to live it up—in true rock star fashion.