Poet Paul Muldoon uses a number of unconventional devices to create some unconventional poetry: archaic language, unusual rhyme schemes, “mashing” together two completely different things to create something new.
In “Tell,” Muldoon is much more straight-forward than that… he does “mash” together William Tell and American Indians but his rhyme scheme is more a “slant” rhyme than an unusual one per se.
Muldoon, who was born in Northern Ireland, borrows heavily on childhood memories in many of his best poems. He does it in a much different way though than his fellow Northern Ireland poet, Seamus Heaney. In my mind, I have always thought of Muldoon as an Irish Theodore Roethke: darker, edgier. It may simply be that I read a lot of Muldoon and Roethke at the same time and so they have morphed together in my mind over the years.
Muldoon is admittedly not the most natural choice for a Sunday morning poet… and “Tell” is not the most Sunday morning of poems. And yet on another dreary-cold January morning… it seems like just the thing.
He opens the scullery door, and a sudden rush
of wind, as raw as raw,
brushes past him as he himself will brush
past the stacks of straw
that stood in earlier for Crow
or Comanche tepees hung with scalps
but tonight past muster, row upon row,
for the foothills of the Alps.
He opens the door of the peeling-shed
just as one of the apple-peelers
(one of almost a score
of red-cheeked men who pare
the red-cheeked apples for a few spare
shillings) mutters something about “bloodshed”
and the “peelers.”
The red-cheeked men put down their knives
at one and the same
moment. All but his father, who somehow connives
to close one eye as if taking aim
or holding back a tear,
and shoots him a glance
he might take, as it whizzes past his ear,
for a Crow, or a Comanche, lance
hurled through the Tilley-lit
gloom of the peeling-shed,
when he hears what must be an apple split
above his head.