On

by Paul Muldoon

copyright ©Paul Muldoon, 2002

Absalom was riding his mule and the mule passed under the thick branches of a great oak. Absalom’s head got caught in the oak and he was left hanging between heaven and

earth, while the mule he was riding went on.

– II SAMUEL 18:9

I make my way alone through the hand-to-hand fighting
to A3 and A5. Red velvet. Brass and oak.
The special effects will include strobe lighting
and artificial smoke.

A glance to A5. Patrons are reminded, mar bheadh,
that the management accepts no responsibility in the case of theft.
Even as the twenty-five-piece orchestra
that’s masked offstage left

strikes up, there’s still a chance, I suppose, that the gainsayers
might themselves be gainsaid
as you rush, breathless, into my field of vision.

Understudies and standbys never substitute for listed players,
however, unless a specific announcement is made.
There will be no intermission.

Notes on the Poem

Paul Muldoon's poem "On" might leave you a bit bewildered, but also entertained and amused along the way. Perhaps that's the point and you won't mind one bit. Muldoon's use of the Biblical verse about Absalom is intriguing on several levels. How does this reference relate to the poem? Also, why is this reference excerpted the way it is? Also, why is this particular version used? This version indicates that Absalom's head got caught in the tree, while other versions suggest it was his hair, about which he was very proud. This version rather comically leaves Absalom suspended in the air, while other versions continue with him being captured and executed by his pursuers. With that to wonder about before we're even into the poem itself, what is the connection to the poem? The first mention of "hand-to-hand fighting" might be connected to the battle from which Absalom was fleeing. However, it soon becomes clear the poem isn't about a real battle, because this one has "special effects", "strobe lighting" and "artificial smoke." whether it's a real or staged battle, maybe the message is that we can't just run off the way Absalom tried to do. We're always the star of our own show: "Understudies and standbys never substitute for listed players." We're always on, just like the title of the poem.

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