Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $24 (hardcover)
Ask any reader of British poetry to identify who is doing the best work right now, and you should get short odds on the answer being Don Paterson.
In a community increasingly divided—as it is in the United States— between “established” writers at more traditionally respected presses and the hordes that fill up creative writing programs and cyberspace, there is something reassuring and rather old-fashioned about the consensus surrounding Paterson. He emerged in the early ’90s as a key figure in a “New Generation” of poets that also included Simon Armitage, Glyn Maxwell, and Britain’s current poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. Paterson’s first collection, Nil Nil, a beautiful and coruscating book that scooped the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 1993, confirmed him as a rising star, and since then his reputation has only grown.
No contemporary was nearer to Paterson than the late Irish-American poet Michael Donaghy. Since Donaghy’s untimely death in 2004, Paterson admirably has taken to promoting his friend’s work outside the tight limits of a British scene that threatened to underrate him, in Paterson’s terms, as “a kind of charming ‘modern metaphysical.’” Rain, Paterson’s first volume of original poetry since 2004, contains not one but two inscriptions to Donaghy, the first at the front of the book and the second before the seven-part elegy “Phantom.”
Along with its parent volume, “Phantom” has garnered an extraordinary amount of praise in Britain. Not just in the usual poetry forums, either: a concerted effort has been made to spread news of Paterson’s excellence to the sort of literate lay audience that used to keep up with the biggest names in contemporary poetry (back when that meant Ted Hughes or Robert Lowell), but now, frankly, does not. Writing in The Guardian, Duffy described “Phantom” as a “heartbreaking triumph of feeling and intelligence.” To read Rain, she wrote, “was to have the privilege of seeing a world-class talent assert itself, as Seamus Heaney did with North.” Many agreed with Duffy, and Paterson won the 2009 Forward Prize for Best Collection, the most prestigious annual honor given to a book of U.K. poetry.
Though Duffy seems to mean it as a gesture of generic approbation, the Heaney comparison is pertinent to Rain in fascinating, specific ways. But the terse, controversial, and political North is the wrong collection to single out. The relevant Heaney here is the author of Station Island (1984) and subsequent collections The Haw Lantern (1987) and Seeing Things (1991); the Heaney that surfaced from the ethical pressure cooker of Northern Irish poetry during the 1970s in search of a more generous and universal mode of address; the Heaney that lamented waiting till he “was nearly fifty / To credit marvels.”
At the time of Rain’s release, Paterson was 46, and the book could be read as the record of a similar midlife revaluation (one hovers over the word “crisis” but rightly rejects it). The book is governed by elemental, almost symbolist imagery—all rain, wind, ghosts, and eyes—and disarming lyrical directness. Throughout, Paterson salvages full rhyme and stress meter from the doldrums of light verse, deploying these dowdy devices to make fundamental inquiries into a world where “the skies are silent.”
Paterson figures the void as an eye because sentimental, religious humans avoid it as if it were an admonishing glare.
At many points, Rain reads like a highly capable atheist-humanist manifesto, fortunately never anything so crass as, say, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. There is little browbeating here, merely gracious—if persistent—effort to debunk the follies of theism. The symbolic fulcrum of Rain comes in the recurrent motif of the eye. In “The Error” man’s world “is just the glare / of the world’s utility / returned by his eye-beam.” “Why Do You Stay Up So Late?” describes Paterson the father examining “the dull things of the day” after his son has gone to bed:
I look at them and look at them until
one thing makes a mirror in my eyes
In “The Bathysphere,” we have, “of course, that eye. Which I avoided.” By contrast, the darkened figure in part I of “Phantom”:
threw up the shade
to catch the night pressed hard against the glass,
threw up the sash and looked it in the eye.
The eye represents not just physical vision, but deeper degrees of sight and discrimination: do we accept the evidence as it stands, or import what we only wish to be there? Opposed to the human eye is a larger metaphysical eye, an embodiment of the “void” underlying human life. Paterson figures the void as an eye because sentimental, religious humans avoid it as if it were an admonishing glare. This recalls the gaze that Rilke imagined for the dilapidated statue in “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” a poem Paterson translated for Landing Light, the collection preceding Rain. A person in the presence of the statue will find, in Paterson’s version, that
there is nowhere to hide,
nothing here that does not see you.
The statue forces on the viewer a conclusion that stands as one of the most electric moments from any era’s poetry, given perfect weight by Paterson: “Now change your life.” One can extrapolate from Rain that, for Paterson, Rilke’s words might amount to a specific injunction to embrace the beauty of a godless universe.
“Phantom,” the poem that, appropriately, haunts the collection, uses the context of Donaghy’s illness and death to dramatize the struggle with godlessness. To dissent feels almost distasteful, but for me the poem is highly uneven, not the unambiguous “triumph” that Duffy claims. After an excellent and mystic part I, the poem falters across three ponderous, ekphrastic sections on Zurbarán’s Saint Francis in Meditation. Part V sees Paterson rally, sermonizing with all the pomp of a secular Lancelot Andrewes:
We come from nothing and return to it.
It lends us out to time, and when we lie
in silent contemplation of the void
they say we feel it contemplating us.
This is wrong, but who could bear the truth.
We are ourselves the void in contemplation.
We are its only nerve and hand and eye.
