The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2010

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JUNE 2010 Issue


Don Paterson
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)

Once, talking to two brilliant young poets, my father extolled Billy Collins, the former U.S. Poet Laureate. “He’s accessible,” responded the brilliant young poets witheringly, and I hope that if I begin by saying that Don Paterson’s book Rain is accessible,  I am not condemning it thereby. Paterson is so agile, his links to poetical history so wide-ranging and luscious, that he seems to open up possibilities for narrative poetry in every direction of the compass, much as visual artists have done for narrative painting in the last decades.

The range of reference (and direct tribute) in this very short volume is breathtaking, but worn lightly by a poet who is clearly an omnivore of his métier—that written in English. Paterson lives in Scotland; I didn’t know that he was British when I started the book, but I began to suspect it when I read these lines, in “The Rain At Sea”:

           The sea reached up invisibly
           To milk the ache out of the sky

This rhyme scheme, for me, redounds directly to the Romantics and back to Shakespeare (never mind that it rhymes at all). Other poems evince a deadly wit that seems to draw directly from the 18th century; many contain an inner dialogue, a question asked and answered, that returns again to the sonnet, throwing the ball to Gerald Manley Hopkins along the way, such as in the lovely “Why do I stay up so late,” in which the narrator responds to the query of the title by talking about the way a child collects rocks at the shore. He concludes:

So I collect the dull things of the day
in which I see some possibility
but which are dead and have the surprise
I don’t know, and I’ve no pool to help me tell—
so I look at them and look at them until
one thing makes a mirror in my eyes
then I paint it with a tear to make it bright.
this is why I sit up through the night.

There are a series of deft tributes, subtitled “after Cavafy, “after César Vallejo,” and even Robert Burns gets several tosses in poems written in Scottish dialect: “The reason, gin ye want the truth…” Haiku gets its due as well, in, “Renku: My Last Thirty-five Deaths”, 35 very short poems, my favorite of which is:

              Here’s your book back, world. Good story.
              I underlined a few things. Sorry.

Paterson lands squarely in 2010 in the funny Song for Natalie, ‘Tusja” Beridze, a paean to a musician that the narrator is apparently stalking on the internet, in which he cannot resist at least one reference (though disparaging) to another poet:

            O, Natalie–I forgive you everything, even your catastrophic adaptation of those lines from “Dylan’s” already shite
            Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

The strongest poems are Paterson’s attempts to answer the Great Question, to quote Monty Python: “What’s it all about?” These poems seem the most autobiographical, often speaking directly to the narrator’s children and lovers, which he does with a swift delicacy and compassion that is not quite despairing enough for Matthew Arnold, not bitter enough for Louis MacNeice, but characterizes, one would say have to say, the voice of Don Paterson:

              Forget the ink, the milk, the blood—
              All was washed clean with the flood
              We rose up from the falling waters
              The fallen rain’s own sons and daughters

              And none of this, none of this matters.

O, Don Paterson, I forgive you everything, even that this volume is accessible, and too short.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2010

All Issues