by Nichola Deane
‘All were skies falling silent.’ In this way, Don Paterson, poet, guitarist, aphorist and editor, distils the nature of his ‘revelations’ in the opening salvo of The Blind Eye, one of his three collections of aphorisms. To paraphrase Octavio Paz, it is the job of the poet to show the silence, and indeed to become a ‘master of silence.’ Paz made these comments with reference to Elizabeth Bishop, but that title, ‘master of silence,’ is one that in just over fifteen years Don Paterson can surely be said to have earned. Prizes and praises have greeted every collection to date, but the accolade ‘master of silence,’ whilst it cannot be awarded, can and should be suggested. Paterson’s poetry is the real thing: it resonates out of silence and returns the reader to silence. In his poetry collections, Nil Nil (1993), God’s Gift to Women (1997), The Eyes (1999), Landing Light (2003), and Orpheus (2006), his unique poetic voice refines and purifies itself. It is a voice that has such a fiercely independent existence that critical commentary hardly seems needed. For this reason, I have merely tried to point, in three different ways, to the resonant silence of the poems, the river of absence that flows through them.
Trying to flow with the poems, I have not stopped to analyse themes; rather, the themes emerge if you read the lists of words I have gathered from each of the collections, starting with Nil Nil. Each ‘word-hoard’ is comprised of words in the poems that have reacted on me and which, when placed together, tell a story from, if not the story of, each book. Hell; The Road; the search for a ‘you;’ trains; spent desire; God; and, of course, silence are all themes to look out for.
Difficult as these poems often are in terms of their argument and their subject-matter, they are easy to trust. Their brilliance stems from their syntax, the thread on which each ‘word-hoard’ is strung, and therefore I make some brief comments that point towards Paterson’s gifts in this area. But more than this, his poems claim us through their cadence, and so from syntax the natural progression is to a capsule essay on metre and its music. If the poems convince because of their syntax, they seduce because of the way they sing; for no matter how dazzling or intricate Paterson’s ideas, the music in his poems is never wayward, and carries all pain and delight in it. Watch the water move.
Before you read or re-read Don Paterson’s poems, try this miniature compendium of words garnered from his various collections, not for size but for sound. Roll around a few of these gems on your tongue, against your palate, between your teeth: ‘gurry, winterbourne, rancour, Hilltown, futterin, shadows, lyre, ticktock, woodsmoke, whitewing, blackedged, gracile.’ How does that feel? Now try it at half the speed of your first attempt, making sure you say each word aloud and that there’s a slight pause between each one. For each comma read in a heartbeat. Keep track of your pulse, your breath. Let the words resolve into morphemes and almost lose their meaning: let them simply vibrate.
These poems are sounds that walk ahead of you. Their fabric is stitched with an array of threads. In Nil Nil, Paterson’s word-hoard reveals a hunger for every texture you can think of, from ‘lino’ to ‘gurry,’ and every kind of register from the obscene (‘cunt’) to the divine (‘irenicon’).
Tongue, pish, Murphy’s, black, guck, gurry, winterbourne, jism, tenement, Fomalhaut, ictus, bodhran, scything, cloaca, epicene, cunt, resonance, blind, lino, hare-lip, sick, gibbered, tenement.
Nil Nil begins with a solitary game of pool in The Ferryman’s Arms and the words you see here are little oil lamps in the gloom. Music, violence, poverty, religious mania, sickness and desire are some of the subjects explored, and the poetry feels like a sick pleasure, perhaps a spilt self.
lacuna, concatenation, Leucotomy, Origamian, pollen, junkie, golden, lifetime, sweetpea, loop-tape, weight, pricktease, hieratica, heart.
In every book of Paterson’s, the word ‘heart’ appears, and the heart of this book thuds like a bodhran played at battle speed:
glare, monochrome, half-lotus, balletic, kickabouts, Clatto, shanty-town, Tayport, Carnoustie, irenicon, wind, cloud, Venus, haar, nirvana, goodbye.
Even out of the element of their poems and forced into a morganatic union with other bedfellows, these words, in roughly the order they appear in the book, have a shuddering, debased grandeur, as though Paterson can gut a word like ‘pish’ and turn it inside out, revealing its acoustic swim-bladder, its sound-skeleton. How does he do that? Well, he both tells you and doesn’t tell you:
Thrown out in a glittering arc
As clear as the winterbourne,
The jug of Murphy’s I threw back
Goes hissing off the stone.
Whatever I do with all the black
Is my business alone.