That eye again. This is where the poem—and the entire volume—surges to its ideological apex. Yet the final two sections exemplify a problematic drift in Paterson’s work over the last decade: away from dark explorations of personal heritage toward something more generalized, consolatory and lacking its former tautness. In part VI, Paterson recollects:
One night when I was lying in meditation
the I-Am-That-I-Am-Not spoke to me
in silence from its black and ashless blaze
in the voice of Michael Donaghy the poet.
The voice that follows, which Paterson admits has “lost [Donaghy’s] lightness and his gentleness,” assumes the prophetic tone peculiar to Heaney’s interlocutors in the title poem of Station Island. For a while, the voice continues the sermon Paterson began in the previous section, culminating in an extraordinary narrative of how “matter” came to invent its spiritual trappings:
It made an eye to look at its fine home,
but there, within its home, it saw its death;
and so it made a self to look at death
And so on, detailing each disillusionment and subsequent false consolation of the human story until now.
In part VII Donaghy’s voice resumes, and Paterson can “[hear] the smile in it.” The “softened” Donaghy punctures what he has just said:
Donno, I can’t keep this bullshit up
Look—do this for me:
just plot a course between the Orphic oak
and fuck ’em all if they can’t take a joke
and stick to it.
One senses the relief flooding through Paterson as he finally manages to inhabit the voice of his friend; but bathos threatens to scupper everything. This moment resembles the conclusion of part VII in “Station Island,” an intensely moving section in which Heaney talks to a shopkeeper, and friend, killed in a nighttime raid on his home. The weight of the tragedy bears down on Heaney, forcing the plea,
‘Forgive the way I have lived indifferent—
forgive my timid circumspect involvement.’
To which the friend responds:
my eye . . . all that’s above my head.’
Heaney, as does Paterson, indulges a love of his friend’s avuncular, earthy voice and allows it to wreak havoc for the art. It is not humorless to say this, nor an attempt to banish the avuncular and earthy from literature. The problem is that Paterson and Heaney jeopardize the integrity—and real humor—of such a voice by forcing it into a dichotomy with seriousness. Rather than supplementing or buttressing the gravity of their respective poems, these addendums form a contradiction. They ask us to laugh off the moment of crisis, while hoping for some of its profundity to survive.
Rain too often opts for a slightly pious death wish, a kind of sublime (though not divine) indifference.
These worries press on many of those who admire Paterson’s earlier work. Nil Nil was an unflinching, edgy, and profane book. Not the first poet to cuss, Paterson was nevertheless original in how affectless his swearing was, how rooted and justified in his overall lexicon. His debut still reads like a great new-wave film, balancing its disregard for niceties with an intense, seemingly self-taught formal commitment. At its best it dismantles the divisions between vulgarity and beauty, anger and pathos, as evinced in “An Elliptical Stylus,” which contains the most purposeful use of “cunt” ever likely to be committed to a poem.
It would be hard to drive the argument that Paterson’s potty mouth is, like Samson’s hair, a guarantor of his strength, but there is a telling change of tack when Donaghy resumes speaking in Part VII of “Phantom.” He starts swearing. As though all this talk about eyes and the void has turned Donaghy’s stomach (and Paterson’s), a salty lash of the tongue is the first corrective he resorts to. Donaghy’s two voices are divided by a break across sections, which points to an increasingly erratic duality in Paterson’s writing. He never used to need the corrective; the gritty, rebarbative aspects of his voice were in sync with the compassionate and brainy.
The theologian Karl Barth claimed that sin is the “specific gravity of human nature as such.” Whether or not one goes along with that, it is no coincidence that a motif in Rain, a collection dedicated to imagining the sinless post-God world, is a dream of weightlessness and nonentity. “The Handspring,” a gorgeous piece, can be quoted in its entirety:
How me of me, I know, to blame it all
on that little hampered run, that running tiptoe
and the world swung up on your fingertips
as if it were nothing, or at least the weight of nothing.
Through his commitment to arguing that “Life is no miracle” (“The Day”), Paterson comes close to denying that life has a “specific gravity” at all. One does not have to be religious to believe in sin; Paterson’s earlier collections were fluent in it and understood the burden of history, inheritance, and confused morality pressing upon each moment. In this they were arguably more “mature” than Rain, a collection that closes with a statement worryingly redolent of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” that ultimate fantasy of dissociation masquerading as humanism:
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.
The best poem in Rain is not the glib, closing title poem from which this homily is taken, but an almost-title poem, “The Rain at Sea.” In it we find Paterson stranded on a train near the remote Scottish coastal town of Montrose. Pressed against the glass of the train window, he considers a cloud pouring rain into the darkening sea. Then a cruel subversion: the beautifully described spectacle is undercut as Paterson realizes his separation, his miniscule, all-too-human relative position. “How did I blunder into here?” he asks.
“The Rain at Sea” eschews stress meter in favor of a shapely, loose iambic tetrameter with which Paterson definitively rediscovers his talents. Dextrously inverting the line’s first foot, he frontloads the stress: “How did I blunder into this?” It seems small, but the effect is tremendous. It turns “how” from a query into a question of epic urgency. But better still is what it does to “blunder.” Preceded by two dampened syllables, it pops with palpable self-disgust.
Instead of such pungency, Rain too often opts for a slightly pious death wish, a kind of sublime (though not divine) indifference. More spike and tonal complexity, qualities abundant in the Paterson of yore and vibrantly renewed in “The Rain at Sea,” could be imported to the questing, sanguine mid-period Paterson we find taking his first steps in Rain. I’d give you short odds that the result would be thrilling.