Deep Down in the Trash

Robert Crawford

  • God’s Gift to Women by Don Paterson
    Faber, 64 pp, £6.99, May 1997, ISBN 0 571 17762 X

Younger Scottish writers seem to be preoccupied by gender. It is a theme crucial equally to Duncan McLean’s novel Bunker Man and to Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collection The Queen of Sheba. It is insistent in W.N. Herbert’s poem ‘Featherhood’ and Janice Galloway’s Foreign Parts. It bridges writing as different as the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy, Kate Clanchy or David Kinloch, and the fiction of Christopher Whyte or A.L. Kennedy. Some of these poets and novelists are wary of each other. Jamie recently refused to read with Irvine Welsh because of what she saw as the misogyny of one of his short stories. Yet even such wariness reinforces a sense that these issues are worth contesting.

This is scarcely a new subject: Muriel Spark’s strong heroines, Alasdair Gray’s imaginings of pornographic damage, Edwin Morgan’s subtly gay poems and Liz Lochhead’s sassy drama and monologues have set a good deal of the scene. Yet, until very recently, Scottish writing tended not to be considered in these terms. Scottish writing was about the matter of Scotland – or rather about what was the matter with Scotland – and analyses concentrated on nationalism. This was (and remains) an understandable emphasis. However, the tacit assumption was still that gender wasn’t relevant, except sometimes as a problem for women to cope with. Male Scottish writers didn’t bother much with this sort of thing. With a muse in tow, or by themselves, they kinged it in smoky pubs. Hard to imagine the sly and brilliant Norman MacCaig whingeing on about his masculinity. Now, however, earlier feminist explorations are being rediscovered in the late stories of Margaret Oliphant and the novels of Willa Muir and Catherine Carswell. Young women writers are finding that they have a Scottish tradition behind them as well as imaginative and ideological links to work from elsewhere. Yet at least as striking is the way in which the younger generation of Scottish males is examining not just what it means to be Scottish, but what it is to be men.

God’s Gift to Women is the second collection of poems from one of the most talented Scottish writers of the new generation. Like A.L. Kennedy and W.N. Herbert, Don Paterson is a Dundonian, and Dundee haunts much of his poetry. The verse is formed with a beautiful precision, yet also has an acrid edge. The title of the volume is qualified by irony, but it remains a vaunt. Paterson is an intellectually ambitious, uncompromising poet who owes a good deal to Paul Muldoon. Occasionally in this book you get a glimpse of Muldoon on the set of Men Behaving Badly (‘No one slips into the same woman twice’). Muldoon’s cometary allure has made him a danger for younger poets, as well as a demanding master. On the one hand, Paterson’s sometimes laddish Muldoonery makes his work easy for readers to assimilate to recognisable and non-Scottish currents; on the other hand, there is a danger that his echt Donnishness may be submerged. The Paterson obsessed with his Alexandrian library, trawling up books, odd facts and titles – the ‘informationist’ Paterson – belongs to a Scottish grouping and tradition whose ancestors include Carlyle’s Professor Teufels-dröckh and the biblioholic late MacDiarmid, though Paterson carnivalises the solemnities of MacDiarmidian bookishness. In Paterson’s first collection, the poem ‘The Alexandrian Library’ was a triumph. In his second collection, ‘The Alexandrian Library, Part II’ (Paterson couldn’t resist the clever subtitle ‘The Return of the Book’) is very good, but a little in the shadow of the original. This 34-year-old poet hasn’t entirely solved the problem of how to follow up such a brilliant debut.

Paterson likes making things up: this isn’t a confessional book, though it seems to draw on dark personal undercurrents. As in his bleakly titled first collection, Nil Nil (1993), there is a long epigraph from the quasi-Borgesian François Aussemain, and other quotations from figures who are probably Patersonian figments. Their sometimes intimidating joke presence may connect with other plays on presence and absence in this book with its blank-page poems, its opening poem with the reader acting as the ‘congregation’ of the pissed-off ‘cantor’ whose ‘Oh God’ is a collapse into nilness, its closing poem with a ‘white page’ whose ‘snow’ is a spoof-God’s ‘shredded evidence’. Paterson has never forgiven his God for walking out, and the sense of emptiness at the heart of many of these minutely imagined and powerful poems adds to the nihilism which is twinned with verbal electricity.

Many of the poems in the book show a seeking out of sexual damage. Images of female decapitation recur. Picking up on a Nil Nil poem, ‘The Trans-Siberian Express’, a new poem, ‘To Cut It Short’, presented with appalling verbal felicity as ‘(a companion piece)’, reveals how

In a dub a half mile up the track
nearby her upturned hostess trolley
lies the headless body of Scheherezade
whose stories would not tally; besides
I had heard the last one already.

