Book review: The Arctic, by Don Paterson

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Don Paterson

If I desperately wanted a punch in the parison in August, I might just go to Don Paterson and tell him how much I admire his new collection of poetry and how surprised I was that he mellowed . I would richly deserve this comment, for there is a vein of righteous indignation running through this new book; but, in my defence, I’m also partly right.

Take as evidence the last lines of Paterson’s “break out” poem, “An Elliptical Stylus” from his debut Nil Nil. It ends, “But if you still insist on resonance – / I’d rock for him and all the other c*nts / happy to let my dad know his station, / which probably includes yourself. To be frank”. Compare that to the end of the painful elegy “On Sounding Good”, for his father, in this book. It opens with a reminiscence in the pugnacious style – “Sir, know this: that you were a total shit / at the Kirkintilloch Social Club that night”, showing that Paterson has lost none of his verve for the perfectly right rhymes. It ends, however, “he chose / to make you sound good, or well at least for those / who loved you; and since he had love to spare, / you know it was neither here nor there. There are still teeth there, barely bared, but the feeling is radically different. So are the beats, with a new kind of balance between the stumbling irony of the opening lines and the unexpected slowing of the conclusion. I could, I think, write this whole review just unpacking this poem – the singer’s description of the singer’s ‘rise from E flat to B sharp’ is funny, sad and accurate ; the two words “extraterrestrial keywords” will stay with me.

But focusing on one poem, however audaciously good, would do the rest of the book a disservice. What is most striking is the tonal and stylistic versatility of the collection. It includes maximal poems that sound like a more sardonic version of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”, both wise and irreverent. There are riffs – that seems to me the only relevant word – on poets like Cavafy, Montale, Trakl and de Unamuno. He presents an exuberant work in Standard Habbie, “To His Penis”, from which I suppose it is acceptable to quote the lines, “I’d waak up in the nicht, true friend / o Andrea Dworkin / to cry a unilateral end / to aa the pig. There is something of the madness of Scottish Renaissance writers like Dunbar about this.

Then there are the Angry Poems, which show Paterson in a more politically engaged form than in previous collections. Three stand out. “Easter 2020” is uninterrupted and excoriating, but it also parallels the horrors of those who couldn’t see their loved ones on their deathbeds with the shenanigans of those in power. Consider the following example: “The pig has been hiding in the toilet / since he got sick / and it turned out happy birthday to me / didn’t do the trick”. The ballad form seems the right one, and I can easily imagine it being sung a bit raspy. “Saudade for Brexit” uses the Portuguese term for a regrettable longing, tinged with a sense that there is no turning back. “Spring Letter”, about the events in Ukraine, is a “ragged anthem” using “messy rhymes” in the style of McNeice “a form already half broken / might be half adequate at the time”. This is not a howl of indignation or Brechtian propaganda, but something more grieved and nuanced, with a metaphysical accent: “the gods do not wash away our sins / but our conscience”. In many ways, it’s a God-haunted book.

For those who have followed Paterson’s career, the highlight will be part four of his “The Alexandrian Library,” subtitled “Citizen Science.” In four parts, it presents the real and unreal arctic bar in Dundee, where various loners, survivors and lunatics converge. One is a meteorologist working atop Ben Nevis when the internet goes down (“the cloud is gone”). Then we have another environmental researcher visited by Charles Lyell who warns him that “the present is the key to the past”, then an academic who studies old whaling records to measure sea level and which is “currently vague on my name”. Finally, with a real crescendo, a representative of a group that tries to remember Euclid, Darwin, Einstein and, with much less success, literature. It’s a very dark comedy. “The ‘literature corner’ is busy recovering / the few verses that have made half an effort / to make themselves memorable; /So far we have three variations of something /called ‘This Is The Verse’, and the one that supposedly /starts Please Don’t Stand at My Grave and Cry”. It’s horribly and horribly true – I once told a friend who got rid of his books because he had them all on a Kindle that he could at least throw an entire library in the bath now.

Paterson is a polymath poet, a poet of many voices. Confession: I made my mom read some (she’s not normally a poetry reader) and she gushed. No higher praise.

The Arctic, by Don Paterson, Faber & Faber, £14.99. Don Paterson appears at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 20

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