Don Paterson’s Improbable Distances

Reviewed:  Rain by Don Paterson. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009. 61 pages.

What we most love we must lose. That implacable fact of human existence is the ground bass of Don Paterson’s excellent book Rain.

It would be wrong to treat the book as a syllogism deriving the importance of love from its improbability and our impermanence; yet the perception of the vastness of the universe, the odd intrusion of human beings into its mysteries, and the consequent unlikeliness and instability of human connections pervades the poems and gives them a kind of cumulative eerie power.

Start with “Parallax,” which is based on what might be called inverse solipsism. The title is a bit of a red herring. A lunar parallax is the angular difference between the apparent positions of the moon in relation to distant stars when seen from two different points on the earth. That is something the poet knows, but it doesn’t really help us into the poem. What matters in the poem is that though the moon is visible to the observer, he or she is an invisible speck from the moon, which “sees” only the whole earth. The word “moon” in the human mouth is significant because it is spoken so often, even though the individual speakers and perceivers matter little. The poem sums up: “A million eyes. One word.”

The trick here is to see oneself from an unconventional and extremely distant point – a point reached only in imagination. Paterson repeats this process in a somewhat more complex poem, “The Day.” Here we imagine many manifestations of life, some not vastly different from ours, spread here and there about the universe. The human situation (to use a terracentric term) is not isolation but unknowing (or perhaps half-suspecting) reduplication, in which an extraterrestrial couple might decide “to set apart one minute of the day / to dream across the parsecs” and imagine others like themselves. Anyone capable of such an exercise will also recognize the factitious element in the process: although “it’s a miracle I found you / in all this space and dust” (admits one of the imagined beings); still “we’re each of us a separate universe” –

. . . no matter what we do, you can’t be me,
We only dream this place up in one head.

Nevertheless, since this is at bottom a poem celebrating love, the wonder is that one such isolated being finds another, in all the vastness of the universe, and connects.

A poet who can imagine empathy across galaxies can just as easily imagine emotional opacity a heartbeat away. That is the motive of “Motive,” a poem based on the conceit that those nearest to us are fundamentally unreadable:


so for all that we are one machine
ploughing through the sea and gale
I know your impulse and design
no better than the keel the sail.


The paradox is that this unknowable creature is at the same time “my fire-born, time-thrown love” whose motives, if not precisely known, are surely inferred with what had better be reasonable accuracy most of the time if the relationship is to continue.

A universe admitting miracles of luck can also (and oftener) provide occasions for failure and despair. A person feeling himself unloved in such a universe is disposed to see nature itself as mocking him. That is the thrust of “The Rain at Sea.” Waiting at a railway crossing on a country road, the poet, feeling emotionally abandoned, stares at a distant raincloud and sees it “combing out its rain like wool / like a girl her hair above a pool.” Or perhaps it is that “the sea reached up invisibly / to milk the ache out of the sky.” The quasi-human sensuous behavior imputed to the insensate universe  fills the poet with

. . . an awful creeping shame.
Nothing on earth was ever less
concern of mine than that caress . . .

Aware of his irrationality, he is nevertheless powerless to put it behind him. All he can do is shut his eyes, lay his head against “the growling glass” and wait for the train to pass.

Poems of this kind use the phenomena of nature as a way into the self. The interior of the human mind is too dense, tangled, and complex to submit to direct observation and description. We need a mediating substance like the rain at sea or almost any tangible thing – even something wholly imagined. Such an imagined thing appears in one of the strangest and most disturbing poems in this collection, a vivid invention called “The Lie.” It is a twenty-two-line poem with a narrator, who describes waking up before the rest of the household to see to The Lie: to change his drip and see that his shackles are secure. Doing so, he inadvertently tears off the gag of The Lie, who is revealed to be a small child with eyes the dark has turned to “milk and sky” and arms and legs “all one scarlet sore.” The child asks, “Why do you call me The Lie?” The narrator hastily reties the gag “as tight as it would tie”

and locked the door and locked the door and locked the door.

