“The Briefcase” was first published in 1990 as part of Paul Muldoon’s Madoc: A Mystery. Composed of rhythmic symmetry, “The Briefcase” is a sonnet with inverted rhyme, repeating outward from the central four lines. These four lines, which respectively close on “cloudburst”, “torrent”, “first” and “daren’t”, correlate to f-g f-g in the rhyme scheme. Looking at the poem’s rhyme from the beginning, we can trace it as follows: a-b-c-d e-f-g f-g-e-d c-b-a. Muldoon’s use of poetic symmetry in such a fashion provides us with our initial clue to the meaning of “The Briefcase”. In utilising this particular method, Muldoon is presenting the reader with a piece that is self-reflective in its form. The poem is established as being entirely self-contained, yet concurrently, lacking in some respect. This notion of “lack” can be traced to the final stanza, “where the poem suggests that its own style has to come to an end in a kind of stasis or closure – and that we will be out on the open sea in the poem that follows” (Wills 144-145). Furthermore, the poem’s symmetrical rhyme, and its circular construct, can be seen as a subtle commentary on poetic style and how it is that form and voice should be deployed. Wills supports this, stating that many critics miss “Muldoon’s debate with himself about poetic voice and style”, and that, in “The Briefcase”, the poet “clearly points to a real concern about voice and about form” (144).
In delineating the poem’s primary themes, one should first consider its dedication to Heaney. In the poem, the speaker’s eelskin briefcase transforms back into its living form, and “strike[s] out along the East River”, heading no doubt, based upon the River’s New York location, for Ireland. This alludes to a section from Heaney’s “A Lough Neagh Sequence”, which reads:
A gland agitating
mud two hundred miles in-
land, a scale of water
on water working up
estuaries, he drifted
into motion half-way
across the Atlantic,
sure as the satellite’s
in the ocean, as true
to his orbit. (286)
Some critics read this reference as being an expression of Muldoon’s desire to, like the eel, drift “into motion half-way / across the Atlantic”, home to Ireland. Kendall states that the sentiment in “The Briefcase” is one which seems “homesick for the North” (153). However, I would not read the allusion to Heaney in such a respect. Instead, I would see the poem as resisting such nostalgia, as the speaker expresses their “fear” of the eel escaping eastward. In addition, the speaker also refuses to set the briefcase down so that they might search their pockets for the fee that would pay their crossing to such a destination.
In many of Heaney’s poems, the speaker finds the greatest of poetic inspiration within the most mundane of objects. Take, as just one example, “Sandstone Keepsake” from his 1985 collection, Station Island. In this poem, the speaker, gazing at little more than a “wet red stone”, casts their thoughts to the rivers of hell, the human heart and a variety of significant historical events (Marchant 116). In “The Briefcase”, Muldoon parodies Heaney, with the ordinary object from which the speaker draws their inspiration being the eelskin briefcase that contains “the inkling of this poem”. So precious is this base object to the poetic inspiration of the speaker that they “daren’t / set [it] down”.
Muldoon’s ironic treatment of Heaney soon turns to his contemporary’s emphasis on the origin of the self as being the origin of such inspiration. In his examination of the poetically-disguised conversations between Muldoon and Heaney, Svensson states that “what is at issue in the poem is our notion of what constitutes origin” – “The Briefcase” suggests that “we can never identify or isolate origin” (30). I would agree with this summation, to the extent that, Muldoon, unlike Heaney, does not offer an outright identification of the origins of such poetic inspiration. In placing emphasis on the word “open” in the final line of the poem, Muldoon is telling Heaney that the eels, though returning eastward toward their historical origin, are not as bound to this notion of origin as Heaney’s work would suggest. Rather, they are part of an “open” sea, a combination of varying influences, a belief that runs contrary to Heaney’s overemphasis on one’s grounding in their heritage. This is reinforced through the urban setting of “The Briefcase”, which is in opposition to Heaney’s preferred pastoral style. Muldoon reiterates his refusal of the weight that Heaney places in historical origins by electing to make use of Americanised spelling at various junctures throughout “The Briefcase”. A direct correlation can be drawn between the eels and the poetic process. While Heaney would suggest that the eels, containing the “inkling of this poem”, will eventually return to their Irish origins, as he does in the aforementioned sequence, Muldoon contends that, even in doing so, they cannot escape those other strands from which their inspiration has been drawn.
The opening line, where the reader admits to having “held the briefcase at arm’s length”, is particularly vivid. The speaker holds the briefcase in a manner similar to the way in which Heaney’s views on poetic origin are held by Muldoon. In this regard, one might consider the theories that Bloom outlined in his 1973 book, The Anxiety of Influence, which suggests that “poems are rational events, inter-texts which can only be understood antithetically, that is, in terms of their relationship with other poems” (Allen 19). “The Briefcase” is an interesting example of Bloom’s theorising at work in the sense that, from the aforementioned very first line, we are presented with a sense of antithesis. In this respect, “The Briefcase” might be considered dialogic, as would those other poems within which the conversation between these two poets is continued, such as Widgeon. “The Briefcase” is typical of the style through which this conversation progresses, with Muldoon, converse to Heaney, opting for irony. This is evident throughout “The Briefcase”, in both the intentionally humorous arbitrary rhyme, such as “liver” and “River”, and the parodies of Heaney that one encounters, most notably the allusion to Heaney’s poem “Fosterage”. The relevant lines in this poem read:
The lineaments of patience everywhere
And fostered me and sent me out, with words
Imposing on my tongue like obols. (142)
In “The Briefcase”, Muldoon mocks Heaney’s “portentous lines”, the speaker stating that they would rather not set down their briefcase so that they might “slap [their] pockets for an obol”; pay for their passage upon on “the cross-town / bus” (Kennedy-Andrews 122). Here, I would draw further reference to Bloom’s theory, where he contends that poets are inspired to write poetry through the work of other poets. The aforementioned poem that Muldoon chooses to mock at this point, “Fosterage”, is dedicated to Michael McLaverty, a figure who was once held by Heaney in the same regard as Muldoon held Heaney. In choosing to reference this particular poem in such an ironic fashion, Muldoon is stating that he has surpassed his one-time mentor.
The speaker in “The Briefcase” is refusing to be defined by what would be considered their “origin”, refusing to accept the view that poetic inspiration, however formed, is not drawn from the most fundamental of details.
Allen, Graham. Harold Bloom: A Poetics of Conflict. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994. Print.
Heaney, Seamus. “A Lough Neagh Sequence.” University Review 4.3 (1967): 286-290. Print.
Heaney, Seamus. Opened Ground: Poems, 1966-1996. London: Faber and Faber, 1998. Print.
Kendall, Tim. Paul Muldoon. Bridgend, Wales: Seren, 1996. Print.
Marchant, Frederick. “A Held Balance.” Harvard Review 10 (1996): 116-121. Print.
Kennedy-Andrews, Elmer. “Heaney and Muldoon: Omphalos and Diaspora.” Paul Muldoon Poetry, Prose, Drama: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Elmer Kennedy-Andrews. Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe, 2006. Print.
Svensson, Lars-Håkan. “Heaney and Muldoon in Conversation.” Nordic Irish Studies 3 (2004): 17-33. Print.
Wills, Clair. Reading Paul Muldoon. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1998. Print.