So Much More Handsome
- Landing Light by Don Paterson
Faber, 84 pp, £12.99, September 2003, ISBN 0 571 21993 4
You might expect a landing light to be bright, a herald of safe arrival, but the light Don Paterson had most in mind when naming his new collection is weaker and less sure. ‘The Landing’ (one of two poems echoing the title) locates its protagonist halfway up the stairs, between the ‘complex upper light’ and ‘the darker flight/that fell back to the dead’. In-betweens are this volume’s favourite places and often – as here – they allow something eerie and compelling to be perceived, but not grasped.
Halfway up the stairs, the speaker is in ‘half-shade’ – an engagingly not-quite-tautologous phrase, shade being itself a half-light and a half-darkness. Here, a domesticated Orpheus, he twangs his guitar:
and listened to the notes I drew
go echoing underground
then somewhere in the afternoon
the thrush’s quick reply –
Is this ‘quick’ in the old sense of ‘alive’, or ‘quick’ because the thrush’s song is short, or because the protagonist’s eagerness for a response has blotted out all other experience, or because it really is a good turnaround time – an inquiry sent into the underworld and an answer received the same afternoon? Coming after the time-lapse between stanzas, this ambiguity has a hallucinatory shimmer about it: the speaker seems both preternaturally alert and unsure about what to make of his impressions. The thrush’s message sounds good, he thinks: ‘No singer of the day or night/is lucky as I am.’ But can it be trusted? Is the thrush a properly mythological bird – a latter-day Philomel or Procne – or a relative of the kitsch robin at the end of Blue Velvet? The edginess here, the feeling that one way of making sense could at any time be overturned by its opposite, is Landing Light’s most vivid and interesting tone.
Less alive – and less involving – are poems where in-betweenness figures not as a situation to be explored but as a kind of faith. ‘A Talking Book’, a six-page disquisition in pentameter couplets, argues with something of the embattled urgency of a doorstep Jehovah’s Witness that we are all caught in an ‘infernal contradiction’, living parallel lives on upper and lower earths. Reading it, I felt again the rightness of Keats’s adage that ‘we hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us,’ even if, as in this case, the design is surrounded by ironical defences: NB, the title says, it is the book talking here, not the poet. Still, the stridency of ‘A Talking Book’ is one indication of how seriously Paterson takes his imaginative materials. Landing Light is a committed volume: big, resourceful, mouthy, ambitious, a piling-in-there of the imagination. It is apt (if doubtless unintended) that so vigorous an investigation of life’s instabilities should itself be so variable in both quality and style.
Dividedness, along with doubling and repetition, has always featured in Paterson’s verse. The opening poem of his first book, Nil Nil (1993), imagined a sullen second persona being spawned from self-inflicted defeat in a one-man game of snooker; successive poems in that book and his next volume, God’s Gift to Women (1997), brought in twin sisters, a foetus seen as an effigy, a dead brother, the repetitions of parenthood and family more generally, the shadow-worlds of dream and desire, the imagination as a doubling of the self and the togethernesses and divisions of sex and love.
Now, in Landing Light, interest in dividedness has become a fascination. There are twin sons, and a ‘twinflooer’, and medieval scribes ‘at facing desks’, and lovers who ‘gently hooked each other on/like aqualungs’. There is a protagonist gothically hunting something or someone only to discover that his quarry is himself. ‘The Rat’ pictures a more straightforward antagonist, a simpler, better poet; ‘A Fraud’ confesses to stealing someone else’s talent, with the result that ‘two strangers’ now inhabit the same identity. The self-suspicion, even self-contempt, represented in these poems of internal division is startlingly plain. So much so, that it is a relief to find the paradigm reconfigured as comedy in the latest instalment of a long serial poem, ‘The Alexandrian Library’. The speaker falls asleep, dreams of ‘a horrible fuck’, then, switching on the light, ‘you find yourself buried right up your own arse.’ This is taken as a threat to ‘what you had fancifully fancied your one/unassailable notion’ – presumably the energetic straight sexuality put on display in many of Paterson’s poems – but it works equally well as a critical recognition of a tendency to self-involvement elsewhere, an emblem of a poet up his own arse in more ways than one; or who would be, if he weren’t so well aware of his proclivities.