“Cuba” Revisited

Writing in my previous post about the two version’s of Zaffar Kunial’s poem, “Stamping Grounds”, reminded me of an interview that Paul Muldoon gave a couple of years ago to The Poetry Review (Winter 2016). It included a discussion of the poem, “Cuba”, from Why Brownlee Left, which had appeared in an earlier magazine version as “Cuba 1962”. The interviewer, Maurice Riordan, the Review’s co-editor at the time, was sufficiently intrigued by the revisions to have handed a Muldoon a copy of “Cuba 1962” for comment. Both versions were appended to the interview.

In the poem, set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Muldoon’s sister arrives home “In her white muslin evening dress”, having stayed out all night at a party. Their father, angered by this and worried about the threat of war, tells her she should make her peace with God. In the confessional, the best (or worst) she can come up with — apart from lying once and being disobedient once — is that a boy touched her. The poems ends:

‘Tell me, child. Was this touch immodest?
Did he touch your breast, for example?’
‘He brushed against me, Father. Very gently.’

The differences between the two versions are seemingly slight. The final version excludes the following lines from the girl’s return home:

She had limped into the kitchen
Holding one sandal at arm’s length
And dropping it into the bucket,
‘I’m sorry, Da. I’ve broken a heel.’
‘That’s not the half of it, I’ll warrant.’

and these from the subsequent confession:

‘How long is it since your last confession?’
‘I’m not right sure. A month maybe.’
‘A queue a mile long to the chapel
And you can’t remember so small a thing?’

Asked about this killing of his “darlings”, Muldoon says he doesn’t know why the changes were made. Riordan sees the them as positive (“There’s a ruthless pursuit of the form.” “Some people would have rested on that first version…”) However, apart from the removal of the unnecessary date from the title, Muldoon himself is less sure (“I’m looking at this first version, thinking it’s not too bad at all.” “It’s not absolutely deplorable. Not in a way that you can see why that was cut ‘because it’s crap’.”) Riordan puts these second thoughts down to the move away from stanzaic forms in his later poetry. But Muldoon, seemingly unable to shake off the question, returns to it later in the interview: “Now I’m looking again at this other version of ‘Cuba’, I’m thinking — it wasn’t that terribly bad. Or maybe my standards are slipping.” “Or changing,” Riordan suggests.

Muldoon ends by saying:

“… As with ‘Cuba’, I’ve always edited things. I could probably do with editing more. In those days, in the late 70s, there were a lot of people around who were reading my poems, and who were helping me with them — which is a fabulous thing to have. The various people in Belfast, and God knows they may have said that’s rubbish, that’s extraneous, cut that. So I think if one can’t edit oneself, one really needs an editor. My wife is an editor and she’s very good. You have to take advice. One can’t trust oneself — it’s just a fact. Once you start thinking that you know what you’re doing and nobody else knows what you’re doing, you’re probably in trouble.”

In spite of this, one can see Muldoon’s point about the original version of “Cuba”. It isn’t at all bad and, in fact, for me the first version reads more naturally than the final, tidied-up poem, the first stanza of which seems a little staged. Given that it is supposedly an anecdotal poem, that counts for a lot, even though in his book on Muldoon, Tim Kendall points out that: “The poem only masquerades as autobiography — Muldoon’s sister is called Maureen, not May, and she is his only, and younger, sister, not his ‘eldest’.” The queue for the confessional is, on the other hand, an actual memory.

Kendall says that the lines about the confessional queue were dropped, because otherwise the priest bullies her so much that he personally, rather than what he represents, appears repugnant. “Cuba”, he says, is a parable of innocence destroyed, rather than preserved, by the sanctimonious codes of suspicious-minded authority-figures. In the same way, you could say that focusing the father’s objections on his daughter’s dress by excluding the more vividly suggestive image of the broken heel also evokes a more repressive society, the objection being as flimsy as the dress itself.

In this reading, the Cuban crisis simply provides the background. However, it is possible to read it as a symbolic parallel to the events in the poem. In the end, the Soviet ships carrying the missiles turned back and war was averted, just as fears about the loss of May’s virginity turn out to have been a false alarm. However, the threat of war was real and for the parallel to work properly the father’s concerns about his daughter need to be real as well. The original version, I think, makes this clearer, the dishevelment suggested by the broken shoe and the father’s “That’s not the half of it, I’ll warrant” giving greater substance to the possibility that more than a heel has been ruptured. In the same way, the detail of the mile-long queue to the confessional emphasises the reality of the nuclear threat.

The poem isn’t written by an omniscient narrator, but by the poet supposedly recalling events from his childhood. Muldoon has to make his sister older than himself, if she is to be able to go to dances in 1962, but this also serves to emphasise his own youth as a witness to scenes which though clear in his mind may at the time have been only partly understood. It is the boy’s innocence rather than May’s that is being lost and the detail of the first version seems to me closer to the sharpness of a child’s recollections.

As far as I know, “Cuba 1962” hasn’t been restored to the Muldoon canon, but reading it helps provide an insight into the final version, “Cuba”.

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