Alchemy is Paterson’s business, and he delights in any and all materials. As with the ‘pish’, so with with ‘cloaca’, ‘kickabout’, ‘tenement’: black to gold is always the trajectory. It is a matter of physiological process—and a mystery. The process involves fortuitous meetings of two or more words gathered together, words finding each other as lovers, disciples and congregations might, the words breaking their boundaries to belong, to sink into each line. What assurance: to begin this way, with all these dark sounds igniting and blazing! ‘Tongue’ is one of Nil Nil’s opening words and ‘Goodbye’ is its last, as if by the end of his first collection, Paterson is already doing a disappearing act. But then he starts Nil Nil at ‘The Ferryman’s Arms’ with a coin already on his tongue.
Where do you go from there, if Charon is already waiting and the meter is ticking? If you are Paterson, you go AWOL looking for what was lost before you reached the crossing-place: a brother, mother, sisters, the Horseman’s word and a Scheherezade or two. Yet, rifling through the word-hoard of God’s Gift to Women the book begins to look like a strange affirmation of faith.
Church, butterscotch, rancour, heartburn, pray, Caird, lochan, Kemback, kiosk, saint, stalled, thorn, mother, carcass, Fetherlite, harem, sea, weight, vortex.
We begin in the ‘little church’ of poetry, a base camp for journeys backwards in time: to lost and perfect days in childhood out by the lochan; to days that a lost brother never lived; to stalled nights; and to what is lost at sea and in the storm, and then
Messiaen, Hilltown, florins, charred, Macalpine, mothers, Cocteau, kiss, black, Ladyburn, chlairsach, North British, whisky, Scheherezade, beggar, fuck, futterin, Hameseek, furrow,
Coins again, drinking, sex and music take us on a long and squalid but beautiful binge until we see
Venus, morganatic, sleekit, bleeding, death-camp, mother, cock, Cerberus, singer, engines, angels, SPONG, phthistical, spanking, breeks, wank, innocence, Wolflaw, tallow, shadows, faith.
By the close, it is morning; morning brought coughing into life with a couple of Nurofen and a pint of coffee. The same Anglo-Saxon dirt is here (‘cock,’ and ‘fuck,’), the Dundee sorrow (‘kiosk,’ ‘Hilltown,’ ‘Macalpine’) and the nightmare (‘death-camp,’ ‘Cerberus,’ ‘Wolflaw’) but there are grace-notes too. Uplift comes from ‘saint’ and ‘singer,’ ‘kiss’ and ‘angels.’ No more comforting or comfortable than the Nil Nil doctrine, God’s Gift nonetheless makes notable adjustments of texture, giving us, in a number of poems, a world to aery thinness beat. A deity is invoked, and the poet gazes up, breaking his focus on the abyss.
What he sees when his gaze shifts falls on us like a sunshower in The Eyes where everything and nothing is his. The Spanish poet Antonio Machado is his master here, his giver of breath and bread. For the first time, Paterson makes versions—not translations. In his versions of Machado’s poems, the fabric of the words is gossamer, or lighter. Words begin their return to breath.
Wait, drink, Buddha, Cain, lyre, breath, rainbow, eyes, sea, heartless, Lord, Guadarrama, obol, desire, forget, desire, knots, heart, shoreline, silence, salt-grains, honeycomb, hour, beloved, dust.
Where are we now? Although the location is the Spain inhabited by Machado, the words gathered here do not belong to any one country. Rootless, they sound like a heart or a river rising:
Andalusia, hosannas, ticktock, bells, no, anchor, work, Bergson, salto inmortal, sea, weep, quiver, nothing, woodsmoke, dream, Name, ashless, ripe, parched, you, you, lover, starless, Christ.
Clocks and bells whirr and chime, but time slips past (there is no anchor in these Machado poems) and even the sense of ‘I’ loosens. The poems hunt out an ever-receding ‘you,’ travelling far into
NIHIL, silver, black, black, heart, hinge, lilies, sing, water, rock, river, pulse, orange-trees, shore, desperate, she, evening, Heraclitean, gathering, zero, oblivion, Machado, absence.
So we ‘wait’ and our reward is ‘absence,’ and this book seems to rest in that absence. Not only rare fauna like ‘obol’ sing (note: a word for Charon’s currency inhabits every book in our journey so far) but words like ‘rock’ and ‘river.’ And not only rock and river cantillate. Even an abstract imperative like ‘wait’ is rendered weightless and airborne: ‘wait as the beached boat waits, without a thought /for either its own waiting or departure’ (‘Advice’). ‘No’ and ‘not’ arrive in you with the force of their heterographs ‘know’ and ‘knot.’ A great ‘no’ is all we know here, and what is ‘not’ is always before us as we read, a slip-knot of longing. Indeed, longing for the beautiful is all that seems to hold some of these poems on the page: the salt-grain’s ache for ‘honeycomb’ and the heart opening like a hinge for more of the lilies, orange-trees, and bells.
