So Much More Handsome

Matthew Reynolds

  • 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.

Language, too, is often divided from something in Landing Light. There is a piece of ‘sea-mail’ imagined as being written by one of the last inhabitants of the made-up island of St Brides (a version of St Kilda); ‘Letter to the Twins’ blends a present-day voice with that of Mars, the father of Romulus and Remus; ‘The Reading’ creates a similar hybrid with Simonides (presumably of Ceos). There are three poems in – more than another voice – another language, Scots. The glosses at the foot of the page have an estranging effect here: they mark the poems as works that the reader is expected to have to interpret. Two of the Scots poems pursue dreams of linguistic self-sufficiency – as in ‘Zen Sang at Dayligaun’: ‘there’s nae burn or birk at aw/but jist the sang alane’ – but the footnotes (‘birk – birch’ and so on) make it very obvious that the words are no longer ‘the sang alone’ but ‘the sang’ printed and subjected to interpretive necessity. In a book by Kathleen Jamie, say, Scots and English form an expressive continuum; here the Scots is walled off and made to stand for a spontaneity and simplicity which, though registered by the predominantly English pages, cannot be fully admitted into them.

And then there are translations. In the afterword to The Eyes (1999), his book of versions of Antonio Machado, Paterson asked his readers to ‘forget the relation in which these poems stand to the originals’. Their fluent and alert English may have veiled the fact, but it was impossible to forget that they had been translated: the references to Unamuno and other friends of Machado’s saw to that, as did the vivid at-homeness of the poems in what was unmistakably their own Spanish landscape. Such native English emerging from such foreign surroundings magically abolished cultural difference; or at least hid it in an impressive feat of prestidigitation.

In a volume that consists mainly of English poems, the translatedness of a translation will be more noticeable still. Paterson has long made play with this effect: in his previous books, original poems have masqueraded as translations, attributed to non-existent, usually Scandinavian writers. The point, like that of the Scots poems in Landing Light, was to establish a distance from imaginings that were somehow too fanciful to be wholly Patersonian, or wholly English-language; the trick also licensed comparatively plain language, arhythmia and absence of rhyme in the manner of Christopher Reid’s pseudo-translations from a supposedly Eastern European language, Katerina Brac (1985). A further twist is introduced in God’s Gift to Women by ‘Candlebird’ (‘after’ the eighth-century Arabic poet Abbas Ibn al-Ahnaf), where a lover sings of his desire while predicting that ‘within the year/Another man will say this verse to her.’ By the end of the poem either man could be speaking, and the supposed translation repeats the verse in a different tongue, so tracing on the page the reiterations and self-divisions of desire.

In Landing Light, the tactic is deployed in ‘Three Poems after Cavafy’. ‘The Boat’ is perhaps the most nuanced and achieved poem in the whole volume. A ‘little pencil sketch’ of someone from long ago stimulates the speaker’s imagination:

Yes, he looks
so much more handsome,
now my heart calls him
from so long ago. So long.
All these things are very old – the sketch,
and the boat, and the afternoon.

The turn from nostalgia to dismissal is neatly suggested, ‘old’ having such a different tonality from ‘so long ago’, but the exquisite intelligence of this passage is in the sequence of nouns that Paterson (altering Cavafy’s lineation) spreads out over the last line and a bit. A sketch can grow old and faded, and a boat can grow old and sink, but to put a remembered afternoon in a list with those objects is to show that it is at once less graspable and more enduring – and especially so when, via translation, it has been carried over into another lifetime and another language.

The longest translation in Landing Light is from the most challenging of poets: Dante, Inferno, Canto XIII. In the opening lines, Paterson tests out various ways of relating to the medieval Italian. Looking around him in the pathless wood, Dante saw branches that were ‘nodosi e’nvolti’ (‘knotty and twisted’); Paterson finds that ‘Each barren, blood-black tree was like a plate/from a sailor’s book of knots’ – an image which is not and could not be in the Commedia since it draws on the technology of printing. Soon the gap between the two texts closes with mention of ‘Aeneas’ and the ‘Strophades’, only to open once more as the lament of the harpies is modernised and turned into a reproduction, ‘a loop-tape’. These shifts, interesting and energising in themselves, prepare for a startling innovation at the moment when Dante snaps off a twig and a voice screams out. In the Commedia, the suicide who has become a tree had been chancellor to Frederick II, a skilled rhetorician who, having been accused of treason and imprisoned with his eyes put out, killed himself – he says – because he could not bear to be an object of contempt. His name, Pier della Vigna, is never spoken, but it subsists in the scenery as not quite a pun, in the way vines are not quite trees (Dante appears to have sensed a kinship between the linguistic short-circuit of punning and the cutting short of a life: Pier is referred to throughout as a ‘tronco’ – ‘trunk’). The suicide in Paterson’s version is different: ‘it was a woman’s voice,’ and her identity is hinted at, with properly Dantesque obliquity, by a word in one of the lines I have just quoted – ‘plate’.

