Over the years, Paulin has emerged from the thicket of contemporary Irish poets as an original and challenging voice. Like his compatriot Seamus Heaney, Paulin struggles with a sense of divided loyalties: born in Leeds, he grew up in Belfast, and now teaches English literature at Oxford. Here, he explores the tensions between Irish and English ideologies, accents, languages, limitations, and possibilities. Unlike Heaney, Paulin tends to mark these divisions through narratives about language rather than politics. Ghosts, living and dead—from Chagall to Verlaine, from Lucan to Larkin—haunt these pages, but of all these figures, James Joyce casts the longest shadow. Paulin’s improvisatory, allusive, pun-filled, occasionally baggy style owes much to the great novelist but is not always up to the comparison. When it works, his synthesizing technique achieves wonders: the long title poem, for instance, is woven around the image of the “wind dog,” a dialect phrase for “a wee broken bitta rainbow.” The off-kilter word illuminates suddenly the relationship between history and the creative powers of language, as when Paulin invokes William Tyndale (who translated the Bible into English in the 16th century and was burned at the stake for his pains). “[T]hey may have turned Tyndale into tinder,” he writes, “but the bow he wrought lives high / in this wet blue sky.” Elsewhere, Paulin’s elliptic prosody feels like navel-gazing. As he puts it in “Cuas,” “what interests me / is my own unease.” This can lead him to myopic, insufficiently ironic lines, like these in “Fortogiveness”: “and forgive me too that unlike Hugo / I’ve not been a freelance writer / for the last twenty or more years / but instead have held down a job.”
Forgive Paulin his transgressions. Taken as a whole, these meditations on the nature of Irish identity are sinuous and profound.