Rain by Don Paterson
by Don Paterson
Faber and Faber 2009
Hardback; 61 pages,
The fifth poem of Don Paterson’s Rain begins: ‘How me of me, I know’. It is a shy, self-conscious shrug of a line. Upon finishing Paterson’s earlier collection (Landing Light, 2003), A.S.Byatt described herself as ‘knocked sideways’; in Rain, however, readers constantly find themselves pulled-in tight against Paterson. His circumstances, and the relationships particular to his own experience, are crucial to this contemplative, personal and tender new book of poems.
Perhaps this sense of direct impartation, local to Dundee-born Paterson himself, is most obviously demonstrated by his use of Scots dialect (specifically in ‘The Human Shield’, with words glossed into standard English beneath the poem). Dundonian pronounciations also infrequently inform the rhyme schemes: ‘Rain at Sea’ has ‘Let me tell you how it was./ We’d stopped four miles outside Montrose’. Colloquialisms and informal modes abound alongside elliptical contractions and occasional, light profanity. Rain is not arch: the assumed tone throughout is personable and familiar, fallible and very self-aware, especially regarding the poet’s role as communicator: ‘If I had had a happier dream/ This might have been a better poem’ (‘Renku: My Last Thirty-Five Deaths’).
Although Paterson’s relationship with his twin sons features strongly in this collection, alongside his reaction to the death of his friend the poet Michael Donaghy – to whose memory the entire collection is dedicated – Rain has been rendered with such skill and simplicity that, despite the prominence of the poet’s individual voice, the poem never emerges as solipsistic or written for any coterie. It is engaging for a universal readership. So closely and so frankly are we drawn to Paterson-the-writer that we are even granted a glimpse of him with his own personal nickname, ‘Donno’.
The images and forms deployed in Rain are often outwardly simple. Their approachability is undeniable. The first poem ‘Two Trees’, for example, follows a well-wrought formula of constructing a fable and parable-like narrative. In the collection’s second poem one encounters a neat verbal-reasoning puzzle: ‘As the bird is to the air/and the whale is to the sea/so man is to his dream’. It is childlike, not childish, in its appeal. Boys play on a swingset that Paterson has constructed (but can a poet really ever ‘dig’ again and consider fatherhood after Heaney?); characters leap into handsprings; in the opening ‘Two Trees’ there is a ‘magic tree in Don Miguel’s patio.’ This is not the last reference to Don Miguel in this collection (nor is this, indeed, the only patio that makes an appearance). Frequently Paterson is at pains to emphasise the prosaic world and the actions that he encounters, wondering at both.
Concurrent to this simplicity and emphasis on youth and naïveté, however, is Rain‘s allusions to threat and grimness. The poet is described as a ‘twisted ape’, whilst the poem ‘Parallax’ addresses the idea of a skewed world made grotesque and uncanny by its own reflection. The concept of falling crashes through Rain alongside that of heaviness and burden: his son performs a handspring but in doing so becomes a topsy-turvy Atlas figure shouldering the world. Elsewhere ‘fists fall like stones’ and, again in ‘Renku‘, we have the line ‘For years I watched the blossom fall. / I didn’t. / I rose through it.’ The idea of reality contradicting itself, of disjuncture and dislocation with one’s experiences riddles through the majority of Rain‘s poems.
This topsy-turviness occurs also in ‘The Rain at Sea’: ‘The cloud had drawn up to a halt / to leave the sea a gram less salt’; later: ‘The sea reached up / Invisibly to milk the ache /Out of the sky’. The mundane has been made profound, but here Paterson has found gentle tenderness in the instability of the everyday. Later in the poem, trains ‘pass, slip by’: they do not hurtle, whilst the voice describes itself as lying on the ‘growling grass’. There is potential here for calamity, only – it is this manner of suspense that lends tension to Rain and often makes it an unsettling read.
Rain is often horrified and devastated in tone. One of the longest (and best) poems is ‘Phantom’, in memoriam of Monaghy, whilst the shortest (indeed, a blank page) ‘Unfold’ is also i.m. The latter is less a poem, more a performance of how grief and elegy can only be addressed in silence. Quiet, stillness and absence of action pervades Rain: ‘there were trees, and trees don’t weep’, for example; figures are described as ‘hampered’ and chained. Doors are closed, eyes are not met; the narrator in one poem must face a ‘soundless dark’ and survive a ‘blackroom’, lighting ‘one match, and then another… to see the kind of dark / laid between them’. Elsewhere, ‘black suns’ stare.
This all belies Paterson’s humour. The excellent sketch of a smarmy, love-lorn fan in ‘Song for Natalie “Tusja” Beridze’ proves Paterson is not one to cast himself as over-earnest, and Rain is peppered with quips and comic asides (‘Listen to this – I have finally cured my tinnitus’).
Rain is that rare thing: a collection that posits much, but never postures. ‘Rain is no respecter of persons / the snow doesn’t give a soft white damn / Whom it touches’; Paterson does not have the poetic guile of e.e.cummings who wrote this line, but an element of this quotation holds true – Rain cannot help but touch. Naming collections of poetry must be a tricky, tricky business. Rain can spatter, it can pour. It makes a bright day dour but may also endow romance on a scene – schmaltz, even: reunited lovers kiss in it, jilted lovers cry in it, Gene Kelly sings and dances up a lamp-post in it. It can make the beautiful drab; the unremarkable gleam. Rain, on impact, gives us glints. It is downward. It falls. It can flush out, it can revitalise. It can be a blue rinse, a wash-out; the colour scheme of Faber&Faber’s jacket itself teeters somewhere between a fresh blue and a drab blue. ‘Rain’ implies a sodden heaviness, but also a freshness; it can be unrelenting or sudden, it can come with a gale and a sky split open. It is unremarkable and dreary; it is purgative, and begets new life. The Scots dialect has some fantastic words that relate to rain or raining (necessity perhaps being the mother of invention, in this instance): smirr is the noun and verb for fine rain, whilst stoat describes the ‘bounce’ of heavy rain upon the ground. Biblical deluge to ruined washing-line loads. It is cosmic and domestic.
Rain is simple and it is complex. And, for Paterson, a title well-chosen indeed.