Paul Muldoon

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

On my own head be it if, after the years of elocution and pianoforte,
the idea that I may have veered
away from the straight
and narrow of Brooklyn or Baltimore for a Baltic state
is one at which, all things being equal, I would demur.
A bit like Edward VII cocking his ear
at the mention of Cork. Yet it seems I've managed nothing more
than to have fetched up here.
To have fetched up here in Vilna—the linen plaids,
the amber, the orange-cap boletus
like a confession extorted from a birch,
the foot-wide pedestal upon which a prisoner would perch
on one leg in the former KGB headquarters
like a white stork
before tipping into a pool of icy water,
to be reinstated more than once by a guard with a pitchfork.
It was with a pitchfork they prodded Topsy, the elephant
that killed her keeper on Coney Island
when he tried to feed her a lit cigarette,
prodded her through Luna Park in her rain-heavy skirt
to where she would surely have been hanged by the neck
had the ASPCA not got themselves into such a lather
and Thomas Edison arrived in the nick
of time to greet the crowd he'd so long hoped to gather.
I myself have been trying to gather the dope
from a KGB surveillance tape
on the Chazon Ish, “the wisest Jew alive,” a master of the catchall
clause who was known to cudgel
his brains in a room high in a Vilna courtyard
on the etymology of “dork”
while proposing that the KGB garotte
might well be a refinement of the Scythian torc.
The Scythian torc had already been lent a new lease
of life as the copper wire with which Edison would splice
Topsy to more than 6,000 volts of alternating current,
though not before he'd prepared the ground
with a boatload of carrots laced with cyanide.
This was 1903. The year in which Edward VII paid
out a copper line from his mustachioed snout
to the electric chair where Edison himself was now belayed.
Now a belayed, bloody prisoner they've put on the spot
and again and again zapped
is the circus rider on a dappled
croup from which he's more than once toppled
into the icy water, spilling his guts
about how his grandfather had somehow fetched up in Cork
straight from the Vilna ghetto,
having misheard, it seems, “Cork” for “New York.”
For New York was indeed the city in which the floor teetered
at a ball thrown in 1860 in honor of Edward
(then Prince of Wales), the city in which even I may have put
myself above all those trampled underfoot,
given my perfect deportment all those years I'd skim
over the dying and the dead
looking up to me as if I might at any moment succumb
to the book balanced on my head.
Excerpted from Maggot by Paul Muldoon.
Copyright © 2010 by Paul Muldoon.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.