A friend of mine who was born and bred in Reading, a place whose Oracle centre he regards as Dante‘s vision of hell, got a job on the Aberdeen Press and Journal. Needless to say, he had a few adjustments to make in terms of language and culture but it didn’t take him long to get into the spirit of things. Weeks into the job, he phoned to share the headline he had written for a piece on a local pigeon fancier: ‘Love me doo,’ a doo being a Scots dialect word for pigeon. English, or American English, may be the planet’s adopted language for international business and air traffic control but, on its home turf, that white light is diffracted into pure colour by the UK’s variations in geography and circumstance.
Don Paterson‘s Rain pulses with the life of the language. In The Human Sheld, he creates an intimate dramatic monologue between a terse manly man and his partner, who has asked why he sleeps with his arm around her. ‘The reason, gin ye want the truth […] // is no’ for warmth or peace o’ mind / but that in ma dreams, ma dou, / I’m staunin here upright, wi’ you / the lang sheld that I grue ahind’. (The reason, if you want the truth – is not for warmth or peace of mind but because, in my dreams, my doo, I’m standing here upright, with you, the long shield that I shake behind). There’s affection here in the word dou (doo) but the poem also surprises with its humour and naked honesty, as its taciturn speaker recognises his weakness, and his need for support and defence. If you know John Donne‘s To His Mistress Going to Bed, then you’ll hear its echoes here. In Donne’s poem, the male speaker offers his naked body as a protective covering for his partner. This fits with his knowing, controlling personality. Not so for Paterson, whose enclosed ABBA quatrains echo a male need for protection and comfort.
This raw unsentimental ethic is stamped across the whole collection. In its opening poem, Two Trees, we see an orange and a lemon tree grafted. ‘Over the years / the limbs would get themselves so tangled up / each bough looked like it gave a double-crop, / and not one kid in the village didn’t know / the magic tree in Miguel’s patio’. Yet, when the trees are rudely sundered ‘nor did their unhealed flanks weep every spring / for those four yards that lost them everything, / as each strained on its shackled root to face / the other’s empty, intricate embrace. / They were trees, and trees don’t weep or ache or shout. / And trees are all this poem is about’. Paterson’s rhyming couplets and blunt statements actually heighten the poem’s cold unsentimentality. The organisation of the collection throws a playful doubt on the claim here that the poem is just about trees as, in the following poem, The Error, we read that ‘As the bird is to the air / and the whale is to the sea / so man is to his dream’. We are disconnected from reality, as the tress are forcibly disconnected from one another and, as a result, our loneliness is elevated to tragic proportions ‘and this is why we find / however deep we listen / that the skies are silent’.
Behind the honest sentiment and language that shape Rain into a collection which feels authentically human is a master of his craft with an ear for rhythm and rhyme. This is clever poetry in playful dialogue with the past. John Donne’s influence is felt at other points in the collection too as, in The Circle, Paterson riffs on A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning where the relationship between a couple is described as being like a pair of compasses. Donne’s cosmological theme is translated as ‘My boy is painting outer space, / and steadies his brush-tip to trace / the comets, planets, moon and sun / and all the circuitry they run // in one great heavenly design. / But when he tries to close the line / he draws around his upturned cup, / his hand shakes, and he screws it up’. A symbol of eternity and perfection in Donne’s universe becomes Murphy’s Law’s toast butter side down in Paterson’s. Yet a note of optimism is injected, as Paterson recognises that the whole of nature is constantly trying to correct and improve itself. So, his son’s water jar slops a perfect circle on the paper, ‘singing under everything’. Paterson’s no dour Scot and Rain also celebrates life with a memorable lyricism.
Nowhere is this felt more than in the title poem, Rain, which, although it acknowledges nature’s power through its ‘fatal watercourse,’ prefers to dwell on its cinematic beauty: ‘I love all films that start with rain: / rain, braiding a windowpane / or darkening a hung-out dress / or streaming down her upturned face’. Rain ultimately speaks of cleansing and renewal. ‘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’.
Like freshly baked bread, there is something wholesome, nutritious and appealing to the senses in Paterson’s focused, honest, disciplined collection of poems.
- Selected Poems, By Don Paterson (independent.co.uk)
- Shakespeare’s Sonnets – Faber and Faber – Arden – Touch Press (johnfield.org)
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