There are new ways of saying old things and old ways of saying new things; and there are new ways of saying new things and old ways of saying old things.
For better or for worse, Don Paterson’s most recent collection of poetry, Rain (now available in paperback) covers each and every one of these possibilities. While new forms of expression are generally more valuable in the communication of both age-old universal issues and those that are more personal or culturally defined, Paterson’s collection proves that timeworn ways of talking about the previously unmentioned also have their place.
However, if one concurs with the adage that all art either confirms or rejects that which came before it and that that which purely confirms fails to stand alone, Rain as a collection looks particularly vulnerable, situated as it is within a long tradition of lyric poetry that seeks to comment comprehensively on the world around us – on love, loss, family, nature, contemporary society, and poetry itself.
In line with the lyric tradition, many of the poems in Rain are spoken, as far as this can ever be true, in the voice of the poet himself, and are apparently intensely personal or autobiographical in their significances. The speaker of ‘The Circle’ reflects on his young son’s attempt to paint a picture of ‘outer-space’, hindered by the tremor that he suffers in his left hand. The treatment of the subject is subtle, the speaker’s emotion authentic. The personal nature of the subject matter from which this authenticity derives is made all the more effective by the traditional framework within which it is set. ‘The Circle’ nods towards the work of the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, and, in particular, towards John Donne’s ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’, a poem about the parting of two lovers. The four-line stanzas of the quatrain form, the swift iambic tetrameter, and the cosmological references are all reminiscent. In particular, the image of the speaker’s son drawing around an ‘upturned cup’ chimes with Donne’s image of a circle drawn by a pair of compasses. These are Donne’s lines:
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just
And makes me end where I begun.
Even in the sounds of the words alone, Paterson’s lines, ‘the comets, planets, moon and sun/ and all the circuitry they run’ are almost enough to confirm a conscious relationship with his seventeenth century counterpart.
Donne’s words are not only deeply entrenched within ‘The Circle’; they resonate at points throughout the collection. ‘Correctives’, another poem about the speaker’s son, is, once again, an elegant marriage of old and new:
The shudder in my son’s left hand
he cures with one touch from his right,
two fingertips laid feather-light
to still his pen. He understands
the whole man must be his own brother
for no man is himself alone;
though some of us have never known
the one hand’s kindness to the other.
It is almost as if Paterson has taken Donne’s sense of the interdependence of the lovers – illustrated by the arms of a compass – and transfigured it into a consideration of the dynamics of the self. With the words ‘no man is himself alone’, in which ‘alone’ seems to mean something more like ‘only’, it is almost as though Donne’s famous comment – ‘No man is an island, entire of itself’ – is developed by Paterson for the contemporary reader into a question about the very validity of the notion of selfhood.
These are some of the strongest moments in the collection, when Paterson sheds new light on old ground through the tender use of images and tropes from his own experience. Other poems are less innovative, however. While the atheistic, nihilistic focus of the collection – ‘We come from nothing and return to it’ – is undoubtedly pertinent for a modern audience, Paterson’s approach is, at times, a little tired. We are forced to listen to speakers ruminate over the perceived emptiness of the universe just as we have done for the past two hundred years. The final words of the collection – ‘and none of this, none of this matters’ – are unsatisfying; we’ve been here so many times before.
Paterson’s pedestrian existentialisms are redeemed, however, by moments of genuinely illuminating engagement with mankind’s by-now-age-old ‘new’ problem. ‘The Day’, a poem about a married couple, which deals, in part, unimaginatively with the ultimately irreconcilable divide between human beings, ends, refreshingly, with the following lines: ‘They stare down at their own five fingered hands/ and the rings that look like nothing on this earth.’ Amid the drudgery of this well-worn existential crisis, the penultimate line manages, through such stark de-familiarisation of the commonplace, to renew our sense of alienation not only from one another, but also from ourselves. In these moments, Paterson fulfils perhaps the highest calling of poetry, forcing us to stand and face our reflections with new eyes.
The final line of ‘The Day’ changes the game completely, shifting the focus away from hackneyed contemplations of human life dwarfed by the backdrop of eternity. Suddenly, Paterson is showing us the transcendent wonders of our existence. Suddenly, the lovers’ rings shine as brightly as those of the planets that light up the abyss.