This is Don passing as Donne – ‘And when hee hath the kernell eate,/Who doth not fling away the shell?’ But Don/Donne has to try to cope with an age of feminism. Another short poem, ‘from 1001 Nights: The Early Years’, with its epigraph about how ‘the male muse is paid in silences,’ ends with the protagonist waking beside his last-night’s partner:

                              I killed the alarm,

then took her head off with the kitchen knife
and no more malice than I might a rose
for my daily buttonhole. One hand, like a leaf,
still flutters in half-hearted valediction.
I am presently facing the wall, nose-to-nose
with Keanu Reeves. It is a sad reflection.

Though the narcissistically tinged last words undercut the narrator’s pose, they also risk a too glib turning away from beautifully worded misogyny. The conclusion of ‘Imperial’, where again a sexual encounter is bloody warfare, is a surer knock-out:

and no trade was ever so fair or so tender;
so where was the flaw in the plan,
the night we lay down on the flag of surrender
and woke on the flag of Japan ...

Paterson’s is a technically insightful and violent imagination. ‘The Scale of Intensity’ is a Richter-like progression from ‘1) Not felt’ to ‘12) Damage total’. Callousness and damage get mixed up with sex and gender in many of the poems. Central to the book is the title-poem ‘God’s Gift to Women’, first published in the LRB, whose opening cadences in lines like ‘the muddy Venus of the Firth/lunges through the waterburn’ may owe something to Douglas Dunn (a lingering presence), but which then takes a violent turn characteristic of a good deal of the volume. The protagonist’s diary is filled

with the absences of other men:

John’s overtime, Jack’s training-course,
returning in the tiny hours
with my head clear as a bullet-hole
and a Durex wrapped in a toilet roll,
the operation so risk-free
I’d take my own seed home with me
and bury it deep down in the trash
beside the bad fruit and the ash.

Again the poem is full of images of emptiness, death and tortured sexuality, though there is also a sense of sympathy with the fate of the abused female figure. It is hard not to feel that the title of the book preserves a boasting note, but as the title of this individual poem, the words ‘God’s Gift to Women’ demonstrate a sympathy elsewhere refused: God’s gift to women is pain. A bravura performance, the title-poem has a searing quality all the more impressive for being so precisely envisaged: boiling water on the girl’s skin looks

as if some angel’d shot his come
as bright as lit magnesium
across your body as you slept.

As in the Scots poem ‘Postmodernism’ and elsewhere, voyeurism is to the fore; as in almost all the poems, the language moves in an effortless way that conceals much art. Paterson’s feeling for vocabulary and rhyme is splendid. Yet the corrosive quality of his imagination makes the collection easier to admire than to like.

The finest poem in the book is ‘A Private Bottling’, surely the most consummately shaped piece of Paterson’s making. A whisky-drinking speaker sits at night surrounded by ‘a chain of nips / in a big fairy-ring’ and feels the drinks ‘letting their gold tongues slide along my tongue’ until he tastes in each ‘the trick of how the peat-smoke / was shut inside it, like a black thought’. The poem is an exorcism of a former lover. Its language moves seamlessly from Gaelic and Italian phrases to ‘the feints / of feminine effluvia, carrion, shite’. Sophisticated and demotic, pernickety and inspired, it taps into a tradition of Scottish drunk-man poems that includes ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ and A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle; but this is Tam o’Shanter chastened, left in a place of ‘absence’, ‘residue’ and ‘nothing’. The poem’s radio tries to catch a redemptive note:

I steered the dial into the voice of God
slightly to the left of Hilversum,
half-drowned by some big, blurry waltz
the way some stars obscure their dwarf companions
for centuries, till someone thinks to look.

But that casually attempted redemptive note is lost. This tour de force relies on a certain willed unhappiness, and picks up on a Calvinistic loathing glimpsed elsewhere in the collection, the flipside of the more loudly protested libertinism. The word ‘God’ in the book’s title matters as much as the word ‘women’. If women tend to appear in the poems only to be fucked and fought, God disappears only to be gazed after with wittily shielded despair. The boozed-up Scots male emerges again as a damaged damager. We have been here so often before.

About three years ago, in a discussion of Scottish masculinity, Kathleen Jamie told a questioner that Scottish men should shut up, go away for a while and rethink themselves. She also drew attention to what she saw as a day-to-day violence present in Scottish language. It may be too easy for male Scottish writers to adopt wild-man poses, happy to be typecast as cosily predictable rank bad-yins. This image is very bankable Just now, but Paterson isn’t simply out to make a fast buck. God’s Gift to Women is an accomplished consideration of masculinity and maleness. There are lighter notes in the book, like the beautifully judged place-name poem ‘14:50: Rosekinghall’ which forms part of a semi-dismantled structure of railway poems that runs not entirely successfully as a patterning device throughout the volume, and takes us through marvellously named tiny stations to a vanishing-point ‘where the train will divide’. Yet these are minor gracenotes. God’s Gift to Women is a scary collection whose verbal panache arouses admiration and jealousy, but whose tone is laddishly, even kamikazily bleak.