In a recent online conversation with John Glenday on the subject of poetry editing, Don Paterson confessed to being a notorious re-drafter (ninety variants are not unknown), and fastidious about the ordering of poems in a collection – whilst simultaneously acknowledging that the reader is unlikely to fret much about the outcome. With that in mind, I found the arrangement of Selected Poems a tad tame – beautifully selected, laid out in typical Faber elegance – but divided into chronological “chapters”, with a selection from each of his collections from Nil Nil (1983) to Rain (2009).This lends a certain organised gravitas to his greatest hits, but perhaps an opportunity was lost to re-read the poems in new and challenging settings for those familiar with his work.
Sequencing issues aside, this collection offers great insight into the extraordinary range of the Dundee bard’s work, in English, both formal and locally-inflected, and in full-blown Scots. On the strength of Twinfloor – “ elf-cleek,/breist o silence” , even more of the latter would have been good to hear.
Hearing is apt. Paterson is a strong performer of his work, and his other hat, that of a talented musician is evident throughout. In Nil Nil’s titular poem he opens quoting François Aussemain, but by the time the extraordinary envoi is reached, the reader may sense shades of Michael Marra, and tones of a certain St Andrew. That suggests no diminution of the poet’s highly nuanced and frequently very academic verse, but pounding through his powerful rhythms, vibrant wit, and stellar word-play is a boundless love of his city. Paterson the pilgrim-traveller, in extraordinary soundscapes, self-documents painfully –
wayfarer, there is no way there is no map or Northern star,
just a blank page and a starless dark,
But however far he wanders through Dante, Rilke and a galaxy of other world stars, no-one filches Kirkton from the lad, nor would that be desirable.
Some of Paterson’s least showy works, deceptive in their simplicity, are amongst those closest to home, and perhaps most poignantly, his lines to his beloved sons ; in The Circle (for Jamie), he writes of his son’s slight tremor –
look at the little avatar
of your muddy water-jar
filling with the perfect ring
singing under everything.
And in Waking with Russell – “but his own smile, or one I’d rediscovered” and “Dear son, I was mezzo de camino”. While Rain charts his marriage breakdown in a subtle, sore thread, his love-songs to his sons are surely amongst the strongest works here.
Phantom marks the beginnings of a fecund collaboration with the painter Alison Watt which would later culminate in the mono-stichs worked (but not printed here) for her 2011 exhibition. Arguably, their greatest resonances are where the poet draws closest to his human subject, something which may also be said of Watt.
Arguably, it is when Paterson is at his least self-conscious and possibly least keen to prove himself that he is most adapt at examining the profound – consider the marvellously deceptive ease of The Rat.
But today I read The Rat again. Its reek
announced it; then I saw its pisshole stare;
There are found poems, shape poems (I would have taken a Scots substitute for one of these), and he manages a fine line in drinking poems, whether hymning the charms of the names of long-gone Campbeltown stills: “the extinct malts/of Ardlussa, Ladyburn and Dalintober” or in the wickedly funny Filter, of stout : “Whatever I do with all the black/is my business alone”.
On the evidence of this journey, it’s easy to agree with the Poet Laureate that Rain, Paterson’s most recent collection, is indeed also his finest, boding well. Whilst a more challenging editorial style might have intrigued this reader more, that is a very minor point amongst such opulence. Who, other than Don Paterson, could have said “to J.F.K. or Reykjavík / Newport comes on with a click”? The view will never be quite the same again.