Skip to main content

"The waking dream-world through which we blunder":
Don Paterson's Selected Poems - review

The title poem of Don Paterson's first collection, Nil Nil (1993), tells the sped-up tale of a football team's inglorious decline. Yet its panoramic sweep takes in much more than sport. The comedy and search for ontological significance typify the mix of the quotidian, the surreal and the mystical which remain a hallmark of his writing. "From the top, then, the zenith, the silent footage" we witness a "fifty-year slide / into Sunday League", but the missing dash found in a football score also makes the title a strange double negative. "Nil Nil" is both nothing and everything, it seems to say. Both poem and collection introduced readers to a striking new voice.

Sean O'Brien has written that "few poets can have covered as much ground in 20 years as Don Paterson". Reading this remarkable Selected Poems, which ranges from the ludic depths of Nil Nil to the plainer cadences and frankness of 2009's Rain, one is inclined to agree. Yet, coupled with "Nil Nil", Rain's title poem brings us full circle, as another double negative surfaces between release and restraint: "and none of this, none of this matters". Alongside the poetry's stylistic variety and bids for tonal authority, what Paterson's selection from his six volumes to date reveals is the underlying thematic consistency of his oeuvre.

The poems are often full of seeming paradox and contradiction, a feature which can wrong-foot and frustrate just as it provokes and delights. "I took myself on for the hell of it," says the poet of playing pool against his double in Nil Nil's "The Ferryman's Arms", a sense of poetry's artifice jostling with the conviction that a poem should enact some seriously complex thinking. The persona is swaggering yet (literally) divided; the planetary order of balls on the pool table is undermined as "physics itself becomes something negotiable"; the false doppelgänger ends up seeming truer than the departing speaker; strangeness swells up everywhere through initially grounded reality. Nothing is ever quite as it seems. Just as the speaker's lover in "The Trans-Siberian Express" is seen "shedding veil after veil", these poems seek truths beyond the waking dream-world through which we blunder. The darkness comes to envelop Nil Nil. A handful of poems explore social class, not least the punchy "An Elliptical Stylus", but these also tend towards eerie territory, or else unpick an unusually keen sense of the constructed nature of the self.
Paterson's follow-up, the irony-laden and brashly titled God's Gift to Women (1997), is represented here by some of his most arresting poems. "A Private Bottling" beguiles with heightened lyricism and colloquialism, achieving a gently damning commemoration of the poet's former lover, both lifted and undermined by its intoxicated context of late-night whisky sampling. The tonal range is extraordinary. Where "Addenda" develops delicate snapshots of the poet's brother's lost life, the unsteady formal prowess of "Imperial" reinforces just as it collapses notions of male authority in a subtle send-up of the Renaissance love poem. Combined with the unreliable narrative of its Marvellian centrepiece – part dramatic monologue, part seemingly confessional catharsis – God's Gift documents the struggle between Paterson's showboating sassiness and a meditative lyricism fighting for more ground.

These issues were neatly sidestepped in The Eyes (1999), a book comprising loose "versions" after the Spanish poet Antonio Machado. Notable for their unabashed spiritualism, the poems also deliver a refreshing anonymity amid the clamour of much contemporary verse. As "Poetry" has it: "Beneath the blue oblivious sky, the water / sings of nothing, not your name, not mine." Similarly in "Sigh", a fountain "sings", yet "speaks / its love-song / to no one".

It will be a shame if The Eyes – not least "Advice", "Profession of Faith" and "Siesta", all included here – is solely remembered as catalyst to the marked turn in Paterson's work evident from Landing Light (2003), in which the dark ego of the divided self blends with the emotional scope inherited from Machado. A sizeable, even baggy fourth collection, it is represented here by more work than from any other volume. Starting with "Luing", a declaration of our capacity for love, we come to poignant sonnets for the poet's sons, moving through rehearsals of the doubling motif and a reworking of "The Forest of the Suicides" from Dante's Inferno, before arriving at arguably Paterson's most ambitious poem to date, "The White Lie". This philosophical treatise expounds – just as this Selected Poems reveals – what he has long seen as poetry's transformative responsibility, as the world we think we know is "reconsumed in its estranging fire". It sets the tone for 2006's Orpheus, a version of Rilke's masterwork which sharpens the questing at the sonnets' cores: "But is that true?", "What was real in that All?", "O, where are we now?"

For many, Paterson's most recent collection, Rain, placed him among the front rank of English-language poets now writing. It is well represented here, with poems such as "The Swing", "The Circle", and the disquieting elegy for the late Michael Donaghy, "Phantom", all testifying to a stepped-up musical intelligence, a pithy idiomatic ease that owes debts to Robert Frost and Robert Garioch, and the undiminished ability to elevate and surprise, revivifying traditional forms with panache. Dynamic, interrogative and unsettling; crafted yet open-ended; fiercely smart, savage and stirring – like it or not, from the get-go, Paterson's poetry has been essential reading. This Selected Poems blazes with the best of his meteoric ascent.

first published in The Guardian, Saturday 19 May 2012