Paul Muldoon, “Apple Slump”

Associations slump upon each other like apples about to waste.

Even in reading, decisions must be made or a sense—perhaps a feeling—is lost.

My anxiety lies in counting the associations, attempting to hold each as if it were the pearl in the field (Matthew 13:46). You make one, then another, then still another as you wander through words. The danger is not achieving wisdom as much as forgetting one’s own thoughts from a moment ago. Perhaps this suffices to restate the bounty-threat of snow in October:

Apple Slump (from Poetry)
Paul Muldoon

The bounty-threat of snow
in October. Our apple-mound,
some boxer fallen foul
of a right swing

waiting for his second to throw—
the sound, turn up the sound—
that mean little towel
into the ring.

The bounty-threat of snow in October—snow doesn’t only threaten the apples, for it is a “bounty-threat.” It threatens some good, and thus the poem personifies snow. Snow is a raider, a thief, ready to do you an injustice.

A slight frost falls on our apple-mound. The mound is red, flecked with white, half-buried in earth—an ugly bruise of ill omen. It looks like the face of some boxer fallen foul of a right swing.

Already too many associations, too many apples. Snow a thief, taking out of season; an apple-mound like a bruise a boxer receives during a match; the apples, tokens of an understanding not yet achieved. Three themes emerge. You don’t have to connect them if you don’t want to. There’s injustice (snow steals), perishability (apples rotting), pain (the boxer is in a lot of this). Those three associations recall a pretty specific fruit, one from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

I can’t stress enough that the convergence of these themes is a mere convenience for us readers. No such clarity exists for, say, the boxer, who has been hit hard and whose mind is a cloud. He reverts to habit, waiting for his second to throw. Maybe he wants to throw that mean little towel into the ring and surrender. More than likely, some other entity—his corner, the referee, the bell—does it for him. Only faintly—the sound, turn up the sound—does he hear a bell ring as he waits to throw… something, probably a punch.

Muldoon seems to be wondering about how moral reasoning is possible. You’ve been wronged to the point of trauma, your instinct is to hit back. Something in you knows to “do no harm,” that violence only begets more violence. That something might help hold you back. But it is not a product of your thinking exclusively, because to speak simply, you weren’t thinking. One might say that Christian morality explicitly excludes actions committed on account of ignorance from being sin. This is a cute theoretical position to hold, as people go to war because of the trauma inflicted upon them; they act out because. Speaking of redress of grievances or trying to assess the emotions involved or find the exact right course of action—these are all concerns after the fact.

“But if you just hit back, you’re an animal!” —Yes, and that’s no slight on one’s humanity.— The Edenic counterfactual, where man can weigh the consequences of immortality versus the possibility of real knowledge, is incredibly problematic to say the least. It underlies so many sentiments and thoughts in this time regarding right and wrong; it speaks too clearly to a privileged few who do not want. At its core, it assumes a set of conditions that are as mythical as a lost immortal garden protected by a sword of flame. Try walking through how you reached the wisdom you feel comfortable passing to another person. I guarantee you’ll have something of the same process as me. I’ve had to throw away much of my pride about the things I did right because I did them without really knowing what I was doing.

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