Of Mice and Poets

Paul Muldoon and John Ashbery were a little late to their reading last night at Medicine Show Theatre in Hell’s Kitchen. The charmingly unassuming space tucked away on the third floor of a sign-less building on 52nd Street was set up like a retro domestic kitchen, adorned with fake fruit and fake flowers. The room sat 60 people and was three-quarters full. The Observer was half an hour early, only to discover an empty room, save the night’s three organizers, who were somewhat surprised to see us.

“We’re just waiting for the poets to arrive,” one of them said.

And people question poetry’s importance.

Mr. Muldoon read from the galley of his new collection of poems, Maggot, which is due in September from FSG. He paced energetically about the stage as if being guided by the book in his hand. He read from a new poem, “When the Pie Was Opened”:

“Behind each of us is arrayed a horde

Of heroes ready to vie

For a piece of the pie

With Hector, Ajax, Ferdia, Cu Chulainn,

And all the other squeaky-clean

Champions who’ve once more forgotten to die.”

He then instructed the audience to look up images of Midway albatross chicks, birds that have been fed the plastic from polluted beaches by their parents. He read his translation of Baudelaire’s “Albatross.”

“Again and again, he’s dragged down by the weight of those wings.”

“Could you read something more upbeat?” someone called from the audience.

“I’m not sure if I can,” Mr. Muldoon jested. “I’m sorry not to bring joy into your life.”

He might have read the lyrics of Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok”, which he seems to be an expert at interpreting.

John Ashbery sat in a chair next to the fake flowers and read from sheets of computer paper. He read “some newer” work, and a selection of his translations of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, which we learned would be out next year. He propped his elbow on the arm of the chair, rested his head on his hand, and sighed deeply through his writing—as if the writer and his poems were in a fight and not speaking to one another. It was the kind of strangely self-assured ambivalence that is so ubiquitous in his work.

“How sad that everything changes,” he said, “but happy too.”

Unknown to Mr. Ashbery, a mouse scurried across the floor behind him. The fake fruit shined in the stage lights. It almost looked real.

Listen to Mr. Ashbery read here.

Of Mice and Poets