Plath’s story is kept very close to Pier’s: rarely can such radical difference in a version have coexisted with such line-by-line fidelity. The result is sometimes neat, as when Plath’s devotion to her father mimics Pier’s to his emperor, but as her speech moves towards its denouement the comparison becomes strained. Pier describes the envy to which he was subjected as a ‘meretrice’ with ‘occhi putti’, and Paterson duly transfers the figure to Plath’s case by reversing its application:

But that green-eyed courtesan, that vice of courts
who had always stalked his halls and kept his gate –
the years had steeped me in her sullen arts

and my tongue grew hot with her abysmal need.
Slowly, I turned it on my second Caesar
until it seemed to him his every deed
did nothing but disgrace his predecessor.

So he left me too

Dante lets many of his lost souls defend themselves in voices that are both distinctive and compelling. Inferno is a series of appeals against God’s judgment, with the damned very often having secular values such as honour, love and courage on their side. To make his Plath character condemn herself in words so different from any the historical Plath wrote on her own behalf is a slackening of Paterson’s usual imaginative stringency. It reads like a faked confession.

Paterson is interested in other people’s voices, but not on the whole very good at imitating them: it may be that such an inwardly inquiring imagination cannot help but turn them into modulations of itself. The result can be a pastiche speech which takes its words from a pre-1960 dictional no man’s land. ‘Bravo sir! Well said,’ the Plath figure at one point exclaims, as though attempting an imitation of Dr Watson. But then to sound like Plath while simultaneously sounding like Dante sounding like Pier della Vigna is an impossible task. Oddly, stale diction sometimes infects even untrammelled lyrics such as ‘Waking with Russell’ which (incidentally) includes a lovely series of allusions to Dante:

Dear son, I was mezzo del cammin

and the true path was lost to me as ever
when you cut in front and lit it as you ran.
See how the true gift never leaves the giver:
returned and redelivered, it rolled on
until the smile poured through us like a river.

Inferno begins (of course) ‘nel mezzo del cammin’, while the lighting of the true path alludes to Purgatorio XXII and the rivery smile to Paradiso XXX: a whole Commedia is being got through in a couple of tercets, so strong is the rush of feeling. The peculiarity is in the next line with its poetico-hearty diction: ‘How fine, I thought, this waking amongst men!’ Paterson has much more subtle ways of registering how language can seem to pull away from or do violence to experience: his handling of rhythm and rhyme. In his essay ‘The Dilemma of the Poet’ (1997), he wrote: ‘I don’t want the reader ever to be aware of the metre or the rhyme scheme,’ but he can’t really have meant this, or at least can’t mean it any longer. He has always had a fondness for pushy dactylic and anapaestic rhythms, especially in narrative poems where they give to the movement of the verse the feeling that a physical or psychological necessity is taking over: ‘As the train slithers out, you hang from the guard’s van/to watch the tracks flailing from under the wheels;/there is no silver clew you will pay out behind you.’ Railways have been a favourite image of such compulsion (the most memorable instance is some lines from God’s Gift to Women about having sex standing up: ‘but I am Rosemill signal-box, my cock/the train drawn up the old Balbeuchly Incline/by means of ropes and stationary engines/. . . four unbroken miles/till the ground gives, and we freewheel into Newtyle’). In Landing Light there is a proliferation of variously uncontrollable kinds of travel: sliding on ice, surfing, crash-landing, sea-mail, email, dreams, an obsessive quest, the pursuit of a ‘funny wee bird’. And the poems have just as many metrical vehicles, none of which is easy to ignore.

