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Whilst the Ox and the Ass by Paul Muldoon
‘For all those exiled / from their native lands, all those gagged / whilst the ox and ass are granted the gift of speech’ … detail from Nativity by Giotto. Photograph: Sonia Halliday Photo Library/Alamy

Whilst the Ox and Ass

Whilst the ox and ass are granted the gift of speech, having knelt in adoration of a child, it would represent a breach of decorum were we to listen in. For all those exiled from their native lands, all those gagged whilst the ox and ass are granted the gift of speech, all those who’ve dragged their belongings over a border, it’s still a reach to take in why two lambs might cry out each to each across the crevasse of a manger. Whilst the ox and ass are granted the gift of speech they almost immediately sense danger and, like us, are almost immediately struck dumb. “Beseech” is the word. The lamb will beseech and beseech us never to keep mum whilst the ox and ass are granted the gift of speech.

Talking animals are older than Christmas, fabled layers-deep in the human psyche. Animals, of course, might have their own fables about talking humans, our usual speech sounding to them like foreign languages to the ancient Greeks. (As Wikipedia explains: “The Greeks used the term barbarian for all non-Greek-speaking people … According to Greek writers, this was because the language they spoke sounded to Greeks like gibberish represented by the sounds “bar .. bar”).

“Whilst the Ox and Ass,” from Paul Muldoon’s recent collection Joy in Service on Rue Tagore, is a poem in no doubt of human barbarism.

In the non-biblical Nativity variant it draws on, the Ox and Ass, housed in the stable where the Christ child was born, knelt down to him in adoration and were rewarded with human speech. There was, however, a penalty for any human overhearing their words – an additional plot-twist that may derive from a different strand of fairytale. Some commentators on Nativity iconography have interpreted the two animals as symbols of the Gentile and Jewish peoples whose two-state integration should have been promoted by shared acceptance of Christ as Messiah.

“Speech” in the poem is notably a “gift” rather the more usual “power” and its value connects with the “decorum” cited, the ultimately dangerous tact of not “listen[ing] in” to the animal’s conversation. Decorum, originally meaning “that which is seemly”, is the opposite of barbarism. It operates widely in Muldoon’s narrative technique, and in this poem. For instance, the animal symbolism is never explained. It’s obvious, or should be: there are stereotypes of ox-like and ass-like human behaviour which we can all discern, in others and ourselves. Unfair to the animals, of course, but then this isn’t a poem about animals. No names are named, but ox-presidents and ass-politicians may spring to American and British minds, migrant-phobic monsters born of Republican or Reform parties, perhaps, as well as those from the world’s more overt dictatorships.

The poem sweeps us along, carrying its refrain (line one) on a smooth syntactical course, in which it becomes, stanza by stanza, lines two, three and four. The pattern is ingenious, and one that Muldoon opts for in a number of poems dotted about the collection. Here, it’s a procedure that pushes the symbols of brutal doltish power further and deeper into the reader’s conscience.

Emigration, you’ll note, is seen both as a formal condition (exile) and as physical emergency, while censorship applies the gag in line five. The ability of the ox and ass to speak and be heard is revealed as gross injustice, opening a “crevasse” before its shocking metaphysical appearance in the third stanza, “the crevasse of the manger” on either side of which insurmountable obstacle the two lambs “cry out”. By contrast, now, the ox and ass “almost immediately sense danger” – they’re not too thick-skinned when their own skin’s at stake. They’re “almost immediately struck dumb” – the animal instinct still fully operable. And so it is with us. The moral compass-needle swings in a fresh direction. It points to the crime of failing to rebuke the criminality of President Ox or Prime Minister Ass.

One of the pleasures in Muldoon’s work is the light touch, the decorum of humour. Here, it’s more of a scathing precision of anger. There’s a moment when we get to catch a flicker of characteristic craft-consciousness, the poem-maker thinking aloud in the last stanza, “the word is beseech”. “Beseech” is a word that sounds like a cry of pain, as the bleat of a lamb often sounds, and Muldoon’s art of repetition makes sure we hear it distressingly loud. This time it’s not the cry of one lamb to the other, it’s a cry to “us” – we humans, who have the gift of speech and outcry. “Beseech” seems, like “whilst”, to express in sound a timeless verbal intensity and a traditional decorum.

Joy in Service on Rue Tagore is a collection with a wonderful stretch compressed in particularly neat containers. There are numerous sonnets. Muldoon’s imagination flies on verbal wings in many directions, carried on the thermals of the relaxed “Irish mode” (to borrow Thomas McDonagh’s term), his English cast, or rather precision-carved, into that rhythm.

By contrast, the opening sequence against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Near Izium, is an extended, sometimes insult-hurling outcry from the Ukrainian perspective, enacting and relishing, at times, the refusal to “keep mum” that’s demanded with such exacting but decorous brevity in Whilst the Ox and Ass. The latter is among the most powerful political poems I’ve read in years, a “reach” of imagination which awards the helpless and innocent a power of entreaty which is also, in its way, “the gift of speech”.

Source: The Guardian