It is too simple and clinical to say that this poem deals with repression and the dawning of some horrified self-awareness. Ordinary language does not handle these issues well. Paterson’s invention does, but the poem is not easy to read.

Paterson, who is Scottish, was previously known to American readers  mainly through The White Lie, published in 2001 by Graywolf Press, which I reviewed at that time. That book had a few poems of remarkable power and promise, along with several most notable for their aura of youthful swagger. The swagger is gone now. The poet has married, had children, and experienced the emotional complications attendant on love, empathy, and responsibility. With those feelings and opportunities go both the potential and the actuality of loss.

In “The Swing” he tells of a swing set he picked up for his sons (“for the here-and-here-to -stay,” he says, and at first we wonder at that odd locution). As he sets it up, fixing its legs in the dirt with a shovel, “only she” (his wife, we infer) “knew why it was / I dug so solemnly.” Not until the fourth stanza that speaks of

the child that would not come
of what we knew had two more days
before we sent it home

do we begin to comprehend the situation: there will be an abortion. The “here-and-here-to-stay” will not be joined by the potential child in its mother’s womb. And in that moment the swing set is transformed. It becomes “the honest fulcrum of the hour / that engineers our ghost.” And “for all the coldness of my creed,” the poet confesses, “I could not weigh the ghosts we are / against those we deliver.”

By the time we reach the last stanza, the swing as physical object easily carries both the “ghost” of the unborn child and the emotional meaning of the entire poem.

I gave the empty seat a push
and nothing made a sound
and swung between two skies to brush
her feet upon the ground.

It is an arresting achievement. Given that the grammatical subject of the last three lines is “nothing,” the pronoun “her” catches in the throat.

Many of the poems in Rain deal specifically with the loss of Paterson’s friend Michael Donaghy, a poet of immense promise and infectious charm who died of a brain hemorrhage in 2004. The book is dedicated to him, and the symbiotic nature of their connection is represented in the volume’s opening poem, “Two Trees,” which tells us that one “Don Miguel” took it into his head “to graft his orange tree to his lemon tree.” Then,

Over the years
the limbs would get themselves so tangled up
each bough looked like it gave a double crop.

But such magic cannot last. Someone else buys Don Miguel’s house, splits the tree into its component halves, and plants them in two separate holes. But the poet refuses to wax sentimental. The trees, he says, “did not die from solitude” they did not strain for

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.

The poet manages to be off-handed about a poignant human situation by referring to it obliquely and asserting that it doesn’t apply to the subject at hand. This is disingenuous but bracing.

It is a technique Paterson has refined over the years: a way to deal with a wrenching issue indirectly, thus avoiding putting the case too strongly, while the details of the poem – what Eliot would have called the objective correlative – become metaphors for the terrible matter at the center.

To deal with the matter at the center is nevertheless an adamant preoccupation. In “Phantom,” a blank-verse poem in seven parts occupying nine pages , Paterson reckons up his emotional and poetic debt to Donaghy. The poem starts by addressing its subject directly. It moves, in parts two, three, and four, to a meditation on grief, focused on Zurbarán’s painting “St Francis in Meditation,“ and then, in part five, to a sober philosophic reflection on the meaning of loss.

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.

These are sententious lines of the kind schoolchildren are asked to memorize, but they do not engage us deeply. (The substance is treated more imaginatively in shorter poems in this book.) In the final two sections, however, Paterson assumes Donaghy’s identity and speaks with his voice. Doing so frees him, it seems, from the solemn obligation to pay tribute – especially when in the last section Donaghy’s ghost seemingly takes control and blurts out, “Donno, I can’t keep this bullshit up.” That refreshing frankness, which in truth sounds most like the departed man, allows Paterson to admit, “I’d no wish / to hear him take that tone with me again.” The poem ends, having done what it can to instantiate and channel the poet’s grief.