As it bows to the strength of form, his language is often eloquent but never simple – in ‘Sliding on Loch Ogil’, for instance, where there is ‘just a dream of the disintricated life’. Why ‘disintricated’? Because it is the right word in the circumstances, if you take the circumstances as being iambic pentameters in a triple-rhymed sestet. This rightness coincides expressively with the feeling that it is an odd word in the circumstances, if you take the circumstances as being sliding on a frozen loch. Most people, there, would dream of the simple life, not of the disintricated one. As usual, we are confronted with a division; in this case between a glimpse of simplicity and a recognition of all the complications that would have to be junked if it were to be made good.

With some obviously difficult writers – Henry James, say, or Geoffrey Hill – one has the sense that a tangled world is being masterfully comprehended. With Paterson (as with Browning, the shadowy double who haunts this volume), it seems rather that simplicity is always just beyond him, whether in Scots, or in the language out of which a poem has been translated, or on St Brides, or at the top or bottom of the stairs. There are many instances of speech getting caught up in something inanimate: Dante’s talking tree with its ‘splintered mouth’, the talking book, a talking spring which opens in a rock, and a musician’s reverb unit, the ‘black box’ of which the best model is called the ‘Lexicon’. To this, Paterson’s volume is connected not only by ‘the human warmth/ of its digitised distortions’ (metre being a digital technology) but by the blackness of its hard covers. The point is made clear in the beautifully forthright ‘The Rat’:

A young man wrote a poem about a rat.
It was the best poem ever written about a rat.
To read it was to ask the rat to perch
on the arm of your chair until you turned the page.

This is wonderfully judged: the poem about a rat has left the speaker so stumped by its perfection that he is lost for rhymes. ‘Cat’, ‘mat, ‘sat’, ‘hat’; there are a million that might do, and then the twist into half rhyme happens with the turning of the page (that cadence is very Simon Armitage and I would guess that he is the immediate goad here). Both the humour and the melancholy of Paterson’s poem is that, for all its verve, it can’t attempt the simple thing of making word and object merge: the best it can do is be a poem about a poem about a rat. As the ‘Rat’ says (the rat or the poem or both?), ‘For all the craft and clever-clever/you did not write me, fool. Nor will you ever.’

In the best of Paterson’s writing, as in ‘The Rat’, the feeling of limitation is recognised and made eloquent. The boundaries of verse and of language represent a general human shortcoming beyond which something that is impossible to grasp can be intuited and implied. In ‘The Last Waltz/for TG, again’ the protagonist is situated on an aeroplane and in terza rima, twin trajectories which support each other. Thoughts of an elsewhere – the aircraft’s ‘dark hold’ where ‘my guitars let out a long, detuned yawn’ – lead towards an opening of the mind’s hold, memory, which modulates in and out of dream. Being brought to light are images of a band’s latest tour, in Sarawak, an episode of ‘exotic ignominy’; and then a question: ‘What do we have to show for all our sweat . . . ?’

Not a note:

the good ones I was way too gone to hear;
the bad I forget. What work is so defeated
by itself, as all our scribbling in the air?

Music is in the past and off the page, at once fluent and elusive. The poem also looks forward to the volume’s second kind of landing, which – as we have come to expect – it envisages as a moment of transit, not completion:

In half an hour we’ll either both be dead
or standing at the old black carousel
awaiting the traditionally delayed

arrival of your ton-weight king-size jonquil
plastic suitcase. I won’t miss it for a while
but I’ll lift it for you man, this once, the hell.

The clever-cleverness of ending a poem in terza rima with the word ‘hell’ is a note that sends echoes underground where Dante and Virgil spend a good deal of time waiting for transport and heavenly messengers. But these particular echoes matter less than the feeling that Paterson’s scene is a palimpsest through which many traditionally delayed arrivals (God, truth – as well as trains) might be glimpsed. Emanating from a language that is so heavily encased in rhyme, the wide allusiveness implies a tenderness and sense of significance which could not at the time be spoken but which here is given a notation and made to endure. This poetry of the tied tongue is Paterson’s most distinctive mode. Elegiac and monumental at the same time, it can have the phrase ‘this once’ be remembered for as long as there are readers, and transform a stray expletive into the last word.