I am reading Paul Muldoon's poems, and I am sometimes left confused and in limbo about the meanings of the many of out-of-the-way place names and terms I do not understand. What should I do in these circumstances?

I try to read through and listen to the sound scape and wait for the meaning to emerge eventually, but then I am left unsatisfied when I do not understand some of these sentences.

Take his poem the Incantata. Here is the beginning of the poem:

I thought of you tonight, a leanbh, lying there in your long barrow
colder and dumber than a fish by Francisco de Herrera,
as I X-Actoed from a spud the Inca
glyph for a mouth: thought of that first time I saw your pink
spotted torso, distant-near as a nautilus,
when you undid your portfolio, yes indeedy,
and held the print of what looked like a cankered potato
at arm's length-your arms being longer, it seemed, than Lugh's.

What does it mean to "X-Acto from a spud the Inca glyph for a mouth"? Who is Francisco de Herrera? A google search tells me he is a painter, but why bring it up?

I do not want to set this aside because whatever I do understand from Muldoon's poems, I love. How do you deal with similar problems when reading poetry?

1 Answer 1


I do not know the poem, but I can comment on the specific points you raise.

An X-acto knife is a sharp, precise cutting tool, looking rather like a scalpel, often used in crafts. Muldoon is using the brand-name here as a verb, so that to "X-acto from a spud" means to cut a shape carefully and precisely from a potato. Given the later line "the print of what looked like a cankered potato", it is presumably to cut the potato into a stamp of a particular and use it to make a print (his is something that children often do in art classes to make "potato prints"). In this case the shape the potato is being cut into is "the Inca glyph for a mouth".

Francisco de Herrera ("El Mozo") was indeed an artist. Born in Seville in 1627 and dying in Madrid in 1685, he was a painter of the Spanish Baroque period. I believe that he is referenced here because of a series of still-lives of fish that he made while working abroad in Italy. These were sufficiently notable that in Italy, de Herrera was known as "Il Spagnolo de gli pexe” [the Spaniard of the fish].

"Still life of fish and game", a work by Francisco de Herrera.

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