Rain, Don Paterson, Faber and Faber, 61pp, £12.99 (hardback)

Rain can clear the air, refresh dry perceptions, and wash things clean. Faber describe Don Paterson’s fourth collection of verse as his most ‘direct’ and ‘candid’ to date, and there is something to this claim. The tone adopted in many poems is engagingly personal – as often tender as it is playful – and their meticulous formal composition implies a profound, reassuring relationship to the poetic tradition. However, as we all know, rain can also muddy the waters, reduce visibility, and wash things away. Similarly, these poems can be both intellectually and emotionally challenging, enacting subtle distortions of sense and sound that throw the reader off balance and make it difficult to fix on a stable perspective or framework of understanding.

‘Two Trees’ opens the volume in parabolic fashion by relating the story of Don Miguel, who creates a ‘magic tree’ by grafting his orange and lemon to one another. But whereas Don Miguel has ‘one idea rooted in his head’, his successor ‘had had no dream’ and regards the hybrid as a freak. He separates the two trees once more by splitting the fused bole. In the poem’s final lines, the narrator pointedly denies readerly impulses towards anthropomorphism, to see the trees as parted lovers grieving for their loss: ‘They were trees, and trees don’t weep or ache or shout./And trees are all this poem is about.’ This seems plain enough, the clever quip overturning easy expectations; but a hint of disingenuousness in the narratorial voice also manages to leave the larger question of what poetry is ‘about’ open. Does poetry concern itself with ‘magic’ and invention like the inspired Don Miguel, or with reality and propriety like his hard-nosed successor? Is it concerned to illuminate connections and patterns, however grotesque they may be? Or should it make careful discriminations, insisting on difference and particularity? These questions recur throughout Rain, as Paterson addresses the relationships between generation and mortality, the self and others, the world and what he calls ‘the human dream’.

‘Life is no miracle’ insists the speaker of ‘The Day’, and in the same poem Paterson seems brusquely to dismiss ‘this crap/of souls and gods and ghosts and afterlives’. Such lines suggest a determinedly materialist world-view, in which poetry depends upon acute perception rather than visionary insight, addressing the everyday and not the fantastic. So, in ‘Why Do You Stay Up So Late?’, the poet explains to his son: ‘I collect the dull things of the day/in which I see some possibility’. On the other hand, many poems in Rain flirt with fabulation and metaphysics, and the whole collection is haunted by ghosts. In ‘The Swing’, a father building a swing for his two boys sees the shade of his daughter, ‘the child who would not come’, and wavers in his ‘cold’ agnosticism:

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

The beautifully-judged ambiguity of that phrase, ‘nothing made a sound’ – was there no sound or was the sound of ‘nothing’ heard? – implies absence and presence simultaneously, as does the imaginative recontextualisation that occurs in the final image of the ghost-child’s ‘feet upon the ground’. This kind of deft precision with plain language and idioms is one of Paterson’s great strengths, and is unobtrusively present throughout Rain. It encourages the reader to look again, more closely, at familiar phrases and patterns of words, and thereby effects a shift in the way we conceive of the world they seem to describe or make.

The collection’s presiding ghost is Paterson’s friend and fellow-poet, Michael Donaghy, to whose memory it is dedicated. His loss seems to inform several poems’ concerns with finality, memory, and haunting, and is addressed most directly in the seven-part elegy ‘Phantom’, where night is depicted as reaching ‘into the room/switching off the mirrors in their frames/and undeveloping your photographs’. Paintings by Zurbarán and Alison Watt provide the poem with points of anchorage as well as precedents for its conception of death as part of life’s ‘own intricate infolded structure’. Parts V and VI risk portentousness through their metaphysical formulations and the conceit of having Donaghy deliver the creation narrative of an indifferent God, but there are always memorable and arresting lines: ‘Your eye is no eye but an exit wound’; ‘We come from nothing and return to it./It lends us out to time’. In the final part, Donaghy’s voice softens and addresses ‘Donno’ directly, in matey, anecdotal style, but not without a note of accusation:

I knew the game was up for me the day
I stood before my father’s corpse and thought
If I can’t get a poem out of this …
Did you think any differently with mine?

Clearly, this has been a difficult poem for Paterson to write, and sometimes the strain shows, but its confrontation of ‘the larger dark’ is as courageous as it is harrowing, its portrait of Donaghy affectionate and unsentimental. Ultimately, it is an elegy that calls its own elegiac procedures into question, raising more questions than it answers about how we are to remember and grieve.

As the foregoing might suggest, Rain is a relatively sober if not sombre collection, and continues the impression of ‘maturity’ begun by 2003’s acclaimed Landing Light. Paternity is a recurrent theme, whether in ‘The Circle’ where Paterson recalls his son’s difficult birth and ‘the flutter in his signature’ that it has left, or the hallucinatory child-abduction scenario imagined in ‘The Story of the Blue Flower’. There are, however, flashes of humour throughout the sequence ‘Renku: My Last Thirty-Five Deaths’, which mixes wry one-liners with more reflective miniatures; and the two blank pages of ‘Unfold’ are a lovely visual (and tactile) joke, a deconstructed origami model in memory of the master paper-folder Akira Yoshizawa. By contrast with such restraint, ‘Song for Natalie ‘Tusja’ Beridze’ employs sprawling, run-on lines and the jargons of electronic geekery in a joyful pastiche that is framed as a love-letter to a Georgian laptop-music producer. ‘The Bathysphere’ even sees a return to the kind of surreal, Borgesian narratives with which Paterson originally made his name.

In Rain, Paterson’s already developed formal strategies are tightened still further. Many poems make use of regular iambic metres and full-rhyming couplets, which at times contributes to a slight impression of inflexibility. But pattern and structure clearly matter, and the precise artifice of each poem’s construction provides a firm framework within which Paterson’s gymnastic imagination can perform. There are also small, but important deviations and surprises – as when ‘The Rain at Sea’ rhymes ‘ship’ with ‘shape’ – which repay attentive reading and listening. Indeed, this diverse and richly-patterned collection manages to be both crystalline and enigmatic, fulfilling Paterson’s own prescription that poetry should walk the line between sense and mystery. It is simple and complex, direct and difficult all at once.

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