In the gathering, scented dusk of The Eyes, it is easy to forget the bleating ‘Mooncalf’ of Nil Nil or the female ‘drunken carcasses’ littering God’s Gift. But Paterson does not, and the shadow-river pulsing below the river returns in his next work, Landing Light, like a bradycardiac bad dream. If The Eyes felt like a Paradiso of sorts, Landing Light loops back to hell—but with moments of blissful surfacing to draw breath.
Luing, motherland, catholicon, whitewing, work, wingspan, minuscule, boked, Strophades, she, silent, worm, shite, sons, roses, wet, knuckled, pearl, ochre-pink, hawk, cave, Leda, wolfing, wives,
We begin in a heavenly Scottish landscape—in poems like ‘Luing,’ a remote island becomes as weightless and heavenly as Machado’s Spain— but we quickly rebound from heaven into hell. The middle of the book is largely a place of the skull:
Hindemith, Gromit, rose, worm, Scheherezade, Sodom, pisshole, bricht, luthier, skull, Padmasambhava, delete, heart, blood, lover, triste, arse, feedback-loop, oxter, ochone, malebolge,
And yet, no matter how deeply into the abyss we travel, our guide will lead us back into the upper air, after a spot of purgation:
No No, Babel, ayebydan, loins, thigh, ear, Sika, ecstatic, damn, facsimile, begging-bowl, lyre, alibi, ken, sternless, birk, alane, Mother, girl, wonder, blackedged, love.
Hell is in the ‘malebolge,’ the ‘pisshole’ stare of the poetaster, the ‘feedback-loop’ of torture. But the bliss! The bliss is animal and sexual (‘wet’ and the mildly sadistic-sounding ‘knuckled;’ ‘pearl,’ and the light, delicious consonantal kick of ‘ochre-pink’). The bliss is also linguistic: Scots rises in Landing Light like a spring in three poems: ‘Form,’ ‘Twinflooer,’ ‘Zen Sang at Dayligaun.’ Not the invented Scots of MacDiarmid, this is something that feels both pentecostal and truly spoken: a currency that is exchanged in a place (a living, breathing Scotland) but escapes out of time, into the unbound realm of Dasein und Engeln, being and angels.
An’ there’s nae burn or birk at aw
But jist the sang alane
(‘Zen Sang at Dayligaun.’)
Pure Rilke in its dissolve, this is also a pure-sounding Scots, not walking softly on the land but flowing and singing across its surface like a caress. ‘Burn’ and ‘birk’ are not Scots exotica, but the plainest and arguably the loveliest metonyms you could use to stand for the Scottish landscape. But these are also literary metonyms. The burn’s fiery water fluting home brushes past Hopkins; birch trees flexing swing forever in the direction of Robert Frost: two words alliterating gently out of the soil and into song.
Ah, song. The word takes us straight to Orpheus, Paterson’s versions of Rilke’s über-poems. Rilke’s sonnets, once read, can enter the reader as if there were no other real poems in existence, so powerful and seductive is their music. After Rilke, even the word ‘tree’ becomes a song in itself (had you really known what a tree was until Rilke set the word ringing for you?); words like ‘mirror’, ‘mouth’ and ‘sigh’ go forth and fructify in entirely new ways; these hungry little words, so pure and unexpectedly vast. Or, at least, this new way of seeing and hearing occurs if you have read Rilke as Paterson evidently has:
Tree, lyre, girl, death, arose, crossroads, sigh, heavy, heavier, spaces, true, song, belong, willow, pitcher, wine, herald, lament, lyre, mouths, hesitance, spurring, reining, praise, O, reach, bestows,
Each word is rootless, as in the Machado poems, but here the tone is weightier, the nouns earthy; the Orpheus keynote of ‘lyre’ returns and returns to set every other word echoing:
apple, leaf, fugitive, juice, curse, pelt, ascent, lyre, perfected, drumbeat, blue, baptised, gracile, maenads, rocks, seas, eyes, losses, mirrors, kiss, beast, negate, invoke, torture, departure, glass,
Hints of fecundity, of ‘fruit’ and ‘juice,’ follow Rilke into sensual celebration, brief though this is, as the lyre continues its song of departure:
shatters, meadow-brother, wind, heals, spent, balance, dancer, blur, gold, heart, grief, , axe, bough, danger, star, lone, choir, one, lyre, impermanence, lyre, true, dark, crossing, I, flow, am.