The necessity of that poem in Paterson’s life is absolutely clear; however, its success as a poem, viewed by readers without the author’s particular history, is debatable. Reading it, I feel like a therapist privileged to witness the struggles of a patient with painful feelings; I appreciate and understand those feelings but I do not live them myself.

And yet Paterson commands the art to make us live them. Here in its entirety is his sonnet “Miguel,” after the Peruvian poet César Vallejo:

I’m sitting here on the old patio
beside your absence. It is a black well.
We’d be playing now . . . I can hear Mama yell
‘Boys! Calm down!’ We’d laugh and off I’d go
to hide where you’d never look—under the stairs,
in the hall, the attic . . . Then you’d do the same.
Miguel, we were too good at that game.
Everything would always end in tears.
No one was laughing that August night
you went to hide away again, so late
it was almost dawn. But now your brother’s through
with this hunting and hunting and never finding you.
The shadows crowd him. Miguel, will you hurry
and show yourself? Mama will only worry.

The poem is beautiful in the original Spanish, where it has approximately the length but not the form of a sonnet. It has touches of rhyme here and there, but not a regular rhyme scheme. Both James Wright and Robert Bly have offered translations. But Paterson’s recasting of the poem as a sonnet is to my ear by far the most successful version and the most moving. Fittingly, his own grief finds its most poignant expression in recreating the grief of Vallejo, a spiritual brother from another generation and another continent.

In an interview with Marco Fazzini quoted on the poet’s web site, Paterson makes an interesting observation about the difficulty of writing a truly moving poem: “[T]o provoke a feeling requires that you risk sentimentality, which I think you have to; it sounds like a pretty uncool and unfashionable risk … you’re risking looking like a sap and a fool.” Paterson is pinpointing a telling feature of the contemporary mood. We have become so suspicious of attempts, in magazines and films, to call up pity or fear on lame pretexts that we guard against strong feeling of any sort, preferring instead a stance of ironic detachment that prevents us from yielding too naively to the heart’s guileless promptings. But the vocation of poetry goes beyond irony and wit. The poet depends on the reader’s ability to distinguish a genuine feeling (and motive for feeling) from an ersatz feeling and an inadequate motive. In truth, not all readers have that ability; but enough do to make the enterprise, however hazardous, worthwhile.

It may already be obvious, from the passages I’ve quoted, that Paterson writes entirely in meter and usually in rhyme. Still, he is not one to let metrical niceties preempt a colloquial directness of speech. In the sonnet quoted above, for example, several lines must be either compressed or stretched to fit a strict meter; yet the overall sense of metrical beat is not lost. The musical drive of the poems gives them an immense advantage in power; elements become lodged in the ear and hence in the memory.

Dealing as this book does, in its diverse meditations, with loss, guilt, anger, helplessness, and many of the other insalubrious emotions that are the lot of human beings, it seems only just that the final poem (and the title poem at that) should be a gesture aimed at washing away the aches of the past, much as Jehovah was said to have washed the sinful world clean with the flood. Rain, in this poem, is the atmospheric rain of a noir film. Such a film, Paterson says, can do no wrong, regardless of its possible errors of plot or scene or casting. Forget the spillages of our past: the ink, the milk, the blood.  We are cleansed, but we are also “the fallen rain’s own sons and daughters / and none of this, none of this matters.” It is a sort of secular absolution, making the corrosive world briefly bearable, perhaps.

This is a poignant and remarkable book, worth a reader’s thoughtful attention. A number of the poems included in it are, I feel sure, destined to last.

About Jan Schreiber

Jan Schreiber is a poet and critic. His books include Digressions, Wily Apparitions, and Bell Buoys, as well as two books of translations: A Stroke upon the Sea and Sketch of a Serpent. His poems and reviews have appeared in the Hudson Review, the Southern Review, Agenda, the Formalist, and many other publications, as well as on-line journals and anthologies. A song cycle, Zeno’s Arrow, based on seven of his poems, was composed by Paul Alan Levi and premiered in 2001.
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