Smooth as wave-worn pebbles, the Orpheus word-hoard is full of rounded sensual treasures: the tiger’s eye of ‘pelt,’ the tourmaline of ‘pitcher.’ They fall into two groups, words that spur us on like ‘shatters,’ ‘baptised,’ and ‘juice;’ and words that rein us in like ‘sigh,’ ‘grief’ and ‘willow.’ And yet, how little difference there seems to be between spurring on and reining in: in either case, the energy of the word, be it noun or verb, pulsates, a newborn image.
Only listening is necessary to catch the image and watch it melt, to say the sound and watch it run. But as Rilke takes pains to point out in the Duino Elegies, listening is no easy matter: the purest listening is a kind of emptying out in which the listener does not remain. No one hears; no one is left to hear; there is only hearing. Whatever the arguments about the nature of translation and the creation of versions, the poems Paterson resolves onto the page in Orpheus are made of that luminous hearing: never once in this collection do the individual words sound less than notes coaxed from the lyre.
But words are never individual. If Paterson’s words sound as though they come from the lyre, in Orpheus, Landing Light and elsewhere, it is because they flow and move in a particular way: it is because of their syntax. Paterson, the lover of words, is easy to find: name ‘pish’ or ‘grief’ or ‘juice’ and you feel you have him there before you. Evoke Paterson’s relationship with syntax, however, and he starts to run through your fingers.
Paterson is not a ‘lover of syntax’ or a ‘master of syntax.’ Syntax is something that our minds are in, the slipstream of our thought. Paterson is mastered by syntax, as every true poet should be. Think of that line from Hopkins, ‘Thou mastering-me-God,’ where God and poet are part of the same noun phrase; fighting, embracing, and indistinguishable, the ‘me’ subdued by a greater force.
Nil Nil’s murk is marked by attack of phrasing: ‘I’d swing for him, and every other cunt/happy to let my father know his station.’ Aggressive, ‘blunt’ and passionate but speaking, with the swing and punch of verbal combat, as he picks up tired figures of speech (‘swing for him’ ‘know his station’) and puts his lips to them. There is no violent conjunction of phrase here, and therefore no knowing wink directed at the reader. Instead, the old phrases slide into the new, and the fit is perfect.
All that happens to the syntax as Paterson progresses towards Orpheus is a process of tiny, critical refinements. Sentences flex and embrace more and more, as Paterson’s work attains ever lovelier syntactic complexity. Letting you carry idea upon idea at the same moment, his sentences nonetheless do not make you suffer under their weight. Like a gifted ballerina, these phrases know how to hold themselves so that they become light enough to lift:
I carefully arrange a chain of nips
in a big fairy ring; in each square glass
the tincture of a failed geography,
its dwindled burns and woodlands, whin fires, heather,
the sklent of its wind and salty rain,
the love-worn habits of its working-folk,
the waveform of their speech, and by extension
how they sing, make love, or take a joke.
(‘A Private Bottling’)
One sentence, this contains a bouquet of clauses resolving in a soft bass-note rhyme in which the reader carries a place, a people and all the intangible waveforms of their existence—and doesn’t stagger. Quite the opposite: the clauses leap but you hardly hear them land, you just feel the way they earth as a kind of rightness. Dance terms such as ‘ballon’ and ‘line’ spring to mind here for the way the sentence articulates (‘ballon’ being the illusion of weightlessness given when a dancer jumps; ‘line’ being the way a dancer has of making the curve of limbs symmetrical and beguiling to look at). But in fact we are running out of metaphors that get us anywhere close to understanding the enchantment of Paterson’s syntax. There is only one place to go beyond syntax: music.
iii) Metre and music
Syntax, the language-world we inhabit, is full of patterned noise. The patterns we find ourselves in and being used by jar and loop, clank and squeal—for the most part. Perhaps because of the weight of this noise, the music of a poem can strike us so forcefully that the unintelligible world seems momentarily suspended. I could list, now, instance on instance of Paterson’s music. But list them is all I can do. The music of a line is a complex experience, the marriage of more than acoustic pattern, syntactic grace and verbal acuity. It is also what happens when that complex of ideas and harmonies rains into the waveform of the reader’s life—transforming it. The note is struck that sounds an echo. So, receive these samples and let them resonate, as Paterson has.
‘So take my hand and tell me, flesh or tallow.
Which man I am tonight I leave to you.’
‘then swallowed its shout
in the cave of my breast’
‘the vanished trail of your own wake’
‘Silent comrade of the distances.’
Receiving goes many steps beyond reading; words that resonate overstep their borders. So often, these poems step off into ‘the distances’ and reading them means go with the music, chase the echo. If you leave for the distances, you won’t find Paterson, who disappeared from his own poems long ago, but you might find yourself better able to listen –listen completely, as Paterson’s mentor Rilke recommended.
Nichola Deane, 2009